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Discover Bali’s unique culinary culture
Balinese cuisine's unique blend of aromatic local ingredients, traditional cooking styles and western influences make it a must-visit culinary destination for food lovers. A vibrant bounty In the cool dawn at Ubud morning market in Bali, farmers sit encircled by baskets brimming with glossy, indigo-hued eggplants, brilliant-green beans, and sunny yellow bananas. Calls ring out spruiking exotic produce of hairy rambutans, bubbly-skinned gourds and bunches of longans. This daily buffet of ingredients catches the eye of passing locals, tourists and chefs as they meander through the vibrant market. Much of this bounty will end up at Bali’s restaurants and warungs (eateries) that have become part of the island’s happening food scene – a scene that beautifully fuses both local and western ingredients and cooking styles. From the beach to the rice fields, you’ll find fine dining restaurants dishing up internationally inspired plates beside traditional Balinese fare and hip, health-conscious eateries. It’s a flavour-packed balance that makes Bali an enviable culinary destination. [caption id="attachment_48921" align="alignnone" width="600"] The dish of nasi campur gives you rice and a taster of delicious local specialties.[/caption] The real taste of Bali An excursion to Ubud’s market is a good place to start, but it’s just a small amuse-bouche of what’s on offer. While you’re in the rice paddy-fringed town, sample some truly local fare, such as the Balinese specialty of spit-roasted pig, or babi guling. This robust meal, served with crunchy crackling and a tangy side salad, is cooked over an open fire-pit then dished out at warungs. It’s a food-lover’s paradise. For a real taste of Bali’s food scene, you can also take a cooking class. In the island’s north-east you’ll find Bali Asli: surrounded by serene rice fields with uninterrupted views of Mount Agung, you can learn how to cook over fire, plant rice and enjoy typical Balinese cuisine. Alternatively, head north to Les Village to visit Chef Yudi, at Dapur Bali Mula, a part-time chef and Hindu priest, who’ll teach you the art of Balinese barbecue with a side order of Hindu prayer. Of course, Bali isn’t all rice fields. The beachside towns of Seminyak and Canggu draw travellers for their lively energy and world-class restaurants. Make a shortlist of the best on offer and tick them off during your stay. You might start with one of Seminyak’s many sleek, design-led eateries such as Sarong and Bambu Bali, experience Balinese cuisine culture on a plate at Canggu’s Tugu Bali restaurant with 14th-century Indonesian heritage cuisine, or head to Bingin Beach for a toes-in-sand fish barbecue at Lucky Fish. However you choose to eat your way around Indonesia’s culinary island, you certainly won’t leave hungry. [caption id="attachment_48922" align="alignnone" width="600"] The burst of colour and flavour added by local favourite dragonfruit and a curl of fresh cinnamon bark.[/caption] Our top 10 restaurants Sarong, Seminyak Bambu Bali, Seminyak The Plantation Grill, Seminyak Bali Asli, Karangasem Candi Beach Resort and Spa, Candi Dasa Chef Yudi, Les Village The Octagon Beachclub by Plataran, West Bali National Park Pachamama, Gili Air Bebek Bengil, Ubud Laut Biru Bar and Restaurant, Lombok To find out more or to plan your adventure in Bali, visit indonesia.travel
How to spend 48 hours in Chang Mai
Thailand’s unofficial second city is a stark contrast to bustling Bangkok, but while this less frenetic city’s charm may lie in its unhurried vibe, its creative and culinary scenes are booming. Megan Arkinstall spends TWO DAYS exploring cool, calm and collected Chiang Mai. DAY ONE 8am Start your day on the right foot with a coffee from Akha Ama Coffee La Fattoria, located in Chiang Mai’s Old City. Set up by Lee Ayu in 2010, this social enterprise was created to help his Akha hilltribe community sell their coffee beans at a fair price. Sourced straight from the hilltribe’s farms, Akha Ama’s (Ama means ‘mother’ in the Akha language) the single-origin beans are roasted, brewed and served in three locations around the city. [caption id="attachment_48907" align="alignnone" width="600"] Start your day off right with a coffee from Akha Ama Coffee La Fattoria[/caption] 9am With more than 300 temples (wats) in Chiang Mai, temple hopping may seem like an overwhelming task. Thankfully the Old City, which is easily navigable at just one-square-mile in size, is home to some great examples. Absolute must-sees include the 14th-century Wat Phra Singh, one of the finest examples of Lanna-style architecture resplendent in teak carvings and gold; and the 15th-century Wat Chedi Luang, which houses a revered standing Buddha, giant reclining Buddha, and formerly enshrined Thailand’s all-important Emerald Buddha. Also within walking distance is Wat Phan Tao, constructed entirely of teak; Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest wat; and the Three Kings Monument. 11am Khao Soi, the famous curry noodle dish of the north, is so good at Grandma’s Khao Soi it often sells out before 1pm, so we recommend you hightail it here mid-morning. Located between Wat Rajamontean and Wat Khuan Khama, the nondescript shop can be easily overlooked, so keep your eyes peeled. Served with chicken, pork or beef, topped with crispy noodles and accompanied by lime and chillies, the broth is rich and deliciously spicy. [caption id="attachment_48910" align="alignnone" width="600"] Behold, Khao Soi: the famous curry noodle dish of the north[/caption] 2pm Beat the afternoon heat for a couple of hours and retreat to Fah Lanna Spa. Located in a quiet street in the northern part of the Old City, it has 25 treatment rooms set around a central leafy tropical garden featuring a wooden walkway and several ponds. Try Tok Sen massage, a style that is unique to Chiang Mai based on ancient Lanna wisdom. It aims to clear blocked energy using a wooden tool, similar to a hammer and chisel, to ease muscle tension through physical and sound vibration. [caption id="attachment_48908" align="alignnone" width="600"] Beat the afternoon heat for a couple of hours and retreat to Fah Lanna Spa[/caption] 4pm On the eastern side of the Mae Ping River is the riverfront neighbourhood of Wat Ket. Sweet-toothed travellers will love family-owned boutique bakery Forest Bake, which is housed in an adorable petite log cabin. Here you can pick up fresh bread made from natural wild yeast and hand-kneaded dough, as well as cakes and desserts that look as good as they taste. If you’re a tea lover, be sure to stop at the oh-so-pretty Vieng Joom on Teahouse, which offers up to 50 varieties of tea from all over the world to enjoy in house or take home. 6pm Stop in for an early dinner at Woo Cafe, which serves a Thai fusion cuisine in the most blooming beautiful setting (the space is literally filled with flowers) and also houses an art gallery and lifestyle shop. The Riverside Bar & Restaurant is also just down the road and is a popular spot to enjoy a cocktail on the river with live music every night. [caption id="attachment_48912" align="alignnone" width="600"] Woo Cafe is literally filled with flowers[/caption] 8pm Retreat back to 137 Pillars House, also located in Wat Ket. Housed in the historic 125-year-old Baan Borneo, the former northern headquarters for the East Borneo Trading Company, the homestead was lovingly restored from a crumbling ruin to a luxury 30-suite boutique hotel. The original teak beauty oozes old-world charm and each spacious room has a private balcony overlooking the tranquil gardens. [caption id="attachment_48906" align="alignnone" width="600"] Retreat back to the tranquil 137 Pillars House, located in Wat Ket[/caption] DAY TWO 7am Start your day at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the country’s most sacred temples. Tucked away in the mountains north-west of the Old City, the 14th-century wat offers panoramic views of Chiang Mai at 1056 metres above sea level and is reached via a dragon-shaped Naga staircase (309 steps). 10.30am Back down to Earth, Nimmanhaemin Road (or Nimman, as it is commonly known) is a trendy area with a heap of hipster-style cafes, premium shops and art galleries. Your mid-morning coffee choices are endless – try the minimal, all-white Barisotel by The Baristro; Ristr8to known for its mind-blowing latte art; or the industrial-cool Graph at shopping and cultural centre One Nimman where you’ll also find a collection of designer boutiques. [caption id="attachment_48909" align="alignnone" width="600"] You'll find industrial-cool Graph at shopping and cultural centre One Nimman[/caption] 12.30pm Think Park is located at the northern end of Nimmanhaemin Road and is an open-air lifestyle space with restaurants, cafes and shops; there’s often live music and festivals held here throughout the year. There are plenty of places to lunch in the Nimman area, but a popular pick is Rustic and Blue, an eclectic cafe with a farm-to-table ethos. The menu features hearty Western-style dishes including vegan options, as well as artisanal bread, homemade seasonal jam, homemade ice-cream and more. [caption id="attachment_48911" align="alignnone" width="600"] Rustic and Blue is the eclectic cafe with a farm-to-table ethos[/caption] 2pm If you’re an arts and crafts buff, be sure to make your way to Bo Sang Handicraft Centre on San Kamphaeng Road, around 10 kilometres south-east of the Old City. Along this road you’ll find a plethora of workshops and showrooms selling the likes of pottery, silverware, sculptures, jewellery, wooden carvings, paper parasols and silk products. 4pm Take the time to visit MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, a converted warehouse with a striking mirrored facade, also located in the San Kamphaeng area. It features one family’s private collection of contemporary Thai art, as well as temporary exhibitions in a range of disciplines. 6.30pm It’s time to hit the night markets – if not for the bargain souvenirs, then for the lively atmosphere, cheap street food and pretty, colourful lanterns hanging from the trees. The stalls stretch on for two blocks, selling everything from silk to handbags to traditional Thai bites such as sai oua (northern Thai sausage), aab (spicy salad) and sticky rice. 9.30pm After a busy day of shopping and eating, head to the cosy surrounds of Jack Bain’s Bar (back at 137 Pillars House) to relax over a cocktail before calling it a day. Try the signature Aged Teak, with malt whisky, red vermouth and grapefruit juice, served alongside charred cinnamon sticks.
Raising the bar: Bali’s hottest bars
Impossibly beautiful scenery, laidback vibes and an Indonesian twist on the art of aperitivo are all the ingredients necessary to make the bars in Bali enviable the world over. With the rattle of a Boston shaker and the melodic clink of ice, here are the best bars in Bali from Ubud to Uluwatu and beyond. Ubud A spiritual heartland, Ubud is the cultural centre for all things Balinese, but it also knows how to unwind. Appreciate flavours of the island at The Night Rooster Cocktail Bar. Here, drinks are prepared by local ‘alchemist’, Raka, using local ingredients and his homemade bitters. To take in Ubud’s lush scenery, head to the rooftop at Copper Kitchen and Bar where views of Batukaru and Mt Agung will impress as you sip ethically sourced tipples under festooned lights. [caption id="attachment_48938" align="alignnone" width="600"] The trendy interiors at Copper Kitchen and Bar are almost as nice as the views.[/caption] Uluwatu On Bali’s Bukit Peninsula, Uluwatu’s dramatic cliffs are bejewelled with luxury resorts and villas. But you needn’t be a glamorous guest to enjoy the bar scene here. Begin at Sundays Beach Club, where you can intersperse complete relaxation with bursts of energy. Glide onto the water from the club in a kayak and work up an appetite for your next stop: Cire at Alila Villas. Truly feel you’re at the end of the earth here as you gaze out to the horizon between sips of your cocktail. [caption id="attachment_48940" align="alignnone" width="600"] Enjoy panoramic ocean views and a tantalising menu at Cire at Alilia Villas.[/caption] Lombok Island Bali's neighbouring island is a surfer’s nirvana, but come ashore and you’ll find this island knows how to mix a good tipple. Start with the attention-seeking view at Aura Lounge and Bar, but tear your eyes away from the glittering vista of Selong Belanak beach long enough to order from their sustainably driven menu. [caption id="attachment_48942" align="alignnone" width="600"] Aura Lounge and Bar is South Lombok's best kept secret.[/caption] If you still haven’t had enough sea-gazing, settle in at The Kliff at Katamaran in Senggigi for sunset drinks. Prolong your session here with something from the fresh seafood grill. Canggu Bali’s hipster surf haven, Canggu is always down for a good time. Try boho art bar Ji Terrace by the Sea. With panoramic ocean views, it's a favourite of the design set. Named after a local break, there’s nothing old-fashioned about Old Man's. This colourful club has a focus on healthy, fresh flavours. Come evening, the place to party is cool, grungy surf-and-skate bar, Pretty Poison, complete with its own skate bowl. Seminyak This beachside-style enclave is a hot spot for sleek bars. A good start is Mrs Sippy, where the mantra is ‘sip, swim, sunbake, repeat’. [caption id="attachment_48943" align="alignnone" width="600"] Bali's largest saltwater pool haven, there's a reason Mrs Sippy is Seminyak's holiday hotspot.[/caption] For something a little more laid-back, head to Akademi Bar at Katamama. One for serious cocktail enthusiasts, this is more than a bar; it's also a classroom, where you can take tutelage in mixology and local ingredients. To find out more or to plan your own bar-hopping adventure in Bali and beyond, visit indonesia.travel.
How to experience Geisha culture in Japan
The secret world of a geisha, their lifestyle, and what it takes to become one. Listen carefully and you can hear the delicate sound of shuffling geisha heading towards Kyoto’s tea houses as dusk falls like chiffon across the Gion district. Admiring onlookers, mesmerised by their timeless beauty, stop and stare as they flutter along like butterflies, their jewelled hair dancing in the breeze. What exactly is a geisha? Long shrouded in mystery, the geisha lifestyle has captivated people from all corners of the globe. Young Japanese women dress like them, little girls play kimono dress-ups and some, entranced by the celebrity-type lifestyle, join the ranks to become one. But it’s a tough highway to hoe to reach geisha status. [caption id="attachment_48624" align="alignnone" width="600"] The geisha lifestyle has captivated people from all corners of the globe[/caption] Geisha history and the prostitution myth During the late 600s saburuko (serving girls) were the first known geishas to wait tables, make conversation and sometimes offer sexual favours. By the late 16th century major Japanese cities had constructed walled pleasure quarters where oiran (courtesans) lived and worked as licensed prostitutes. The original role of the geisha – meaning arts person – was as an assistant to the oiran, and regulations precluded them from engaging in personal relations with customers. Geisha became extremely popular in the 1750s and by the 1800s were considered accomplished professional entertainers, far removed from the ‘ladies of the night’ perception. Where do geishas live? Former Imperial capital Kyoto is considered the birthplace of geisha culture, and is still one of the best places to experience it. Here, geisha are called geiko, and their younger counterparts are maiko. Young women who want to become a maiko (dancing girl) are usually aged between 15 and 20 years old. First though they must find an okiya – a shared boarding house for aspiring maiko – run by an okasan (the ‘mother’ of the house) willing to sponsor her. As a sponsor, the okasan will pay for everything during the maiko’s nenki (her contract). Not all girls will be accepted though, as during the maiko’s apprenticeship the okasan can shell out as much as 10 million yen ($130,000) to support and train them. The money goes towards her lessons as she learns how to perfect the subtle hand and foot movements of Japanese dancing, the precise steps of a tea ceremony, and social etiquette while performing cultural arts. Alongside buying high quality kimonos the okasan will also give her maiko a monthly allowance of around 20,000 yen ($250) for clothing and make-up. The houses are not large though and she’ll usually share a room with four other maikos. It’s strictly a business portfolio for the okasan. They reap the benefits from earning a percentage of the maiko’s income as she begins to work during the second year of her apprenticeship. And like going to university and repaying a student loan, the maiko will repay the sponsor back once she becomes a geisha. [caption id="attachment_48625" align="alignnone" width="600"] Kyoto is considered to be the birthplace of Geisha culture[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48626" align="alignnone" width="600"] Geisha's will usually share a room with four others during their training[/caption] What is the true meaning of a geisha? To enter into geisha-hood is to leave the modern world behind. The training period can last as long as five years, and they must follow strict rules to reach the coveted status. No longer called by their real name, they adopt a stage name given by the okasan. Contact with family and friends is limited and mobile phones and any form of social media are off-limits. It’s like taking a vow of chastity – if she becomes romantically involved she has to leave the house. When there is attraction, a maiko has to learn how to create a barrier as it’s strictly forbidden for men to touch them, but she must also be playful in order to keep customers. [caption id="attachment_48627" align="alignnone" width="600"] Training can take as long as five years[/caption] An interview with a geisha In one of Kyoto’s tea houses, I meet 21-year-old Kahohana (beauty of flower), who recently graduated to geisha. In a softly spoken, trained lyrical voice she tells me about her apprenticeship. “At first our days are very hard, we are not used to it,” she says, tilting her porcelain painted face to one side, “we have to sleep on wooden pillows to keep our hair in place and it took me six months to learn how to walk along in okobo, the high wooden sandal worn by the maiko.” Now she has completed her training, I ask Kahohana if she enjoys her work as a geisha. “Yes, yes, very much – I really love to dance and play Japanese instruments at the theatre and to perform in front of people at tea ceremonies.” She controls her smile, careful not to break into a grin for fear of ruining her make-up. “I also really like to dress in beautiful kimonos”, she adds before tottering off to her next appointment. [caption id="attachment_48629" align="alignnone" width="600"] The original role of the geisha – meaning arts person – was as an assistant to the oiran[/caption] Maiko vs geisha Young woman such as Kohohana consider themselves fortunate. Not all maiko reach the ceremony known as ‘turning the collar’ (erikae), where they transition to geisha status, and even then employment is not guaranteed. Some geisha work other jobs, and others return to study. To be successful and in high demand a geisha has to be many things. Alongside being a gifted entertainer, she has to ‘listen’ with expressive eyes, know when to be a sounding board, and also be knowledgeable in the arts, history and politics. She is like a therapist, a confidante, and if she has mastered her skills, her diary will be full of appointments. In just two hours a geisha can charge 60,000 yen ($750) and in six hours, around 180,000 yen ($2200) for a private session. A percentage goes to the establishment she’s working in, but a geisha working between the ages of 25 and 45 years can earn a substantial income in her career. [caption id="attachment_48631" align="alignnone" width="600"] Not a hair out of place[/caption] Geisha make-up Most of all geisha and maiko must look as though she’s just stepped out of a Madame Tussauds’ wax museum: not a hair out of place, her allure is in her appearance. It takes time though to perfect the face of Japan. Maiko and geisha start getting ready around 3pm and work from 6pm onwards. Make-up and hair can take one to two hours as she’ll paint her face and nape of the neck – considered the most sensual part of a woman – in oshiroi: the iconic white powder associated with geisha. As a geisha, she’ll apply red lipstick to both lips, whereas a maiko only makes up the bottom lip. The kimono alone can take 30 minutes. [caption id="attachment_48630" align="alignnone" width="600"] It takes around three hours to transform into full Geisha makeup[/caption] How to spot a geisha Transitioning into the world of geisha-hood is to pledge to be gracious, elegant, yet quietly strong and articulate. Even after a night of performing and accompanying men to theatres, geisha can be seen taking tiny steps in Gion district’s lamplight as they head home, perfectly composed, still carrying the air of secrecy to one of Japan’s oldest and most idolised professions. Details: Wendy Wu Tours runs an immersive 14-day all-inclusive Trails of Japan Tour starting from $9640 – guests attend a geisha performance and visit the Gion district in Kyoto. Want to experience more of Japan? Here is our ultimate travel guide to the best eats, stays and experiences in Japan.
The Kyoto vs. Osaka debate: The experts weigh in
You’ve squeezed one last week’s leave from work and you’ve scored an amazing flight deal – but now you’ve only got time to see one city. So which is it going to be: Osaka or nearby Kyoto? We’ve asked a couple of experts to weigh in on this sumo-style showdown between two very different cities. Kyoto: the elegant elder The ancient capital of Japan before it was left behind by the expanding court, unable to fit in between its perfect circle of five mountains, Kyoto has remained a kind of time capsule containing everything that is intricate and beautiful about Japan. Despite the estimated 50 million-plus tourists who descend upon its temples and shrines, forests, cobbled streets and even modern neighbourhoods, there are still quiet moments and flashes of pure tradition in every day spent here. A geisha (or ‘geiko’ here in Kyoto) can still be found shuffling quickly through the alleyways of the Flower District (Gion) to a tea ceremony job or evening entertaining important corporate guests; in the post-sunrise languor of the day, it’s still entirely possible to have the pathways of the sacred Arashiyama bamboo forest entirely to yourself, the shafts of sunlight curling amongst the incense smoke from the Shinto shrines within it. “Kyoto’s ability to preserve history and tradition whilst keeping it relevant is a constant source of fascination for me,” says Kyoto expert Alison Roberts-Brown, who works with Kyoto City Tourism. “It’s a place that beckons you to return again and again; there’s so many layers of history and culture which have never stopped evolving, there is always another layer to discover.” [caption id="attachment_48444" align="alignnone" width="643"] The peaceful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48445" align="alignnone" width="643"] The grand Fushimi Inari Shrine should be a must see in Kyoto[/caption] It’s impossible (and inadvisable) to visit Kyoto without giving over a few days to its enviable roster of temples and shrines, from the golden temple of Kinkaku-ji and the ultimate Insta-destination Shinto gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha, to the edifice that is Kiyomizu-dera temple, presiding over streets lined with perfectly presented souvenir shops that – mostly – keep things typically tasteful, Kyoto-style. Even the sweet shops expect you to dress respectfully and, preferably, elegantly – especially those that predate most of the buildings around them. “The 17-generation-old Kyoto sweet company Toraya is good example,” says Alison. “One of Japan’s oldest confectionery businesses, they were supplying the Imperial family back in the 1700s, and the business now operates 70 odd shops and even one in Paris. Their traditional confectionery is still exquisitely presented; I recommend saving an hour to sip tea and sample their wares at the location they have been operating since 1628, the Toraya Ichijo Shop and Cafe.” [caption id="attachment_48435" align="alignnone" width="628"] Employers of sweet company, Toraya, back in 1925[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48449" align="alignnone" width="629"] A Toraya product - 'Mt Fuju in Four Seasons'[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48451" align="alignnone" width="629"] A traditional tiered confectionery box made in 1776[/caption] Just like its sweet-making, Kyoto takes its arts and crafts extremely seriously, Alison says. “Trades or craftsmen’s skills are passed down from generation to generation, and it’s not unusual to find a traditional artisan in Kyoto whose family business spans more than 10 generations.” Keen to share these inherited arts and crafts Kyoto City has established the ‘Kyoto Artisan Concierge’, which connects people in search of genuine experiences with artisans so they can observe artisan demonstrations in the creative atmosphere of their studios and have hands-on experiences too. Quietly, carefully, beautifully. But just a touch over an hour away by train, there’s a very, very different vibe indeed. [caption id="attachment_48446" align="alignnone" width="578"] Don't pass up a visit to the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto[/caption] Osaka: the cheeky little sister Let’s get this out of the way – Osaka is not that little at all. In fact, with a city population of 2.6 million and a greater metropolitan population of over 20 million people, it’s one of the world’s larger cities and outstrips Kyoto. However, in its tastes and its ambience, shopping-mad, food-obsessed Osaka is as different from Kyoto as chalk from cheese, with a cheeky vibe that contrasts sharply with the latter’s conservative bent. “If Kyoto is serene and soothing, Osaka, just a short train ride away, is the opposite,” says Bea Holland, doyenne of all things Japan at japlanguide.com. “Bustling, noisy, maybe a little grimy, Osaka is fun from beginning to end.” From end to end, really, if you look at the Osakan city map, crisscrossed with kilometres-long, pedestrian-only ‘shopping streets’ that form the bones of any visitor’s itinerary and are fleshed out, on visiting, by day-to-night crowds bustling shoulder to shoulder through each arcade. It doesn’t stop as you descend the ubiquitous staircases underground; Osaka is built upon a subterranean wonderland of unashamed capitalism, making up some of Japan’s longest and densest underground shopping malls. [caption id="attachment_48437" align="alignnone" width="653"] Dotonbori is one of Osaka's prime tourist destinations[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48441" align="alignnone" width="651"] Visit one of the largest aquariums in the world- Osaka Aquarium[/caption] You can easily dive from the main railway station, JR Osaka, into the Umeda shopping area, then happily bob along in the sea of humanity sweeping through the 600-metre Shinsaibashi shopping street, take a deep breath at the canalside Dotombori pedestrian mall, before diving headfirst back into the bargains and impossibly kawaii (cute) goodies in the boutiques along Ebisubashi arcade. Don’t forget the way back to Dotombori, though, because the fickle and fun-seeking Osakan crowd will be flocking here come sunset for their second obsession after shopping: food. The canyon-like walls of the Dotombori mall are like a Tetris stack of food offers, jumbled together in an overwhelming patchwork of colour that lights up come nighttime to pick out a giant waving crab here, a cartoon octopus waving a cartoon knife at passersby there. Watch where the queues form and jump in behind them. Today’s hot restaurant property is tomorrow’s has-been heap with this lot. “Osaka is about all things octopus,” tips Bea, “and you have to indulge in both takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (a local specialty cabbage and seafood pancake) while you're there. Grab takoyaki from any street vendor and they will be delicious. For okonomiyaki, find a bar with a sizzling hot plate and settle in. Our record is five in one sitting, but I look forward to breaking this!” she grins. [caption id="attachment_48452" align="alignnone" width="644"] Okonomiyaki - a delicious savoury Japanese pancake[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48439" align="alignnone" width="465"] Try tasty Japanese snack, Takoyaki (fried octopus balls)[/caption] Part of the fun of Osaka is not only following the ‘It’ crowd, but the alternative crowds too, who have made this quirky city their home the way traditional Kyoto may never be able to stomach. The cool kids of Amerikamura neighbourhood seem to have the greatest density of tattoos and body art in the country – a gutsy effort, when this is still absolutely associated with organised criminals in Japan – and you’ll most likely find them rocking out in the very street, accompanied by someone’s retro ghetto blaster, or someone else’s speakers from an open window. Over in Den Den Town, it’s all about electronics, but it doesn’t take long to wander into serious manga and otaku territory: where the kids live cosplay 24/7, hanging out outside sex shops and cartoon shops with equal insouciance. Certainly, Osaka has all the straight-up, more family-friendly attractions too. The bayside aquarium is gobsmackingly beautifully done and is actually the world’s largest, with multistorey tanks you can walk around on walkways that take you side by side with giant sea creatures such as sharks, rays, jellyfish and king crab (the safest guys in this crab-hungry city). Beside this, in the harbourside area, the 112.5-metre Tempozan Ferris Wheel makes for an impressive ride for the non-vertiginous. One of the many toy stores in Den Den Town [caption id="attachment_48442" align="alignnone" width="614"] A beautiful Osaka sunset behind the Tempozan Ferris Wheel[/caption] But when it comes to what makes Osaka different, it always comes back to its subculture: its hedonism and complex cool. “There is no nicer way to spend an evening than exploring the wonders of the Chuwa Dixie building, Osaka's 'jazz bar building',” Bea says of her favourite pastime here. “There are five floors, each one holding a unique and interesting bar to enjoy. Find a favourite and hole up, or work your way up or down. You might stumble across live performance, but for the most part, you'll find bar owners presiding over a huge record collection and choosing favourites to play on their very superior sound system.”
8 Ways to experience Mt Fuji without hiking
From a ferry trip with uninterrupted views to a brand-new architect-designed observatory, here are eight alternative ways to experience Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji. Mt Fuji is big. Really, exceptionally big. Big enough to see from Tokyo, over 100 kilometres away; even its foothills span two prefectures. But its influence over Japan stretches way past its mere size. That perfect volcanic cone features everywhere in Japanese folklore and has over the millennia, been recreated in everything from cakes and seasonal sweets to soap, towels, toys, even cartoon-character mountains that enter the national subconscious from an early age. So we really think turning up on a bus, taking a quick pic from a lookout on a day trip from Tokyo and heading home again does not do the mighty Fuji-san nearly enough justice – nor the mind-blowingly beautiful and fascinating surrounds that count Fuji as an ever-present part of the scenery. So here we have eight amazing ways to give Fuji-san the love it deserves, and make your trip to central Japan something special too. 1. Cross Mishima Skywalk suspension bridge How else to give Japan’s tallest mountain the proper gravitas than to gaze upon it from Japan’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, the fabulously engineered, 400-metre-long Skywalk. This thing sways in the wind over a forest gorge in the most picturesque of locations, so the views should stop you looking down. You can also catch sight of Japan’s deepest bay, Suruga Bay, forming a suitably spectacular spot with photo stops galore. [caption id="attachment_48362" align="alignnone" width="452"] Japan’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, Mishima Skywalk[/caption] 2. Hang upside down on top of a mountain – or simply soak your feet The Japanese really know how to live, with thoughtful ways to make visitors happy every step along their sightseeing route. Atop the mountain at Izunokuni Panorama Park (you can guess the main star of the panorama here), you can not only gaze across an incredible vista that stretches from bay to hills to forests to the star of the show, Fuji, but your mini ninjas can choose to do it from the cute obstacle play course set right here on the mountaintop, while you can get your shoes and socks off and blithely sit with your tootsies in a steaming bath, right here out in the open, while you enjoy and photograph the view. [caption id="attachment_48363" align="alignnone" width="575"] Enjoy panoramic views of Mt Fuju from Izunokuni Panorama Park[/caption] 3. Drink craft beer made from Fuji’s 100-year-old snowmelt The respect the Japanese hold for Fuji-san does not end with the mountain itself. That snowy peak basks in the sun, slowly melting into the purest of water, which then soaks into the volcanic earth itself and is filtered over and over again before finally emerging, a century later, into the streams and waterways around the region. This water is rather reverently used for such purposes as nourishing the finest (and therefore most delicious) of eel, helping to produce breathtakingly expensive tofu, and also highly prized sake. Over at Baird Brewing Company near Numazu, however, they’ve come up with a more novel way of tasting the snow that melted at the end of the First World War, give or take. The range of specialty craft beers do indeed taste rather crystalline in their clarity, and visiting the forest-bound brewery to sample them is worth the trip. [caption id="attachment_48364" align="alignnone" width="430"] For the best craft beer, visit Baird Beer at Numazu Fishmarkets[/caption] 4. Take a golf-buggy ride to a fairway with a view The luxe Izu Marriott Shuzenji not only boasts views of Japan’s favourite volcano from its Fuji-facing rooms, but its deer-speckled golf course is also perfectly positioned for maximum vistas. Guests can even jump in the driverless electric golf buggies for a spin around the course at sunset to watch Fuji-san’s western face turn golden, forming a heart-melting backdrop as dusk brings the resort’s antlered wildlife out to reclaim the golf course for another evening. [caption id="attachment_48368" align="alignnone" width="838"] Izu Marriott Shuzenji premium guest room has magnificent Mt Fuju views.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48369" align="alignnone" width="838"] Enjoy the views while relaxing in the Marriott's hot spring spa[/caption] 5. Take a holographic tour at brand-new Yume Terrace With the Tokyo Olympics rapidly approaching, its stadium architect Kengo Kuma is flavour of the month (or even year) – but the stadium is far from his only triumph. In Shizuoka Prefecture, his dreamy, octagonal observatory and deck is making a name for itself in its own right. Nihondaira Yume Terrace, fashioned from local cedar and swathes of glass, is a quiet, mindful space seemingly a world away from the busier lookouts and decks closer to Mt Fuji, and inside are ultramodern displays using everything from stained glass to holographs to detail the story of Mt Fuji’s formation. 6. Rise early for seafood breakfast with the clearest view A whole lot more hectic is Japan’s second-busiest seafood markets, the Numazu Fish Market on deep Suruga Bay. As the 5am markets heat up inside, the sunlight strengthens outside to reveal Fuji-san reflected in the waters and dominating the view, though the workers around you may continue to bustle from boat to bobcat, auction room to loading dock. Charm your way as close as you dare to espy the three-metre Suruga Bay spider crabs, giant deep-water fish and tuna, down to the tiny baby mackerel and whitebait that typify traditional breakfasts around here. Head to any of the restaurants in the surrounding streets for a bowl overflowing with fresh seafood – as raw as you dare – for a breakfast you won’t forget. [caption id="attachment_48372" align="alignnone" width="569"] Seafood stores in Numazu Fish Market[/caption] 7. Ride the rainbow ferry across incredible Suruga Bay The high-speed ferry across Suruga Bay from Toi to Shimizu may well be one of the most underrated experiences in the area. The deep waters beneath make the surface mirror-still, there are fresh seafood sticks and sweet buns being grilled out on the back deck, and even the ferry itself is daubed with a rainbow to make the experience as lovely as possible. And of course, watching over you for the 65-minute journey is Mt Fuji, in an uninterrupted view across the water to rival any lookout you can name. [caption id="attachment_48373" align="alignnone" width="613"] View of Mount Fuji with Suruga Bay and Numazu town[/caption] 8. Stay at the hotel with Fuji in every window For such an incredible spot, gazing remarkably close-up upon perhaps Asia’s most famous mount, it seems astounding that there isn’t another foreign face to be seen at Nippondaira Hotel – but that was this reviewer’s experience. The hotel doesn’t even pretend to want anything else for its guests, with Fuji-facing rooms enjoying uninterrupted views across a flat landscaped garden, and multi-storey floor-to-ceiling windows spanning almost every public space in the hotel so you can breakfast, lunch and (yummy fine French) dinner with Fuji-san himself. [caption id="attachment_48374" align="alignnone" width="581"] Stunning views of Mt Fuju from Nippondaira Hotel (photo: Jac Taylor)[/caption] For more information about travelling around Japan, visit our Japan guide.
Hotel review: The Mulia, Nusa Dua, Bali
It’s one of Bali’s most luxurious beach resorts, complete with butler service and a Sunday brunch that’s the stuff of legends. So what’s it really like to stay at the Mulia in Nusa Dua? Danielle Norton checks in. Details The Mulia, Mulia Resort and Villas, Nusa Dua, Bali First impressions On arrival at The Mulia we’re greeted by a man proffering a bowl of frangipani flowers. He positions one behind each of our ears and then, as we cup our hands in prayer position, he pours frangipani scented oil into them. Rubbing our palms together, we step into the resort, our senses activated as we transition from the outside world to this new one. At this 30-hectare property in Nusa Dua guests are far from the hectic crowds and bustling streets of Bali’s more tourist-oriented areas. Comprised of the Mulia Resort, the all-suite The Mulia, and the Mulia Villas, this property is refined and elegant, polished like a marble bust in a museum. In fact, it contains huge walls of rare blue marble and it’s the perfect place to escape from the world for a little while. We check in for two nights in the beachfront Earl Suite at The Mulia and two nights in the one-bedroom villa. [caption id="attachment_48257" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sweeping pool views will take your breath away.[/caption] The suites The Mulia suites are enormous, as is everything on the property. The rooms, the furniture, the grounds; all aspects of the hotel are grand. The suites are like mansions with a foyer, lounge room, powder room, bedroom, walk-in wardrobe and bathroom with separate toilet and shower. There’s also an outdoor balcony with a double day bed, a huge Jacuzzi and a breakfast table. Sweet treats and fruit await guests in their rooms. After a long day of travelling, slipping into the Jacuzzi (run by one’s butler, of course!), eating macarons and contemplating the idyllic tropical beach and the garden lights twinkling below is just the ticket to refresh weary bones. [caption id="attachment_48246" align="alignnone" width="600"] The patio at the Earl Suite.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48247" align="alignnone" width="600"] Bathroom in The Earl Suite.[/caption] The villas One of five options villa options including the Mulia Mansion, the 500-square-metre one-bedroom villa is completely private and secure. Guests have their own personal swimming pool, an outdoor pavilion, manicured garden, and an enormous house in which to bathe, sleep and relax. The indoor Jacuzzi is in a glass room, surrounded by lush plants and opens onto an outdoor shower. The suites and villas at the Mulia come with full butler service. The butlers are internationally trained and all are skilled enough to attend to a president or royal who may stay in one of the exclusive pads (for these you must request access and the price is upwards of $20,000 per night). [caption id="attachment_48248" align="alignnone" width="600"] Unwind in the Earl Suite.[/caption] The food Each of the five-star restaurants in the resort has an overflowing smorgasboard of cuisines to suit every palate. Japanese restaurant Edogin has a ramen noodle station as well as a mountain of seafood, sushi, sashimi, rice balls, lobster tails. In the centre of the room stands a spotless teppanyaki grill. On surrounding ledges are plates of fish, clams, mussels, scallops, chicken and beef. Once guests make decisions about their desired ingredients, the fresh delicacies are cooked by highly trained chefs and delivered to their table. At the ice-cream counter choose from green tea, white sesame, ginger, raspberry, chocolate or vanilla and ask the chef to cut it through on the large ice bench with lychees, strawberries, chocolate sprinkles, toasted flaked almonds, macadamias, sultanas, mango, granola or kiwi fruit. [caption id="attachment_48252" align="alignnone" width="600"] The rooftop at Sky Bar.[/caption] The Lounge Despite the enticing doughnut bar and collection of pastries, order one of two signature Mulia breakfasts: crab cakes with eggs Benedict, or wagyu beef on brioche, from the à la carte menu. Afternoon tea (either a selection of Indonesian sweet and savoury treats, or a classic European high tea of sandwiches and petit fours) is also served here. With a view straight out to the poolside regal statues for which the Mulia is famous, it is a stunning place to enjoy a meal. Indulge even further and choose something from the cocktail list. The Cafe This restaurant contains several mini restaurant kitchens. Guests can choose from Indian cuisine, Indonesian curries or noodles, Korean barbecue, Japanese sushi and much more. The pièce de résistance of this restaurant is the dessert room, which is, in fact, two rooms. One contains a spinning wheel of ice-cream flavours, decadent toppings as well as cookies, cakes and slices. The other has a fairy floss machine next to a coconut pancake cooking station, windows filled with doughnuts and racks of cookies to choose from. Table8 This Chinese restaurant has authentic, regional dishes, cooked to order. Honey-glazed pork, succulent roast duck, tofu, octopus, stir fries, dim sum, noodles and a selection of yoghurts and toppings to satisfy any craving. Try the oolong tea and watch, mesmerised, as the bud blossoms in the glass. [caption id="attachment_48249" align="alignnone" width="600"] Dramatic interiors at Table8.[/caption] Soleil The Sunday brunch buffet at this magnificent 230-seat restaurant is booked out weeks in advance. Always extravagant, there is an incredible array of delectable food displayed. Cheeses from around the world, an assortment of breads, and a dedicated vegetarian table piled high with spring rolls, salads, corn cakes, rice paper rolls and quiche co-exist with towers of oysters and prawns, platters of salmon, a carvery, curries, soups, mounds of cakes, slices, jellies, and even a chocolate fountain. Don’t miss the tortellini on the à la carte menu. There are also a range of bars to discover, including beachfront Sky Bar, which serves up a tapas menu alongside cocktails, spirits and wine. [caption id="attachment_48250" align="alignnone" width="600"] Soleil is the magnificent 230-seat restaurant where brunch is booked out weeks in advance.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48251" align="alignnone" width="600"] The famous Soleil Sunday brunch.[/caption] Services Wellness/The Mulia Spa The Mulia Spa has 20 plush treatment rooms. Guests can choose from an extensive menu of facials, scrubs, massage styles and beauty services to create their perfect spa day. Therapists are trained to exacting standards and the massage and beauty treatments are world class. [caption id="attachment_48253" align="alignnone" width="600"] Guests can choose from an array of facials, scrubs, massage styles and beauty services.[/caption] All Spa Daymaker program options start with an hour of access to the hydrotonic pools. With distinct zones offering spa jets to different parts of the body, bathers move from cool to heated hydrotonic baths and back again, according to preference. From there they can enjoy the steam room and sauna before cooling off in the uber-cool ice room. Refrigerated to zero degrees, the room has the ambience of a futuristic science lab. The pile of ice on the centre dome, which guests can use to rub on aching muscles, glows as the lights change from pink, through to blue, then to green. [caption id="attachment_48254" align="alignnone" width="600"] The words Relax and The Mulia go hand in hand.[/caption] Pools Guests have access to six pools across the property; the Oasis Pool and the Aqua Pool are exclusive to guests of The Mulia and Mulia Villas. Resort guests can use the other four magnificent pools which all have poolside service. [caption id="attachment_48255" align="alignnone" width="600"] Take in a view of The Ocean pool.[/caption] Gym facilities The gym is a state-of-the-art facility open from 6am till 10pm. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba, water aerobics, core classes and a range of other balance and strength classes are available throughout the day. We start our mornings with yoga on the grass facing the ocean, listening to the waves rolling in. Kundalini and Hatha breathing techniques help us sink further into our poses as we practise. We stretch our limbs then work on our abs. By the end of the session, the sun is bright in the sky and we head to breakfast feeling energised knowing we have already completed a decent workout. [caption id="attachment_48256" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sweat at the state-of-the-art gym.[/caption] Children’s facilities Guests are able to bring a nanny into the resort to attend the fantastic Mulia Kidz club. Alternatively, your kids can be privately minded in their room and around the resort. Nearby activities/tours available: Tours can be arranged through butlers or the resort’s reception staff. We took a day trip to Ubud, only an hour away. The real Bali is not far from the luxurious paths and gardens of the Mulia, if you want to discover it. The IT Verdict: For privacy and exclusivity, the Mulia is a dream for travellers who want to fly in, enjoy the luxury of an international-standard resort, swim, eat well and jet home again. Location: 8/10 Beachside but out of town, the charm of this hotel is that there’s nothing else around. Style/character: 10/10 Every element, from the welcome chocolate treats, to the extravagant, plush decor, to the soft, spongy bath mats, is exquisite. Service: 10/10 Rooms: 10/10 Food and Drink:10/10 Value for Money: 9/10 Even though you get what you pay for at the Mulia (incredible service, accommodation and food), the prices are a little steep. Price: (per night) Mulia resort rooms start from $530, the Mulia suites start from $1049 and Mulia Villas start from $1370. Best thing The final touch is the butlers pushing our luggage trolleys to the airport check-in desk, then directing us to the immigration gate. From the first moment to the last, it is this kind of spectacular attention to detail that makes the Mulia so special. Getting there Chauffeur service from Denpasar airport.
How to Choose the perfect Kyoto Ryokan escape
A stay in a traditional inn, or ryokan, is an essential shortcut to experiencing Japanese culture at its most charming and hospitable. Here’s how to make it happen in Japan’s most tradition-drenched, elegant city. There are so many different kinds of accommodation options in Kyoto, from hostels to international chain hotels, Buddhist temple lodgings to Airbnbs and super-luxe skyscrapers – but it is the ryokan that conjures up the purest Kyoto experience. Rooms floored with tatami mats, kind kimono-clad hosts and steaming onsen baths characterise this type of accommodation, a world away from the breakfast buffets and cookie-cutter hotel rooms of the Western-style stays. To plan your own ryokan escape in Kyoto, visualise the final details of your dream experience. Are you looking to try a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal, served to you fastidiously in your own room? Would you like to experience a tea ceremony, performed by a real Kyoto geiko (geisha) or the more colourful maiko (geiko-in-training)? Are you ready to sleep on a futon-style mattress spread out for you on the floor – with or without a fragrant but very firm wheat-filled pillow? Basically, how traditional are you ready to go, and how much are you looking to pay? [caption id="attachment_48167" align="alignnone" width="600"] Hoshinoya, Yamanoha[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48162" align="alignnone" width="600"] Hoshinoya, Tsukihashi[/caption] The money question Although ryokans are available all over Japan, they are most sought after in the heritage surrounds of Kyoto – and that also makes them some of the country’s most expensive. The plus side of this is, you’ll find the ‘ultimate’ ryokan experience here, if you’re prepared to pay. The almost mythical Tawaraya is sometimes referred to as Japan’s best ryokan, yet it doesn’t even bother with a website – it has had aristocrats gracing its rooms since the Edo period 300 years ago. Who needs a website? In the slightly more earthly side of affordability, both Tamahan and Hoshinoya have made a name for themselves over many generations. The time-capsule Tamahan is a hideaway in a pedestrian-only alleyway, with old-school, incredibly humble service from its owners, offering perfectly kept gardens yet a location right in the centre of the sights of Kyoto. Hoshinoya is set up on the picturesque Oigawa River, meaning a private boat trip simply to reach its more modern but still utterly luxurious digs. In both of these, experiencing the service of a traditional kaiseki meal is very much a part of the stay, but the cost of such fine dining can make for an expensive night indeed. This is one of the big reasons why ryokan prices are generally charged per head – not per room. [caption id="attachment_48171" align="alignnone" width="600"] Hoshinoya, Hashizuku[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48172" align="alignnone" width="600"] Hoshinoya Mizunone[/caption] Not all Kyoto ryokans are in the top price bracket, either. At the other end of the scale, Uemura is also tucked away on a pedestrian-only alleyway, with three simple rooms and only breakfast served daily – fine if you are not after an intricate kaiseki meal; it has an incredible location in the centre of Gion, the old district still serving as the centre of geiko life. Meanwhile, if you’d like to experience such traditional offerings as a communal onsen bath, tatami matted floor and a futon bed, you can find these things for well under $100 at the friendly Kyoto Traveler’s Inn (though they also have Western-style rooms to choose from), in another fantastic location opposite the gigantic Heian shrine torii gate. The wonderful thing about staying in Japan is that, even at the lowest price points, facilities and rooms are kept squeaky clean as a rule. Location, location For such a well-known city, Kyoto is surprisingly compact. Between its train and bus systems, it is quite easy to get around – but it can still be time consuming if you stay far away from the action. Because many ryokans are generations old, some act as waypoints on an ancient travelling route, or exist as a family parcel of land or a nobles’ retreat away from the city (the riverbound Hoshinoya is a perfect example). Kyoto’s thousand-odd years in history as Japan’s capital city, however, has given it a few heritage districts where old ryokans remain in the centre of the action – particularly in the Gion district. If you have the time and the purse for it, a stay in a quiet ryokan, followed by one right in the city itself, is a fabulous way to sample the best of both. Kyoto’s many temples and shrines are spread across its giant basin, too, so a single ‘best’ location is not as important as in other cities. Additionally, if you are investing in the experience of a kaiseki meal, which can take a couple of hours to enjoy and is way too good to rush, you won’t be leaving your inn at night in any case. [caption id="attachment_48168" align="alignnone" width="600"] Twin beds at Hoshinoya[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48166" align="alignnone" width="600"] Relax at Hoshinoya[/caption] The rules: what to expect when you stay in a ryokan If you’ve never stayed in a traditional inn before, the unspoken rules that govern everyday life can seem a touch intimidating. Keep in mind that hospitality is one of the most golden rules, though – so don’t be afraid to ask politely for a bit of help if you’re stuck. Your hosts will be thrilled to teach you something new. Like in most Japanese houses and the more traditional restaurants, you’ll leave your shoes at the door, placing them neatly on a shelf. There will possibly be some slippers left helpfully facing you so you can easily step into them and continue on into the ryokan itself. Shoes never come in, slippers never leave the building. And if you haven’t invested in some decent socks, this is the time to do so – they suddenly become a very visible item in Japan! Don’t be disturbed if there’s no bed in your room: it will magically appear as you leave for dinner, ready for your return. If you are eating in your room, just go about your business and trust the housekeeping staff to do their thing. It will appear. Likewise, leave it and, as you breakfast or head out to sightsee, it will be spirited away. [caption id="attachment_48165" align="alignnone" width="600"] Hoshinoya, Tsukihashi[/caption] [caption id="attachment_48163" align="alignnone" width="600"] Meal time at Hoshinoya[/caption] Many traditional ryokans will have a hot bath (onsen) on the premises. Check with your host which times of day your gender can bathe: if there is only one bath, they split up the day between women and men. If there are two, they may stay the same, or switch genders through the day. For example, men may get the outdoor onsen in the day, while women get it at night. If you have tattoos, it’s polite to ask if you may use the onsen or not, since they remain a point of controversy in Japan (they are a sign of organised crime gangs), and politely accept the answer. It’s tough for a Japanese host to say ‘no’ to anything, so be kind if they do. The most fun part of staying in a ryokan, or many Japanese inns – traditional or not? You can swan about in your robe and slippers all day long if you like. Your room will have a cotton yukata (casual version of the more formal kimono) put there especially for you, and it’s completely normal to have meals in it, even in common areas; head to the onsen baths and back; hang out in the reception area or gardens; anything you like. Japan is one of the few countries where it’s acceptable to dress down for dinner – way down. So wriggle your toes in your comfy slippers and enjoy. Read more in our guide to everything you need to know about ryokans in Japan and explore more of Kyoto in our Kyoto travel guide for where to eat and what to do while you're there.
Where to find the best Japanese food in Tokyo
It has been said that it is difficult to have a bad meal in Tokyo. But with an estimated 160,000 restaurants in the city, there is an overwhelming choice. Michael Ryan of Provenance Restaurant in Victoria brings us his expert opinion on the best places to wine and dine. Arriving in Tokyo We arrive in Tokyo early February. This is one of my favourite times to visit; certainly better than being here in summer when the heat and humidity can be somewhat oppressive. It is not overly cold with maximum temperatures reaching about 10°C during the day. The first few hours in Tokyo are always so exhilarating to me, especially coming from Beechworth in Victoria. The crowds, the noise, the smells – both good and bad – and the press of humanity. I travel to Japan at least twice a year, eating my way through the diverse and wonderful restaurant scene, particularly to gain inspiration for the food at my own restaurant. How to find the best Japanese food in Tokyo Just winging it and heading out into the street to choose a restaurant at random has certainly supplied me with some great restaurant finds. But this trip, there were hopefully to be no duds. Through a mixture of internet research, recommendations from friends, other chefs and even some of my customers, I created a list covering a broad spectrum of the restaurants available in Tokyo; some ramen (noodles), kaiseki (a traditional multi-course, highly refined meal), yakitori (skewered chicken), sushi, izakaya (a drinking establishment) and European. It was going to be tough, but I knew that my years of practice at dining out would see me through. [caption id="attachment_1545" align="alignnone" width="1000"] For those who go to Japan with authentic food in mind[/caption] Ramen Ivan Ramen Generally in Tokyo there is good ramen and then there is great ramen. Our first lunch at Ivan Ramen was definitely of the second variety. Owner, Ivan Orkin, is an American living in Tokyo who, against all odds, opened a ramen shop in an area where non-Japanese chefs usually don’t exist. With training and experience in high-end restaurants, he transformed this street food into a sought-after delicacy. All stocks are made from scratch and all noodles are handmade. Yes, there are certainly other ramen shops doing this, but it was Orkin’s ‘outsider’ approach that really differentiated his noodles. A prime example would be his use of rye flour in some of his ramen noodles, which is unheard of in Japan – until now. But all this experimentation would be for naught if the ramen didn’t taste good. It does. We are actually at Ivan Ramen Plus, his second store and home to his most experimental ramen. Take for example ago-dashi ramen, made with dried flying fish, dried shrimp and scallops (a deep, complex broth served with slightly chewy noodles), or his very rich garlic shoyu abu ramen. The most unusual ramen was the cheese mazemen which, in the wrong hands, could easily be one step too far. Bonito (dried fish flakes), shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and kombu (seaweed) combined with their Western umami cohorts, tomato and cheese (four kinds). Again, another rich ramen, counter balanced with some pickled bean shoots – like an Italian-inspired noodle dish with Japanese accents… or a Japanese ramen with Italian accents. Ivan Ramen Plus is a great example of how cheaply you can eat your way around this city, with dishes from just $7-10. The one oddity about this eatery, though, is the only beer available is XXXX. While it is not really that different from the simple inoffensive Japanese beers like Asahi and Kirin; in Japan I guess it is exotic, and context is everything. Strangely, the same ramen in Sydney would set you back closer to $17. Address: Tanbaya Building 1F, 2-3-8, Kyodo, Setagaya-ku, +81 364131140 Ippudo in Ginza We also visit an international ramen chain, Ippudo in Ginza. It is a surprisingly homely looking place considering its reputation and the ramen is very good. Ramen is not the sort of meal you have for a long leisurely lunch – we are in and out in under 30 minutes. Address: Zhongshan second building, 3-11-14, Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 335471010 Kaiseki One thing you notice when dining out in Toyko, particularly when dining at more serious restaurants, is the quality and beauty of the crockery that your meals are presented on. Stunning, individual, handmade pieces always complement the food and, in some cases, outshine it. Kozue Kozue at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku is a perfect example of this. Served in kaiseki-style, the chef has a choice of 4000 ceramic bowls, cups and plates, valued at more than one million dollars. But luckily, chef Kenichiro Ooe’s food matches the beauty of the ceramics. His food, traditional in format, has creative twists throughout. The highlight for me is the shirako (cod’s milt, aka sperm, a challenging delicacy in Japan) tofu with tomburi and grated daikon – a delicate yet full-flavoured appetiser, and probably a very good introduction to those not au fait with the idea of eating cod’s sperm. The restaurant mirrors the Park Hyatt itself – subtle, elegant and not at all glitzy like so many large hotels. If I had a wealthy, very stylish aunt, this is how I would imagine her house would look. Address: Park Hyatt, 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-Ku, +81 353233460 Ginza Okuda Ginza Okuda is a big-ticket restaurant and is the second restaurant for chef Tooru Okuda, his first being the highly regarded three Michelin star Kojyu. Prices are around $220 per head plus drinks but, as with many of the high-end Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo, lunch can be a heavily discounted version of their dinner menu. The set lunch menu is around $110 per head, plus drinks. And so, we dine for lunch. The restaurant is classic kaiseki-style, with a small counter seating seven people, as well as some private dining rooms to the side. But the counter is the place to be – it is where you can see all the chef action. I counted at least eight chefs in the very shiny, immaculately clean kitchen and at least three staff on the floor – for a restaurant that seats no more than 20 customers, that’s a very high staff to customer ratio. The food, under the charge of Shun Miyahara, is refined, elegant and seasonally driven. The young Miyahara is very talented using traditional kaiseki techniques, with some subtle, modern touches throughout, and he is more than happy to help with English translations of the dishes presented. His dish of seared lobster – still raw in the centre – with apple, a soft broken vinegar jelly and small dices of a firmer nori jelly is delicate, flavoursome and refreshing. Address: Carioca Building, B1, 5-4-8, Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 355373338 Ishikawa Ishikawa, a more traditional kaiseki restaurant, is another fabulous meal for dinner – and known as a sanctuary hidden amongst the hectic streets of the city. The most prominent feature of this restaurant is the calm, authority figure of chef and owner Hideki Ishikawa. He spends most of the service overseeing the counter, slicing the sashimi, practising quality control. Repeatedly throughout the evening, his many chefs will bring a small ladle of dashi (traditional Japanese cooking broth) for him to test. With minimal words and movements, he tells the chefs what adjustments are to be made and the chef returns minutes later with the corrected broth. A small nod of the head from Ishikawa is the only indication given that perfection has been achieved. The menu features some fantastic ingredient combinations, like monkfish liver (surely the foie gras of the seafood world), sansai (mountain vegetables), snow crab and wild boar finished with an incredibly decadent uni (sea urchin) rice bowl. Stunning. Address: 5-3-7 Kagurazaka Shinjuku, Tokyo, +81 352250173 Jimbocho Den Our third kaiseki-style restaurant, Jimbocho Den, is such a wonderful surprise; the place has an energy and sense of humour that belies the traditional formal set-up of the restaurant. Run by a young husband-and-wife-team, the menu format is of traditional style but the dishes are both creative and modern, without losing sight of tradition. Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s first dish for the night, foie gras miso wafer, is a very good indication of where the meal is headed, his Dentucky Fried Chicken dish (a chicken wing stuffed with rice and vegetables, served in a Kentucky Fried Chicken box full of hay) sums up the experience: cheeky, quirky and backed up by some very skilful cooking. And it is with dessert that Hasegawa shows his most modern thinking. A tromp l’oeil creation – plated food designed to look like something it is not – of mouldy looking puffballs, served on garden trowels in a bed of leaf mulch, is actually delicate choux puffs with green tea on a bed of roasted brown tea leaves. And the garden gloves you are requested to wear when eating the dessert adds to the theatrical experience. Jimbocho Den is quite popular now and getting a booking can be difficult, but persevere, it will be worth it. Address: 2-2-32 Kanda-Jimbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, +81 332223978 Sushi You can’t go to Tokyo without eating sushi at least once. Isana We eat it twice at two very different but both very good sushi restaurants. Isana, just down from Roppongi Crossing, was only recently opened by chef Junichi Onuki who had spent a good part of his career cooking in London. It is a very intimate restaurant, seating only 15 patrons. We start with some raw baby Conger eel, tempura fukinoto (flowering shoots of butterbur) and grilled whelk – an impressive starter. And the sushi that followed was of a very high quality particularly for the price. The meal, with plenty of sake, came to about $160 per head. Address: Hotel & Residence Roppongi 1F 1-11-6 Nishi-Azasbu, Minato-ku,+81 364349194 Sushi SORA The other sushi restaurant we visit is a rather different affair. Sushi SORA at the Mandarin Oriental is a much grander and sleeker dining experience. The restaurant, located on the 38th floor of the hotel, seats just eight at the sushi counter and offers stunning views of the Tokyo skyline. The sushi is refined and very precise. Chef Yuji Imaizumi’s style is very theatrical, with complex movements and loud clapping of the hands involved in the production of each piece of sushi. The sommelier, Kaoru Izuha, who previously won the ‘Sake Sommelier of the Year’ title at the Kikisake-shi World Championship, expertly guides us through some great sake and wine to match our meals. Address: 38th Floor Mandarin Oriental, 2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, +81 332708800 Yakitori Another very popular dining style in Japan is yakitori, which is often associated with ‘salaryman’ or ‘suits’ dining – they are casual, smoky joints serving beer and sake, and every part of a chicken on skewers, grilled over charcoal. They have a reputation for drinking and eating at izakaya and casual yakitori. Torishiki But Torishiki, a yakitori place in Kami-Osaki, breaks this mould. There is only counter seating in this restaurant – 18 seats in a U-shape around the kitchen. Unusually, this place is non-smoking and the room is elegant and understated. Chef Yoshiteru Ikegawa is a yakitori maestro and stands in front of his yakitori grill, for the whole night, with an intense focus on his face. He is also the lone griller, and it’s for this reason the maximum number of guests he will take in one group at the counter is three. If any country could lay claim to be the king of ‘nose to tail cooking’, it is Japan. Torishiki’s signature yakitori dish named cochin (meaning lantern) is a perfect example. It is the unformed egg, the oviduct (or egg delivery tube) and some liver, skewered together and grilled. It is meant to be eaten in one bite and, trust me, is delicious. Another confronting dish often seen at yakitori restaurants is just seared chicken – almost raw. To a Western palate, raw chicken is pretty much synonymous with death. But to a yakitori chef, it is just another of the many ways to prepare chicken. Obviously the chicken needs to be super fresh, and for the very good yakitori places like Torishiki, this is a given. Address: 2-14-12 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku, +81 334407656 Travelling to Tokyo soon? Read our guide to everything you need to know about Japan’s capital city.
13 Japan foodie experiences to rival Tokyo’s famous fish market
From a tempting tempura bar in an old Kyoto geisha district to bustling markets and barbecue joints in the ‘nation’s kitchen’, Osaka, here are some tried and tested experiences to fill the gap left by the relocation of one of Japan’s favourite foodie spots, Tsukiji Market. Taste buds in Japan and around the world were saddened at the closure of the famed Tsukiji Market (also referred to as the ‘inner market’) on 6 October 2018. Although the outer market remains open for business, it has been argued that the soul of Tsukiji departed when the inner market relocated to Toyosu and reopened as Toyosu Market. Many die-hard foodies have lamented that it’s just not quite the same experience. Fortunately, Japan is positively teeming with gastronomic delights to fill the void. Your stomach is in for a treat with these epicurean indulgences. Kagoshima [caption id="attachment_47787" align="alignnone" width="600"] Kagoshima is a peaceful prefecture located in the most southern tip of the Japan. They are best known for their raw chicken dish, considered a delicacy in Japan.[/caption] 1. Kumasotei Kumasotei restaurant is in Kagoshima, a peaceful prefecture located in the most southern tip of the country. One of the specialties in this part of Japan is undoubtedly their raw chicken dish. And there’s absolutely no need to be squeamish – Japanese culture respects and reveres all of its ingredients, including chickens; they’re local, free range, and sourced from one of the top-trusted farmers in the area. Preparation is done with exacting measures and why it can be served like beef tartare or carpaccio. Considered a delicacy, the jidori no tataki has an incredibly mild taste and texturally, it is reminiscent of a plump scallop. It’s certainly one of those ultimate eating experiences and if anything, will open up flavour doorways and change perceptions about so-called ‘boundaries’ of food. [caption id="attachment_47788" align="alignnone" width="600"] Play with your food at Tosenkyo Somen Nagashi in Ibusuki.[/caption] 2. Tosenkyo Somen Nagashi A popular choice in the summertime, Tosenkyo Somen Nagashi in Ibusuki is where you’re encouraged to play with your food. Nagashi-somen is the signature item of this restaurant and refers to the noodles you ‘catch’ with your chopsticks as they float by in transparent circulating ‘whirlpool’ trays provided at each table. Traditionally, the noodles would have flowed through a bamboo tube – but this circulating tray was invented here and is a more effective method of delivery when it comes to handling the large volume of diners. The cool water in the whirlpool comes from the nearby natural Tosen Gorge springs (which sits at a refreshing 13°C year-round). It’s a fun and unique experience where you gather the noodles in your bowl and enjoy umami-enriched broth. The meal is rounded out with additional house specialties such as salt-crusted trout, fried fish cakes, and seaweed wrapped sticky rice. [caption id="attachment_47789" align="alignnone" width="600"] The food isn't the only reason to visit Ibusuki - there is also this coastline.[/caption] Kyoto [caption id="attachment_47790" align="alignnone" width="600"] Take in the natural beauty of the district of Arashiyama in Kyoto.[/caption] 3. Nishiki Market Nishiki Market captivates all the senses. There’s an onslaught of heady aromas and jaw-dropping sights: everything from grilled meats to heady stews. Come hungry and with about two to three hours to spare as you immerse yourself in this magical market haven. Your best bet is to simply wander and take note of sights and smells as they catch your senses. Two tips: do NOT come during rush hour (11.45am until around 1pm). If you can hold off stomach pangs, it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s not overflowing with people. A second tip is that if you want to save money, don’t purchase the ready-made sashimi platters from any of the vendors. Instead, head to the closest supermarket within Nishiki and get yourself a buxom slab of glistening o-toro (fatty tuna) and have the fishmonger slice it for you. Then devour with reckless abandon outside. There’s really no room to linger and lounge so it’s best to wander and eat at the same time. Skewers easily solve the ‘no utensil’ issue, with a prime and palate-pleasing example being the fatty unctuous morsels of grilled eel. Shimmering with sweet teriyaki sauce, the sweet and meaty texture is edible euphoria. [caption id="attachment_47791" align="alignnone" width="600"] The cherry blossoms of Arashiyama in Kyoto bloom in spring.[/caption] 4. Shoraian Shoraian is in the district of Arashiyama, approximately 30 minutes west of central Kyoto. The area is famous for natural beauty and its top sight, the Arashiyama Bamboo grove with its otherworldly, towering stalks. Afterwards, people head to Shoraian for the ultimate in tofu tasting. Yes, even the most staunchest of carnivores will be wooed by this cuisine that’s done with a lot of kokoro, or heart. It’s perhaps one of the few places in the world where tofu (a very much underrated ingredient) is treated with the utmost respect, care and preparation. This relatively humble food is prepared in many creative ways best showcased through its kaiseki (multi-course Japanese dinner). Standouts include tofu ice-cream and agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu nestled in dashi broth). [caption id="attachment_47792" align="alignnone" width="600"] Food, cherry blossoms and this view! There are so many reasons to explore Arashiyama.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_47793" align="alignnone" width="600"] The magical Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama.[/caption] 5. Tempura Endo Yasaka Tempura Endo Yasaka is situated in Gion, one of Kyoto’s most famous geisha districts, and boasts not only a sublime dining space, but a rich history too. Over a century old, the sukiya-style building was once an ochaya ‘teahouse’ where geishas would party into the wee hours of the morning. Today, it welcomes diners with tempura bars, authentic tatami rooms and Japanese gardens. Kyoto-style tempura is the must-order here, ideally via its tempura tasting menu. The batter is ethereally light and crispy – which is the perfect vehicle to house locally sourced freshwater fish, mountain-grown vegetables, and its most famous dish, the sweetcorn tempura. [caption id="attachment_47794" align="alignnone" width="600"] Visit the Tempura Endo Yasaka in Gion, one of Kyoto’s most famous geisha districts.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_47795" align="alignnone" width="600"] Walk through the beautiful paths of Kyoto's Gion district.[/caption] 6. Chifaja Karasuma Bukkoji Chifaja Karasuma Bukkoji – the words ‘buffet’ and ‘All You Can Eat’ (AYCE) can sometimes be a red flag for foodies and epicureans in other parts of the world, but in Japan, it’s positively fine fare and incredibly well priced. After all, where else can you get ACYE kuroge wagyu (sourced from the Miyazaki prefecture) at around 4400 Japanese yen, or $55, for dinner? At Chifaja, you channel your inner barbecue master and grill all of your own meats, choosing from an impressive list – everything from standard cuts such as skirt and tenderloin to organ options such as heart and intestines. With over 75 items to choose from, you can also get your fill of local dishes such as choregi salad (with homemade wasabi dressing), its famous beef tendon stew and black wagyu tartare. Another pro tip: Wear your stretchy spandex pants for this feast. Osaka 7. Kuromon Ichiba Market [caption id="attachment_47796" align="alignnone" width="600"] The famous Kuromon Ichiba Market has over 30,000 visitors per day on average.[/caption] Kuromon Ichiba Market is over 100 years old but with its youthful spirit, you’d never know it. The hustle and bustle of the crowds (on average, over 30,000 visitors per day) and the boisterous energy that emanates from its friendly and smiling vendors is one of the many draws. But it’s obvious people come here for unparalleled fresh delicacies such as treasure troves of sea urchin (uni), fried Ezo abalone, freshly shucked raw oysters and whole grilled octopus. It’s ideal to come in for a wander and make a mental checklist of everything you want to eat. Queues are often inevitable but if you can avoid rush hour, it’s a more pleasant experience to visit between 2pm–4pm. Best of all, many of the stalls can prepare and cook meats and seafood for you on the spot. [caption id="attachment_47797" align="alignnone" width="600"] Kuromon Ichiba Market is stocked full with Japan's freshest delicacies.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_47798" align="alignnone" width="600"] Best of all, many of the stalls can prepare and cook meats and seafood for you on the spot.[/caption] 8. Tenka Tenka, inside the Hilton Osaka Hotel, is the best kind of teppanyaki ‘dinner and a show’ meal where chefs exhibit their deft artistry and skills as they prepare grilled dishes before your eyes. It’s also one of the more romantic date night options with the Nishi Umeda cityscape greeting you upon entry. Request a seat by the counter in front of the chefs and let your taste buds be whisked away on a multi-coursed journey of seafood and pristine meats such as kobe and wagyu. Standout creations include sautéed foie gras on braised Japanese beef cheeks; and grilled spiny lobster finished with herbal-earthy lemongrass sauce. [caption id="attachment_47800" align="alignnone" width="600"] Not only do you get superb food at Tenka, you also get stunning views of the Nishi Umeda cityscape.[/caption] 9. Olympia Olympia was made for the Gods, eating champions, and well, foodies. Located inside Hotel New Hankyu, this is another (extremely) popular AYCE spot that locals and visitors flock to. It anticipates the crowds by designating appointment cards for dining. Pro tip? Get your hotel concierge to make all arrangements and a reservation in advance so you can avoid disappointment and any potential language barriers upon arrival. It’s sensory and stomach overload, so have a sort of game plan in mind (e.g. pass on the simple salads and say yes to the sublime sashimi) and watch out for specialties that debut at certain times throughout the evening which include tuna tataki (cut and prepared straight from the massive hanging fish on display), monster salmon rolls, seafood paella and an unforgettable dessert ‘smoke and sound’ show. Tohoku [caption id="attachment_47801" align="alignnone" width="600"] The entry into the Furukawa Fish Market.[/caption] 10. Furukawa Fish Market Furukawa Fish Market (also referred to as Aomori Gyosai Center) is located in Aomori City (the northern tip of the mainland), and overlooks the stunning Sea of Japan. Here, the specialty is a seafood donburi dish called nokkedon; it is essentially a rice bowl topped with local seafood, shellfish, crab, seaweed, roe and fish. Think of the experience as a choose-your-own appetite adventure. You purchase meal tickets and exchange them for ingredients. Beginning with the ‘foundation’, white rice, from there you’re encouraged to wander and explore the vast market and fill your bowl with goodies such as Aomori’s lush scallops (a crowd-pleaser), tuna, ika menchi (squid mince), charcoal fish and crispy tempura. Hiroshima [caption id="attachment_47802" align="alignnone" width="600"] The The famous Hiroshima style Japanese savoury pancake, okonomi, is a a mouthwatering experience not to be missed.[/caption] 11. Nagataya You’ll have to forgive and overlook the fact that Nagataya is a fully fledged ‘touristy’ spot, but despite the onslaught of visitors snapping selfies here, it’s worth the wait for the famous made-to-order okonomiyaki. This beloved dish is akin to a savoury pancake with toppings of your choice. Instead of pancake batter, the bottom of the creation is composed of noodles (soba or udon) – from there, it’s layered with an endless combination of toppings and ingredients. With this spot being so popular, lines are unavoidable during rush-hour meal times but the staff here are extremely proficient at managing this. While in line, you’re given a menu to place your order prior to getting a seat. And by the time you do sit down, the fresh and hot food arrives promptly. Another of this restaurant’s clever features is the ingenious personal flat-tops provided to all diners. Because of the sheer size of the okonomiyaki (it is, perhaps, larger than your head), you couldn’t possibly eat it quick enough before it gets cold. With the sizzling flat-top, you’re welcome to enjoy at your own pace, cutting off hot, fresh pieces as you go. If it’s your first time dining here, the best choice is the obvious one – the ‘original’, which features pork, squid, shrimp and is topped with squid chips, a mountain of green onion and a raw egg on top. And if you’re feeling indulgent, add gooey cheese into the mix. [caption id="attachment_47803" align="alignnone" width="600"] There are an endless list of toppings you can have on the okonomiyaki.[/caption] Tokyo 12. Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima [caption id="attachment_47804" align="alignnone" width="600"] For a Michelin star dining experience, you must eat at Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima in Tokyo.[/caption] Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima is an intimate and welcoming restaurant, but first – you’ll have to find it. Tucked away down one of the labyrinth of streets, the one-Michelin star spot is located in a non-descript alleyway and down a flight of stairs. But once inside, you’re transported to an oasis of zen, and greeted by the master-chef himself: Sadaharu Nakajima, whose family culinary legacy stretches back to 1931, when his grandfather Teijiro Nakajima opened an eatery in Ginza. Aside from the servers, you’ll likely be the only English speaker and surrounded by a sea of locals – an excellent indication that you’re the right spot. There’s no menu, rather you’re given an omakase (meaning ‘I’ll leave it up to you’, AKA chef’s choice) multi-course experience. Everything is dictated by the seasons and what chef and his team brings in fresh from the market every day, but highlights can include supple skewers of octopus, miso-marinated salmon belly, and delicate tofu custard with seaweed. Fukuoka 13. Chikae [caption id="attachment_47805" align="alignnone" width="600"] Choose your dinner from Chikae’s rows of ikesu (tanks).[/caption] Opened in 1961, it’s a popular choice among locals for good reason: the standout feature of Chikae’s restaurant is the sprawling rows of ikesu (tanks) in the centre of the room which are literally swimming with fish, shellfish and crab. You choose your ‘catch’ and watch it transformed into ikizukuri, where chefs slice the fish and present is as sashimi at the table in its ‘original form’. In other words, it’ll look as though it jumped up out of the water and onto your plate. It really doesn’t get fresher than this. And if you truly want to channel your inner dining-daredevil at the same time, add blowfish/pufferfish (AKA fugu) to your meal. Not to worry, at most- you *may* get the mildest buzz/tingle on your tongue or lips from enjoying the fish; the poisonous components (ovaries, kidneys, skin, eyes, liver and intestines) have been skillfully removed by the chefs (who must undergo rigorous examinations to procure a licence in order to be allowed to prepare it). [caption id="attachment_47806" align="alignnone" width="600"] Dinner doesn't get fresher than this.[/caption] Planning a trip to Japan? Red our guide to everything you need to know about Japan before you go.
Hotel review: InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort
Tucked away off the coast of Cambodia lies the Vietnamese island of Phú Quoc, a hidden paradise that is set to become the next must-see destination for island lovers and experience seekers alike. Rising up from the palm-lined coast on the south-west side of Vietnam's Phú Quoc Island stands the InterContinental Phú Quoc Long Beach Resort, one of the first of many international resorts to open on the island. The design of the resort, with a 19-storey middle tower flanked by two wings that wrap around the main pool, is impressive but not imposing, thanks to an abundance of tropical plants – especially the palms and rooftop gardens that work to almost blend the resort into the natural landscape of the island. [caption id="attachment_47554" align="alignnone" width="600"] At the end of each day, everyone in the resort stops to watch the sun set over the water.[/caption] Upon arrival at the Intercontinental Phú Quoc you're met with the uniquely designed foyer of the main tower (the traditional basket boats that line the ceiling are a striking addition), and taken through to the windowless reception that opens out to give you views of the pool that seemingly stretches out to meet the sea. Details InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort Bai Truong, Duong To Ward, Phú Quoc, Kien Giang, Vietnam The room [caption id="attachment_47556" align="alignnone" width="600"] A view of one of the rooms available at the InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort.[/caption] The resort has 459 rooms, suites and villas to choose from that vary in size to cater for groups, families and couples. But three nights in the Panoramic Suite is enough to ruin you for all other accommodation. At 101 square metres, the suite features an open-plan bedroom, office, lounge and bar that connects to a large bathroom with a bath and shower, separate toilet and walk-in wardrobe. Tall glass doors open out onto your own generous-sized balcony with views of the beach to be enjoyed from your outdoor setting. [caption id="attachment_47558" align="alignnone" width="600"] The poolside Italian restaurant Ombra, is great for lunch, snack and freshly-made juices and smoothies.[/caption] It is the finer details that really make this room a standout: the sensor lights of the walk-in wardrobe, the view of the ocean from the deepest bath I have ever bathed in (complete with cushioned headrest and bath salts, of course!), the shower with sit-down bench – and multiple shower heads, and the balcony with private cabana for those days when you want to escape the other guests. Food and drink [caption id="attachment_47559" align="alignnone" width="600"] An aerial look at the resort's LAVA restaurant.[/caption] There are six restaurants and bars to choose from with a variety of different cuisines on offer. Ombra is the resort's Italian restaurant, located just beside the main pool area. You can also order fresh juices and smoothies for a lighter option; I'd recommend a mango and mint smoothie. A full buffet breakfast is served at Sora & Umi (you must go the full Vietnamese spread for breakfast at least once) and it is also a Japanese and Vietnamese restaurant at night. [caption id="attachment_47561" align="alignnone" width="600"] Watch the waves roll in as you enjoy a meal at LAVA.[/caption] For an extra special night out, you need to eat at LAVA, the resort's seafood and steak restaurant. You'll be able to watch the waves roll in from your table and dine under the stars. Then there is Sea Shack to satisfy your barbecue craving, Pearl for a fusion of international cuisines, and finally INK 360. [caption id="attachment_47562" align="alignnone" width="600"] Take the lift up to the 19th floor to find INK 360, the resort's rooftop bar.[/caption] The rooftop bar – which is the highest sky bar on the island – is the work of Australian-born interior designer, Ashley Sutton. He's famous for his Iron Fairies bar in Tokyo and The Bookshop in Bangkok, and INK 360 is the latest in his growing list of fantastical creations. The ginormous octopus tentacles that spill out from the roof to envelop the bar will have you feeling like you've stumbled upon a shipwreck floating in the sky. Make sure you're here for sunset and order a Coral Mule from mixologist Giuseppe Tronik. The cocktail is adorned with a flowery pink snow mushroom, which is guaranteed to bring in the Instagram likes. [caption id="attachment_47563" align="alignnone" width="600"] The best place to watch the sunset is at INK 360 with a cocktail in hand.[/caption] Services [caption id="attachment_47564" align="alignnone" width="600"] The Harnn Heritage Spa is an oasis of tranquility.[/caption] No island holiday is complete without a spa treatment and the HARNN Heritage Spa is a tranquil oasis of indulgence that is too good to be missed. There are eight spa treatment rooms set within individual retreats overlooking a large lagoon filled with koi fish. Try the signature bamboo stick massage – it's like a hot rock massage only better! [caption id="attachment_47566" align="alignnone" width="600"] Retreat together as a couple and indulge in one of the many luxurious treatment options at the Harnn Heritage Spa.[/caption] You'll also find four outdoor swimming pools, a 24-hour gym complete with self-defence classes, kids' clubs for all ages with certified nannies, and you can pick up food supplies from the resort's grocer Mercado (or sit down for an ice-cream, Vietnamese coffee and a snack). [caption id="attachment_47569" align="alignnone" width="600"] Cool off in one of the many pools available at the resort.[/caption] Nearby activities A holiday on Phú Quoc can be as chilled or activity-packed as you want it to be. You don't have to have a standard resort holiday with every day spent by the pool, punctuated by meals and cocktails – unless that's your jam. The island has much more to offer than nice views. Hire a catamaran and go snorkelling Of course the InterContinental has a number of activities you can book within the resort, from cooking and cocktail classes, to basket boat rides and beach yoga sessions, but you can also take a catamaran out for the day, snorkel the nearby islands and enjoy a freshly cooked seafood meal on board. [caption id="attachment_47571" align="alignnone" width="600"] Go for a ride in a traditional basket boat.[/caption] Night markets, beaches, sculptures and cable cars The bustling night markets are only a short drive away (try the warm banana and sticky coconut rice wrapped in a banana leaf), as is Sao Beach. Or better yet, hire a motorbike and make your way to the secluded Starfish Beach. You'll need to pack food, drink and sun protection and ride along sandy trails through the national park to reach the beach. You'll find a colony of red starfish sunbathing in the crystal clear waters waiting for you. Phú Quoc even has its own mini-version of Sculpture By The Sea at Sunset Sanato Beach Club. You'll find elephants on stilts coming out of the water and a large, imposing sculpture of a head sliced in two, adjoined by a doorway that visitors can walk through. [caption id="attachment_47572" align="alignnone" width="600"] The best views on the island are found on the Sun World cable car.[/caption] The island is also home to the world's longest non-stop sea cable car. The Sun World cable car connects An Thoi town on the south of the island with Hon Thom Island and it will take you 15 minutes each way. But it's the views of the pastel-coloured fishing boats that speckle the bright turquoise water below that really make this ride one to remember. [caption id="attachment_47573" align="alignnone" width="600"] The world's longest non-stop sea-crossing cable car can be found in Phu Quoc.[/caption] The IT verdict This resort has something for everyone. Families can take advantage of the first-class kids' clubs and kids' cooking classes and facilities, while couples can relax by the adult-only pools, wine and dine at the many restaurants, and splurge on indulgent spa treatments. [caption id="attachment_47568" align="alignnone" width="600"] The Harnn Heritage Spa takes care to make every detail of your time with them an indulgent experience.[/caption] Location: 9/10 More than half the island is a UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve, making it a lush green oasis that also boasts crystal-clear waters, powdery white sand and an average annual temperature of 27 degrees. It is a quick 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phú Quoc, and the resort is a 15-minute drive from the airport. It is the perfect end to a longer stay in Vietnam for those looking to relax for a few days before returning to reality. Style/character: 9/10 The style and decor of the resort can only be described as understated luxury. It seems that every detail has been designed with the sunset in mind: from the layout of the resort that aims to capture the ocean from every angle, to the rooftop bar, INK 360, on the 19th floor – which is arguably the best of many excellent places to watch the sun set over the ocean. Service: 10/10 I can't fault the service I received at this resort. Staff were kind and attentive; there is a whole office space full of staff ready and waiting to organise activities for you on the island and in the resort. Checking in and out of the resort was seamless. [caption id="attachment_47555" align="alignnone" width="600"] The view from the bathroom in resort's Panoramic Suite.[/caption] Rooms: 9/10 Nearly all rooms have views of the ocean and each accommodation type is stylishly designed with superb attention to detail and understated luxury – regardless of whether you're staying in a classic room, suite or villa. [caption id="attachment_47576" align="alignnone" width="600"] Order the El Copete (like a pisco sour) at INK 360.[/caption] Food and drink: 9/10 Incredible variety and quality: the perfect mix of Vietnamese, seafood and modern international cuisine. The architectural design of each restaurant makes dining here as much of a visual feast for the eyes as it is an edible one. [caption id="attachment_47560" align="alignnone" width="600"] Dining inside the resort's LAVA restaurant is an experience not to be missed.[/caption] Value for money: 8/10 A King Bed Resort Classic Room (without ocean views) starts at $225 a night, which is an affordable resort holiday for most. You also get a fresh fruit bowl upon arrival and complimentary access to the wi-fi, the 24-hour gym and the resort's car park throughout your stay. Getting there: Vietnam Airlines flies direct to Ho Chi Minh City from Sydney and Melbourne in under nine hours and it is an additional 45-minute flight to reach Phú Quoc Island. Spend a few nights exploring incredible Saigon before changing pace by moving on to Phú Quoc. My Dreamliner flight from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City was more than comfortable, with generous sized economy seats, excellent service and good quality food and drink. There was also a wide selection of TV shows and films onboard to choose from, including the knock-out hit, Crazy Rich Asians. Once you reach Phú Quoc you'll find taxis, cars and motorbikes for hire, and resort shuttles are available for getting around the island and to and from the airport. A new wing has recently opened at the airport, roads are being relaid and there is plenty of construction work underway in preparation for the expected influx of tourists in the coming years. Do you need more help planning your Vietnam trip? Read our guide on everything you need to know before you go.
Travel Tokyo and beyond by train: the perfect 4 day itinerary
Once you have finished exploring the Japanese capital’s endless attractions, there’s lots more to see and do just a short train ride away. With exclusive access to some of the best sights in Tokyo and beyond, Tobu Railway offers travellers a smooth and efficient journey into the heart and history of Japan’s mesmerising capital city and surrounding areas. Its trains deliver curious visitors to the Asakusa area of Tokyo, where old and new intersect, the charming old town atmosphere of Kawagoe, the stunning city of Nikko, steeped in history and tradition, and the onsens and abundant natural scenery of Kinugawa. Here, the perfect four-day itinerary for riding the rails with Tobu Railway. [caption id="attachment_47070" align="alignnone" width="600"] Toshugu Shrine is Japan's most lavishly decorated.[/caption] Day 1 – Tokyo and Kawagoe Jump on the train and head to Kawagoe, an easy 30-minute ride from Ikebukuro Station on the Tobu Tojo line. Reminiscent of an old town from the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was ruled over by the mighty Tokugawa Shogunate, the last feudal Japanese military government (the head of the government was known as the shogun), its main street is lined with kurazukuri, traditional clay-walled warehouse-style buildings. Known affectionately as ‘Little Edo’, visitors alighting Tobu Tojo line can spend the day strolling the compact city centre visiting museums, temples and shrines; don’t leave before seeing the charming Kashiya Yokocho or Penny Candy Lane, which is lined with shops selling rainbow-hued traditional lollies and sweets that make the perfect souvenir to take home. [caption id="attachment_47071" align="alignnone" width="600"] Rooftop details at Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa[/caption] Back in Tokyo, Asakusa is hugely popular with visitors and has the feel of an old town, with its historic buildings, temples and shops, many of which have been run by the same families for over 100 years. Once out of the railway station, you can’t miss the enormous red-painted Kaminari-Mon Gate; walk through it and along bustling Nakamise-dori Street, with its shops selling bright children’s toys and games and traditional sweets and treats. Eventually you’ll reach the imposing Sensoji Temple, originally built in 1649 (it was rebuilt in 1958), where locals stand silent in a fragrant fog of incense smoke to pray in front of the statue of Boddhisattva. [caption id="attachment_47072" align="alignnone" width="600"] Scale models on show at the popular Tobu World Square.[/caption] Tradition and history give way to the new and modern at Tokyo Skytree Town, a shopping and entertainment complex dominated by the 634-metre-high Skytree. There are observation decks at 350 and 450 metres; on a clear day you can see the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji standing proud in the distance, while at night the entire city of Tokyo is illuminated in bright, colourful lights. Once down from the Skytree’s lofty heights, spend some time in Tokyo Solamachi, with its 300 shops and restaurants, an aquarium, planetarium and museum. [caption id="attachment_47073" align="alignnone" width="600"] Tobu Railway’s Taiju steam train.[/caption] Day 2 – Nikko’s history Head out of Tokyo on the Tobu Railway line for the comfortable two-hour train ride north from the heart of Tokyo to Nikko. Sitting at the entrance to Nikko National Park, the city is blessed with stunning mountain scenery and has been a centre for Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries. Visitors and locals flock here to see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tosho-gu Shrine, Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine. Dating back to the early 1600s, the sprawling shrine complex is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The shrines and temples of Nikko are reached by another compelling sight, Shinkyo Bridge, ranked as one of the three finest bridges in the country. Built in 1636, visitors can now walk across the bridge after extensive restoration and renovation works. [caption id="attachment_47074" align="alignnone" width="600"] Nikko’s autumnal colours.[/caption] Spend the evening at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, a seamless blend of western and Japanese traditions and architecture. The city will also boast the luxury hot springs resort Nikko Fufu in late 2019, and the Ritz-Carlton, Nikko in 2020. Day 3 – Nikko’s nature [caption id="attachment_47075" align="alignnone" width="600"] The tranquil beauty of Lake Chuzenji.[/caption] Beyond its sprawling shrine complex, Nikko has much to offer nature lovers. The three sacred peaks of Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro, known collectively as Nikko Sanzan, that dominate the landscape of Nikko National Park have a long tradition of mountain worship; visitors can experience the area’s mystical side by trekking the mountains. Other natural wonders to seek out while visiting Nikko are the tranquil Lake Chuzenji and Kanmangafuchi Abyss, formed by the eruption of Mt. Nantai; you can experience it on a riverside walking trail, part of which is lined with some 70 stone statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who looks after the dead. Day 4 – Kinugawa From Nikko’s Shimoimaichi Station you can take the Taiju steam locomotive train to arrive in Kinugawa Onsen, the hugely popular hot spring resort town along the Kinugawa River. First head to Tobu World Square, a theme park made up of over a hundred scale models of some of the world’s most visited attractions, including UNESCO World Cultural and Heritage sites such as the Taj Mahal, the Vatican and the Pyramids at Giza. The scenes are made complete with 140,000 miniature people. [caption id="attachment_47076" align="alignnone" width="600"] Some of the 70 Jizo statues at Kanmangafuchi Abyss.[/caption] Float down the Kinugawa River on a river boat ride complete with stories of the river’s history, and finish the day by checking into one of the traditional ryokans to soak in the hot mineral waters. Tobu Railway’s Nikko Pass includes round trip trains between Tokyo (Asakusa) and Nikko, free buses in Nikko, and 20 per cent off express fares. Also receive discounts at sightseeing facilities, souvenir shops, and restaurants. To find out more visit Tobu Railway or Tobu Japan Trip.
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