Asia

Best of Asian Travel
India
The ultimate first-timers guide to India
If ever there were a destination that was larger than life, and more vibrant than the postcards can even do it justice, it would be India.   Millennia of tribal history, no less than 22 languages and countless cultures combine to make it a fabulously complex (perhaps rather trippy) place to get your head around – which, of course, is why we love it so Once you’ve enveloped yourself in this ever-moving nation of 1.2 billion people and its inextricable melange of cultures, you’ll never quite be the same again. So where to start this life-changing trip of yours? [caption id="attachment_46128" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sunsets over temples[/caption] How to get there Air India flies direct from Australian capitals, with many international carriers flying between the two countries via an Asian stopover.   Indian airports are fantastic in themselves, with Delhi claiming the spot as the sixth busiest airport in the world, while Mumbai manages a record of 969 take-offs and landings in a single day.   Meanwhile, Cochin airport is the first in the world to run entirely on solar energy – reason enough to hop down to the beautiful coconut palm-filled state of Kerala. [caption id="attachment_46129" align="alignnone" width="600"] India's magnificent views[/caption] How to get around With no less than 26 airlines servicing domestic routes within India, it’s very easy to whiz directly to where you need to go just about anywhere on the massive subcontinent.   If you stick to the air, though, you’ll miss out on some glorious other ways to travel. The Indian railway system is nothing short of incredible, its 12,000 trains carrying 23 million passengers every day through an ornate spider’s web of tracks across the country.   Eight classes of travel mean you can find exactly the experience you’ve dreamed of, from the four-bunk sociability of second-class air-conditioned overnights through to the most rarefied of luxury onboard such treasures as the Palace on Wheels or the Golden Chariot.   If you long for a chariot on only two wheels, touring India atop an iconic Royal Enfield motorbike is the quintessential way to see, feel and love this country. If you prefer four wheels, touring with a private car complete with your own driver/guide can be less expensive than you think here. Where to stay Heritage digs: It doesn’t get much more delicious than staying a while in a haveli mansion, a medieval fort or even a real palace, replete with bejewelled walls and soaring dining rooms, and India offers this kind of experience everywhere. In Rajasthan, the colourful and popular desert state, there seems to be almost a palace in every town; the family-run Deogarh and super-luxe Samode are both worth every penny when you stop for a night (or three), while the Jagat Niwas Palace gazes directly over Udaipur’s famous lake (and Lake Palace). Cosmopolitan chic: Modern architecture in India’s capitals is even more awe inspiring when you get to stay within it. Every perfect curve and pillar is yours to enjoy at the thoroughly beautiful Roseate in Delhi, or get spoiled in the classically plush Leela Palace hotels, spanning from Chennai to Bengaluru, Udaipur and of course, Delhi. Eco luxe: Stay in a luxury tree house on a tiger reserve at Lemon Tree Wildlife Resort Bandhavgarh or in a beachside eco-village of bungalows at The Dune in Puducherry; out in the Andaman Islands, quench your thirst on fresh rain- and springwater in an elegant thatch tent amidst the rainforest at Barefoot at Havelock Resort.   Some must-sees The Taj Mahal is beyond a must-see – it’s a part of India’s very soul. Getting out of bed before sunrise will all be worth it if you witness this shining marble edifice at its best, at dawn.   The holy city of Varanasi has sat augustly upon the river Ganges for over 5000 years, and the sacred waterway continues to be the centre of life here. From births to deaths, blessings to prayers, the ghats are alive with humanity and their rites 24 hours a day, and must be seen to be believed.   Sikkim is far beyond the beaten path, high in the Himalayas and barely attached to the rest of the country, but its unique culture and breathtaking vistas put it high on any list. Take a yak safari, go paragliding through the world’s most famed mountain range, or just meditate in a breezy, open-air monastery.   Amer Fort exemplifies the vast Rajasthani forts that have marked the desert through this state’s millennia of royal history. Once you have marvelled at its length and breadth, some of the region’s best dining can be had in the rooftop restaurant, and the son et lumiere evening performance is the perfect finish. Some must-dos The Pushkar camel fair brings countless tribespeople, herdsmen and pilgrims to do business, dance, sing, compete, pray, socialise and trade their 30,000-odd camels. Watch circus performers, sit and sip chai with other visitors and attempt to chat amongst the dozens of languages and dialects filling the air, and bargain in the crowded markets.   Travelling by boat – especially houseboat – through the silent canals and waterways of tropical Kerala is an essential experience for anyone needing a deep breath, and especially a deep dive into the everyday life of the people here. You’ll witness the flow of village life from a unique angle as you drift by.   An epic journey by rail is an unforgettable experience. The longest train journey in India, the Vivek Express, covers an incredible 4,273 kilometres; if you’re not quite up for that 85-hour epic, the Grand Truck Express covers more than 2,000 kilometres cross-country, from New Delhi to Chennai
Goa, India
The essential guide to Goa: the fascinating seaside state of India
Where the Indian subcontinent meets the warm Arabian Sea, nestled subtly between the relative behemoth states of Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka to the south and east, you’ll find India’s gorgeously laid-back, sometimes a little cheeky, and utterly fascinating smallest state: Goa.   It is a meeting place in so many more ways than mere geography. It is where the western ways and architecture of the Portuguese and British have fused with everyday Indian life; where history and ancient culture is melded with modern traditions such as meeting for sundowners on the sand; where generations-old recipes are transformed into on-trend eats and world-famous dishes; and where its famed coastline of beach upon beach forms a golden thread, tying it all together. [caption id="attachment_46121" align="alignnone" width="600"] How many perfect sunsets can you get?[/caption] History The irresistible scent of spices (and subsequent riches) lured the Portuguese across the seas around 1500AD, leading to an astonishing 450-odd years of colonisation under Portuguese rule, interrupted only by brief British occupation from 1799 to 1813, and only finally ended in 1961. During the height of Portuguese influence, Goa would have more closely resembled Lisbon, or perhaps Brazil or Macau, than it would its Indian sisters Mumbai or Delhi.   [caption id="attachment_46122" align="alignnone" width="600"] Oozing with history[/caption]   Now that Goa is safe back in the arms of Mother India, its European personality has blended quite uniquely with the countless other influences that have been thrown into this fabulous cultural crossroads. In any day, you might tour the 15th-century Basilica of Bom Jesus (housing the remains of St Francis Xavier, no less), munch on the local bhali-pau (bread roll and curry), shop a hippie market in Anjuna and then dance the night away in what is rated the sixth-best nightlife capital of the world. Don’t miss a heritage walk of the charming Latin Quarter of Fontainhas, and a visit to the state’s oldest fort at remarkable Reis Magos. Beach Every kilometre of Goan coastline meets the sea in spectacular fashion, with almost entirely uninterrupted beach in many sections. This article may tell you about Goa three ways, but the truth is, Goa interprets beach life about a thousand ways: whether you’re looking for a weathered hammock under a palm tree or perfectly swept sands fronting five stars of resort luxury, you’ll find it in (beach) spades. Spiritual seekers come for the sunrise yoga and meditation retreats; Insta-influencers adore the perfection of the beachside bungalows of Turtle Hill, or Brangelina’s favourite flop at Elsewhere in Mandrem; history buffs fall in love with the wonderfully preserved treasures of Ponda and Old Goa, the inspiring temples and mosques such as Mangeshi Temple and 450-year-old Shri Mangesh, Bollywood-famous Chapora Fort and the must-see Fort Aguada, and stay in the opulently converted fort at Fort Tiracol. But then everyone seems to end up, sooner or later, on the beaches themselves. The ‘queen of beaches’, Calangute Beach, is an endless parade of watersports, shopping, eateries, and unbeatable people-watching. Baga Beach is similarly non-stop, while Anjuna Beach adds a hippie vibe and some particularly sensational market shopping. For the perfect quiet, tucked-away oasis of your dreams, try Ashwem or Arossim beaches – the latter has a couple of beach shacks with cold beer, great seafood and killer views as you watch the sun sink into the waves. [caption id="attachment_46123" align="alignnone" width="600"] Go on, dip your toes in![/caption] Food Forget everything you think you know about Indian food and fall in love all over again with the gastronomic marvels of Goa. It was spices that made Goa the mixing pot it is today, and it’s spices that manage to bring together Indian ingredients with Portuguese traditions, Catholic cuisines with Hindi necessities, and make it all sing.   Fish and seafood are everywhere, befitting this coastal location and also pleasing both Hindi and Catholic sensibilities. However, the Portuguese wine that has flavoured their own cuisine for centuries has morphed into more sensible options here in India, with fermented coconut toddy (vinegar), Portuguese acrid lime, peppercorns and the southern Indian staple, tamarind, all adding a very particular tartness and depth of flavour in its place. You’ll also find a range of local sausage specialties, and a delicious obsession with cashews and cashew paste flavouring local dishes from corner holes-in-the-wall through to five-star kitchens.   [caption id="attachment_46124" align="alignnone" width="600"] Never have a bad meal again[/caption]   For top-shelf, occasion dining, the global-but-exotic menu at Go With the Flow in Baga is always a solid recommend, or pour on the Portuguese charm at The Verandah, Alfama or Nostalgia. On the other hand, put at least a mealtime or more aside to experience the famous Goan fish thali served at most beach shacks up and down the coastline. Follow the crowds to the best ones – they always know.  
Raw Egg on Rice with Natto
7+ unusual foods you should try in Japan
A brief guide to all of the weird and wonderful dishes you can try during a visit to Japan. Japan is undoubtedly a country that has a plethora of delicious foods to suit any taste.   Each prefecture boasts its own variety of rich local ramen and curry. Nationally, yakitori bars waft heady cedar-filled smoke down laneways and you can find the freshest sushi and sashimi everywhere, even on top of a mountain.   Japan is also infamous for its unusual food options. Foods that make a lot of westerners cringe or downright feel ill at the thought of.   Since variety is the spice of life, here are some of the ‘weirder’ foods you can tickle your taste buds with while travelling Japan.   Disclaimer: To reduce food-related health risks we recommend seeking out trusted restaurants and establishments that are serviced by qualified professionals. Avoid eating street food that has been sitting unattended or from a vendor with little trade. Ordering raw meat from restaurants that do not specialise in the cuisine is not recommended.   Torisashi (chicken sashimi) [caption id="attachment_45986" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Have you been served raw chicken in Japan? That would be Torisashi (chicken sashimi).[/caption] A dish that is guaranteed to evoke shock and horror from friends and family at home is chicken sashimi. With cries of “what about salmonella?” ringing in your ears, it can be a confronting first bite. Fresh chicken sashimi shouldn’t have an odour or strong taste about it at all.   Where and when can I get it? A traditional dish of the Kagoshima prefecture, torisashi can be found in almost any izakaya in the region. However, it is gaining popularity in cities such as Osaka and Tokyo and can also be easily found in the Kyushu and Okayama regions. No matter where you get it due to the preparation required in serving non-fish sashimi (i.e. getting it fresh), it’s worthwhile to track down a restaurant that specialises in it rather than leaving it to chance.   Pro tip: It’s not just chicken breast that is available to eat raw. A restaurant with a chicken sashimi menu will also likely serve the organs as such. If you’re game. Natto The easiest to find, and possibly the most divisive ‘unusual food’. Natto is a stringy, sticky and slimy fermented soybean dish that is most commonly eaten for breakfast. The odour is pungent (think stinky socks) and the flavour lands somewhere between off cottage cheese and salty rotten beans.   Where and when can I get it? Natto can be found year-round in most convenience stores (often in a hand roll or tub), in buffet breakfasts and many cafes all over Japan.   Pro tip: Natto on rice for breakfast, with a dash of soy, mustard and pickles, is a popular way to eat it. Yakitori entrails [caption id="attachment_45989" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Swap your standard chicken breast skewer for a Yakitori intestine or liver.[/caption] The Japanese rarely waste any part of the animal and readily consume flavourful cuts of offal over the fillets that western cultures prefer. Yakitori liver, tongue, hearts, knee joints and intestine are offered alongside belly and breast and are grilled to perfection.   Where and when can I get it? Yakitori bars are popular nationwide. It’s worthwhile trying them everywhere as variety and cuts differ from location and season.   Pro tip: Horumon (horumonyaki) made exclusively from beef or pork offal is available in dedicated restaurants and is considered good for stamina and energy in the bedroom. Wink wink. Fugu (pufferfish) Fugu is a delicacy, and only available during the winter months. It is eaten for its delightfully unusual taste, high level of collagen and is considered great for anti-ageing. So long as the poisonous parts (mainly organs) aren’t consumed as they contain the deadly toxin ‘tetrodotoxin’, to which there is no known antidote.   Since 1958 chefs have been required to undergo a rigorous apprenticeship to obtain a license to prepare and sell fugu to the public. These days, cases of Fugu poisoning are rare (but not unheard of) with most occurring through amateur preparation.   Where and when can I get it? Winter (end of December to March). Fugu is widely available however there are many restaurants in Kyoto that specialise in the dish.   Pro tip: There are many strange fishes available only in the winter months in Japan. Try to track down ‘Anko’ also known as Anglerfish in Tokyo and the seaside prefectures, it’s the deep sea fish with the light on its head to attract prey. Batta or inago (grasshopper) The fact that grasshoppers symbolise good luck doesn’t stop them being fried and eaten. Considered pests that eat rice crops, they are a popular cooked in soy and eaten as an afternoon snack, where the crunchy texture pairs beautifully with an iced tea or beer.   Where and when can I get it? The Nagano prefecture is considered mecca for finding edible insects however, rice grasshoppers are available widely at bars and restaurants.   Pro tip: Other popular insects to try are zazamushi (stonefly larvae), hachinoko (bee larvae) and inago no tsukudani (boiled locusts), mainly in Nagano. Basashi (raw horse meat) High in vitamins and low in fat content, raw horse meat is usually served cold along with soy sauce, garlic, and wasabi or nigiri sushi style. It is considered a health food and has been eaten for more than 400 years.   Where and when can I get it? Horsemeat is available both raw and cooked in barbecue, wagyu and sushi restaurants across the country – I stumbled across horse meat nigiri in a Tokyo sushi train. However, the regions of Nagano, Oita and Kumamoto are famed for their ‘basashi’ (raw sushi style); Kumamoto boasting a ‘cherry blossom’ basashi, named for its intense red colouring and flavour.   Pro tip: Such lean meat requires fine preparation so as not to become tough or chewy. Paper thin slices of sashimi delicately fall apart on the tongue and are the recommended dish to order. Mystery Snacks [caption id="attachment_46010" align="alignnone" width="600"] Pick up a hot soup or coffee in the many vending machines around Japan.[/caption] With a store on almost every corner, it’s worth exploring the aisles or perusing vending machines for snacks to test your bravery. Along with chips, ice-creams and soft drinks you can find dried crabs, wasabi cheese and a lucky dip of mystery meats.   It’s hard to walk past the array of hot soups and energy coffees in vending machines without getting curious as to the (often surprising) taste.   Where and when can I get it? Vending machines and convenience stores are everywhere. Even on the ski fields. You’re never far from a snack adventure.   Pro tip: Don’t try to translate what’s on the packet. It’s far more fun to sip it and see if you can work out what you’re eating by taste!   It would be an extremely long list indeed to include all of the weird and wonderful foods available across Japan. These are a great starting point for extending your bravery and palate into the unusual.   If you're planning a trip to Japan make sure you check out our Japan travel guide, so you can read up on the very best the country has to offer!
Chinoike Jigoku
Japan’s gorgeous hidden gem Ōita
Let the sights of Tokyo be your starting off point on a journey to discover the hidden gem of Ōita.   Getting from A to B in Japan is ridiculously easy – there are trains and planes dashing this way and that constantly, linking compelling cities, regions and islands that each possess traditions and culture that beg to be experienced. Ōita is one such place, an undiscovered gem nestled on the island of Kyushu. To get the best of both worlds, stay a few days in the Japanese capital of Tokyo, searching out interesting neighbourhoods and unique experiences, before jumping on a plane for the approximately 90-minute flight into Ōita Airport (ANA and JAL both have regular flights). Here, the perfect itinerary for four days of discovery.   Day 1 Start your exploration of Tokyo by strolling the pavements of Kappabashi Dougu Street (located between Asakusa and Ueno, both accessible by train), also known as Kitchen Street. As the name implies this roughly 800-metre long thoroughfare is lined with around 170 stores selling all manner of kitchen utensils, gadgets and gizmos, as well as shops offering up sweets, treats and essential ingredients. After wandering past everything from woks to coffee pots to chopsticks, pick up a souvenir from one of the jam-packed ceramics shops that are stacked with bowls and cups finished in lovely traditional colours including blue and white, greens and browns. If you walk to Chomeiji Temple you can taste sweet and sticky sakura mochi – pretty pink concoctions wrapped in salted cherry tree leaves and filled with bean paste (30 minutes from Kappabashi Dougu street). Tokyo- (Kanto) style mochi is smooth and round while the Kyoto (Kansai) variety has a grainier texture; both are delicious. After a morning of walking it is time for a lunch of fresh sushi. To really appreciate the effort and craft that goes into making this national favourite, head to Hassan in Roppongi (just a few minutes’ walk from the station) for a hands-on sushi-making experience: don a traditional happi coat (a traditional short robe), learn the history of sushi, get a live demonstration of how fish is prepared before making your own rolled sushi and nigiri sushi, which you can then enjoy with a beef hot pot (you’ll also take home a sushi experience certificate). Finish off the day at Ameyoko, a bustling shopping street once famous for selling candy but that now also has clothes, shoes and food shops for trying popular snacks among the locals. The narrow alley has an impressive history but is also a reflection of modern Tokyo life, where throngs of locals come to eat great food and have fun.   [caption id="attachment_45511" align="alignnone" width="600"] The bustling shopping street of Ameyoko[/caption] Day 2 First thing this morning you will need to head to Haneda Airport (it’s an easy train ride straight into the airport) for your short flight south to Ōita, on the island of Kyushu. Jump in a Limousine Bus for the roughly 30-minute journey to Kitsuki from Ōita Airport, a town possessing the authentic feel of the Edo Period (it is recognised as a ‘historic cityscape with kimono’). Dominated by Kitsuki Castle, there’s a collection of historic samurai residences dotted on the hills to the north and south of it and a merchant’s town sitting in between. You can dress up in a kimono while you’re here (they can be hired for around 3000 yen), which gains you free admission to local sights, discounted meals and little gifts at local shops. Having soaked up the history of Kitsuki, it’s time to continue your journey to Usa Jingū, the sacred main sanctum of more than 40,000 Hachiman shrines that are dotted throughout Japan. The main hall here has been designated a National Treasure and its colour and history make for a fascinating visit. The Usa area of Kunisaki peninsula, including Usa Jingū, is the birthplace of ‘Rokugo Manzan’, the cultural fusion of Shinto and Buddhism. You’ll find spectacular temples in the area and this year marks the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Usa Jingū. Check into an onsen hotel in Beppu, where you’ll find seven out of 10 types of Medical Treatment Hot Springs and a modern take on a traditional Japanese aesthetic. Don’t miss the opportunity to take a bath in the onsen to soothe your mind and body after a busy day exploring. Day 3 Today, head to the Usuki Stone Buddhas (approx. 80 minutes by JR and bus), a group of stone Buddhas created from the late Heian (794-1185) period to the Kamakura period (1185-1333), of which 61 are designated National Treasures. Wander the different collections of Buddhas – they are divided into four groups – appreciating the scale, quantity and incredible quality of the statues, as well as the peaceful beauty of the surroundings.   We recommend an izakaya (pub) for a dinner of fresh seafood, and an extensive selection of sake to choose from. Back at your hotel in Beppu, make the time for another bath in the onsen. Day 4 The seismic activity that has been warming your onsen water for the last few nights also produces a totally unique tour that you should take before leaving Ōita: Beppu jigoku meguri or the hell tour. There are seven hells in all where fumaroles and boiling hot water erupt from the ground; the evocative Umi Jigoku (sea hell), Chinoike Jigoku (blood pond hell), Tatsumaki-Jigoku (tornado hell) and Shiraike Jigoku (white pond hell) are among them, all of which have been designated as National Scenic Spots for their fantastical colours and formations. Next it is time to take buses back to Ōita Airport for the flight back to Tokyo. Do some last-minute shopping here for specialty souvenirs and food from across Ōita and Kyushu to remember your experiences of this quintessential Japanese gem.     For more details, visit kyushuandtokyo.org
Sushi Japan
Japan: a feast for all senses
The sheer depth and intricacy of Japanese cuisine, from regional classics like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki comfort food to Michelin-starred chefs’ takes on tempura, can make navigating the dining landscape here as bewildering as perusing the menu at a Tokyo sushi bar.  Japan: a feast for all the senses.   Here, your handy guide to the best of Japan’s unique food and drink.   ***Advertising content by  Japan National Tourism Organization***   Eating your way around Japan is the ultimate feast for all the senses. Whether you’re plucking a perfectly sliced, translucent pink piece of sashimi off a delicate ceramic dish, marvelling at dizzying rows of delicately colourful sweet treats, or merrily clinking cold beers over a steaming bowl of ramen in a lively izakaya, one thing quickly becomes apparent: when it comes to food, like all things, the Japanese do not do things by halves. From an emphasis on fresh local produce, to samurai-worthy knife skills, to creating a painstakingly perfect ambience, no stone is left unturned in the quest to create magical food memories for the lucky diner. Why not make it you? CULT FAVOURITES Japanese cuisine has spread to foodies all over the globe, but arguably, there’s no better place to seek out your cult favourites than in their homeland: and Tokyo’s the perfect place to start. At Sushi-Bar Numazuko Ginza 1st, in the upmarket Ginza shopping area, you’ll find a winning trifecta of Japanese icons: sushi, conveyor belts, and sake. Showcasing fresh seasonal seafood (try the sea urchin, piled up in the shape of another icon: Mt Fuji), this fun and reasonably priced little gem is a great mid-shop stop. For an unforgettable dinner, tempura fans should make a beeline for Michelin-starred Tempura Motoyoshi, where fresh vegetables, seafood and other ingredients are treated to the wizardry of master chef Kazuhiro Motoyoshi in an elegant, intimate setting. Forget pale (or soggy) imitations – this is the real deal: impossibly light and crispy, the tempura perfectly showcases the stunning natural flavours of the produce.   DRINK IT ALL IN Japan’s two most famed beverages offer visitors a chance to imbibe a sense of the culture behind them, as well as the drinks themselves. At Sudo Honke, a family brewery in Obara, Ibaraki (north-east of Tokyo), the region’s pristine waters have been used for over 800 years to create exceptional sake. Take a tour of the brewery, surrounded by ancient trees, soaking up age-old traditions as you sample some of the finest sake in Japan. Back in Tokyo, the sophistication of the Ginza shopping district carries through to Higashiya Ginza’s charming blend of ancient tradition and modern sensibility. This beautifully designed confectionary shop and tea salon offers over 30 varieties of green tea and a selection of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), all aimed at celebrating seasonal influences. FUN FEASTS Yes, there are plenty of serene settings in which to appreciate the subtle beauty of Japanese cuisine. But families (and general fun-loving foodies) might also be surprised by the number of lively dining experiences dished up all around the country. In Hiroshima, head for Okonomiyaki Nagataya, where national comfort food okonomiyaki (a savoury, thick pancake packed with vegetables, seafood or meat, topped with inimitable Japanese mayonnaise and tangy sauce) is made in the unique local style. Choose your favourite fillings, and your personal creation will be cooked to order on the tabletop frying surface. In Kyoto, Fire Ramen Menbakaichidai delivers on its name, dishing up moreish soy-flavoured, spring onion-laden ramen noodles on an impressive pillar of fire, thanks to the chef’s technique of pouring burning oil over the dish to draw out extra flavour. It’s the perfect pit stop after a day exploring Kyoto’s nearby Nijo Castle. And back in Tokyo, search for the retro-style izakaya (Japanese-style pub) Manpuku Shokudo, nestled under train tracks and clad in old film posters – a bustling setting for eating, drinking and being merry amongst locals letting off steam after work.   FRENCH FINE DINING GOES EAST French and Japanese cuisine may (literally) be worlds apart, but they share a reverence for subtle sophistication, and the elevation of excellent produce by highly skilled master chefs. Joel Robuchon Restaurant, located in a ‘chateau’ in Ebisu, Tokyo, boasts no fewer than three Michelin stars; its ethos of ‘cuisine actuelle’ focuses on letting the ingredients shine through, with sublime service, plush decor and all the requisite top-notch trappings. Further north, French fine dining restaurant Michel Bras Toya Japon will take your breath away with its gorgeously plated odes to Mother Nature, all served up in a stunning elevated setting overlooking the mountainous blue expanse of Hokkaido’s Lake Toya – a truly unforgettable experience.   To explore more of Japan’s delicious bounty, visit ‘Enjoy my Japan’, where you’ll find videos and stories showcasing Japan’s deep traditions, its kaleidoscope of cuisines, the excitement and energy of its cities, a surprising depth of nature and breadth of outdoor adventures, a heritage of fine art, and beautiful destinations for simple relaxation. www.enjoymyjapan.jp
Everything you need to know about Yala National Park
Prior to its inauguration as a national park in 1938, Sri Lanka’s Yala wilderness was a shooting gallery for the ruling British elite, who sought trophies of its plentiful leopards and elephants. Sitting in the south of the tear-drop-shaped island and abutting the Indian Ocean, today Yala’s wildlife is shot by thousands of photographers a year instead; it’s by far the country’s most popular national park, and for good reason: it’s the best place on the planet to spot leopards, with the highest concentration of the cat in the world.   But there’s so much more to the 1268 square kilometres of protected space, including important archaeological sites and temples, families of Asian elephants, an endless stream of birdlife and simply a vast and varied landscape of forests, scrub and dramatic mesas rising from the jungle. [caption id="attachment_45184" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Yala combines a strict nature reserve with a national park[/caption] So if you’re holidaying on one of the country’s golden beaches – tear yourself away for a couple of days and witness the best of Sri Lanka’s rich and varied natural wonders.   Yala is divided into five blocks plus a Strict Nature Reserve to maintain a pristine area in the face of tourism and other activity. Blocks 1 and 5 are set aside for the public to visit, with Block 1 by far the busiest (see below). Blocks 2, 3 and 4 are more rugged and remote and far less visited requiring permits to enter. Must-see sights Don’t make the mistake of simply going on a safari to spot the park’s big animals, there’s so much more to Yala if you have a few days to explore, from ancient temples to its vast beach lining the Indian Ocean. [caption id="attachment_45185" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Pre-book your safari with a trusted source., this can save you whole lot of time and trouble[/caption] Kumbuk River The park is bordered in the north by the Kumbuk River, and you can stay at KumbukRiver Eco-Extraordinaire lodge situated on its banks to see an entirely different corner of Yala, the lowland forest giving way to dense jungle. There are a range of accommodation options available, some with views of the roaring Kumbuk a stone’s throw away.   Plus try river rafting, guided bird-watching and walks into the wilds of Yala’s buffer zone. Beach time Turn your time in Yala National Park into an unashamed beach holiday. A long stretch of golden sand marks its border with the Indian Ocean and there are ample beach huts, and beachside villas to choose from to use as your base for your expeditions into the park.   The luxury Wild Coast Tented Lodge would be a good choice, its arched fabric structures set among the dunes and designed to channel the shape of a leopard’s paw. Elephant Rock At times in Yala National Park you could be on the set of a King Kong film, dense forest stretching off into the horizon only to be abruptly stopped by an enormous lone-standing mountain.   [caption id="attachment_45187" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Driving off into the sunset[/caption] Elephant Rock (pictured main) is the most photogenic of these, the huge mesas looking like an old bull elephant marching across a plain. Sithulpawwa Buddhism has been prevalent in Sri Lanka since the third century BC and Yala happens to have a great example of an early cave temple (pictured above) dating back to the second century BC; rare paintings on the temple walls from this time still remain.   Sithulpawwa’s caves sit below a white stupa and once housed thousands of arhats – monks thought to have achieved enlightenment. A conservation effort Tourism can be a strong force for good, bringing money to the local economy which helps monetise a natural asset, an incentive to keep it in tip-top shape so people will want to come in the first place.   But too many visitors can adversely affect the environment. Since the country’s civil war came to an end in 2009, tourists have flocked back to Sri Lanka and Yala: 43,368 visited the park in 2008 compared to 658,277 in 2016.   It’s meant a problematic number of safari jeeps entering the park, something the Sri Lankan government is looking to address, and should have remedied earlier if it hadn’t become such a political football. [caption id="attachment_45186" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Elephants roam their natural habitat[/caption] However, an action plan has been drawn up to be implemented before 2020. Its various measures include improving safari-jeep-driver discipline; reducing the numbers of tourists concentrated in the busy Block 1 of the park (see map) by opening up other blocks; and zoning Block 1 itself to disperse jeeps throughout in an orderly fashion. Animal Spotting Yala is a haven for big mammals, a rare sight in Asia outside of national parks big enough to accommodate them. Thankfully this is one of them. Sri Lankan flying snake With yellow and black bands, and red spots, you’ll be lucky to catch this striking snake gliding between trees.   It expands its ribs to flatten its body to soar across the canopy looking for small lizards to dine on; the stuff of nightmares for some, for others a rare photo opportunity. Sloth bear The Sri Lankan sloth bear is a dishevelled-looking shaggy character sporting a yellow crest on its chest, a lot like the sun bears found on the continent. Strong climbers, they dine on insects and fruit, and they’re very shy, emerging at dusk.   Yala represents one of the best places to spot them. Leopard The star of the show, it’s said there are around 30 leopards roaming around the most popular section of the park, meaning you have an increased chance of laying eyes on this reclusive big cat.   [caption id="attachment_45189" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Including Sri Lankan leopards, 44 species of mammals are resident in Yala National Park[/caption] The leopards are actually a subspecies endemic to Sri Lanka, so you’ll be ticking off an extremely rare animal indeed. Asian elephant It’s a life-affirming experience to see families of Sri Lankan elephants, a subspecies of Asian elephant, roaming the expanse of Yala, with over 300 calling the park home.   Sri Lanka is thought to have the world’s highest density of Asian elephants, which are under massive pressure from habitat loss in other parts of Asia.
Indochina Insider Journeys
The insiders guide to Indochina
A lot can happen in 25 years, especially in an incredible place like the Indochina region, yet this is the amount of time Insider Journeys has pioneered travel here. They continue to give travellers the opportunity to experience some of the world’s yet-to-be explored and less-understood places, helping travellers to both create and immerse themselves in unique experiences and help build memories that are fit to last a lifetime. You may be itching to experience the energy of a vibrant city like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), explore the ancient temples of Cambodia, cruise the Mekong Delta, relax on a tropical beach or do all the above; if so, Insider Journeys’ selection of Small Group Journeys, private tours, short stays and river cruises can give you genuine insights into these fascinating and immensely diverse destinations. Get Authentic From majestic monuments to the hidden charms of city backstreets, you can taste authentic cuisine, reach remote villages and enjoy meaningful and genuine interactions with local people in amazing destinations such as Sri Lanka, Japan, India Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China. When you join an Insider Journeys Small Group Journey, you discover not only the ‘must-see’ sights and hidden treasures of Asia, but also the ideal way to explore these destinations. These itineraries give you the chance to relax and enjoy your journey, led by expert guides who take care of everything while still allowing you to retain a sense of spontaneity, flexibility and a ready sense of independence. Private Eyes If travelling in a small group isn’t your style, then the range of ‘Ready to Book’ Private Journeys designed by Insider Journeys’ team of passionate Asia experts could be what you’ve been looking for. Every itinerary includes the must-see highlights and genuine experiences of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From  the moment your trip begins, a Private Journey provides a seamless travel experience and all transport is included in your journey, be it by air, land or sea.  All experiences are designed with you in mind, and if you can’t find what you need, the team can even tailor-make an itinerary especially for you. The Details Insider Journeys 2019-2020 Small Group and Private Journeys brochures are available now. Call 1300 365 355, visit insiderjourneys.com.au or contact your travel agent.
How to see a side of Japan that tourists are yet to discover
Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima – the Japanese golden route. It’s a trail many have completed, and one many aim to complete during their lifetime. And while there is definitely room for exploring Japan’s epicentre (a 450 per cent increase over the past five years doesn’t lie), a recent journey through the country’s more authentic side highlights just how much more there is to discover.   Despite the staggering rise in foreign tourists, relatively little has been done so far to make travellers aware of alternative destinations, with a continued fixation on commercialised travel spots.   Tokyo-based startup tour operator Heartland JAPAN is leading the way in the exploration of sustainable travel destinations, positioning itself as the oh-so-necessary provider for inbound visitors wishing to journey off the beaten track.   Not only will opening up these regions reignite local economies, but it will also assist in reversing the effects of depopulation and urbanisation, with the hopeful result of revitalising these communities.   If you’re like me, and you get your travel kicks from discovering vast and varied natural, historical and cultural alternatives that aren’t plagued with tourists, there are two Heartland JAPAN tours you need to discover ASAP. Allow me to take you through them. TOUR 1: Mt Aso, Kumamoto At the heart of Japan’s most southwesterly island of Kyushu sits the Kumamoto Prefecture.   If you haven’t heard of it, fear not, neither had I. And the Japanese are quick to forgive you, eager to open their arms wide for foreigners keen to discover just how incredible their little untouched pocket of the world is. Kumamoto City Your tour begins in Kumamoto.   Whilst Kyushu’s modern day capital is Fukuoka, situated in the north, historically Kyushu was governed from Kumamoto city.   [caption id="attachment_45084" align="alignleft" width="600"] A traditional seafood dinner in Kumamoto city.[/caption] For those who haven’t dusted up on their samurai history prior to the tour, Futaenotouge Pass is a portion of the Bungo Circuit, a historic trail used by the feudal lords of the Kumamoto Domain to travel to Tokyo, in a practice known as sankin-kotai.   Following this exploration (and plenty of time to stop and marvel at the landscape’s rolling hills) you’ll make the 90-minute private car journey to the main event: Aso. Mt Aso For me, there are a number of things that draw me to any country. The people, food, culture – but one of the most significant is the chance to marvel in a natural beauty that is unlike anywhere else I have seen. And for me, Mt Aso is high on the list of my favourites.   [caption id="attachment_45080" align="alignleft" width="600"] The craters of Mt Aso resemble a space-like texture.[/caption]   Mt Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan, and is among the largest in the world. And among it lives five peaks: Mt Neko, Mt Taka, Mt Naka (also called Nakadake or Naka-Dake), Mt Eboshi, and Mt Kishima.   Nakadake hosts a spectacular crater, stretching 24 kilometres from north to south and 18 kilometres from east to west. Within it lives an active volcano that emits smoke at all hours of the day.   [caption id="attachment_45081" align="alignleft" width="600"] Nakadake hosts a spectacular crater which stretching 24 kilometres from north to south.[/caption] In fact, it emits so much toxic smoke that many tourists find themselves turned away from visiting, depending on the ever-changing wind directions. We were lucky, I hope you are too. Waita Onsen Village If you take one thing from this article, I hope it’s that the Kumamoto Prefecture offers many things that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Among them is the Waita Onsen Village, located in Oguni.   With its collection of six hot springs located at the base of the 1500-metre-tall Mt Waita, the village overlooks Kumamoto and Oita prefectures.   Looking around, you wouldn’t be wrong to think you were on the set of a blockbuster Hollywood movie, complete with million-dollar smoke machines as far as the eye can see.   What you would be witnessing (and smelling), however, is a natural phenomenon whereby gushing steam from the surrounding volcano punctures the ground and fills the skies.   [caption id="attachment_45082" align="alignleft" width="600"] The Waita Onsen village is one of the steamiest places in all of Japan.[/caption] Walking around the sleepy rural town, it’s hard to see a square metre of land untouched by steam. And the locals, they make use of it. On the tour, you will be invited inside one of the villagers’ homes, where you can view, and participate in, a unique hot spring cooking experience.   The fuming hot steam serves as a means of heating up just about anything. From fish to vegetables, most residents house a smoke vent for culinary purposes. [caption id="attachment_45083" align="alignleft" width="600"] Locals brewing vegetables using steam from the village.[/caption] Kagura Performances During your tour with Heartland JAPAN you will experience a private Kagura performance at a local theatre.   Kagura is thought to be among the oldest traditional performing arts in the country, with an origin tracing back to ancient mythology.   [caption id="attachment_45085" align="alignleft" width="600"] A colourful Kagura performance.[/caption] It is originally said to be performed for Shinto dieties in an attempt to welcome and entertain, performed only by Shinto priests to thank them for abundant crops.   In contemporary Japan, however, the vibrant dances and garments are widely performed to the enjoyment of the public.   Experiencing these performances firsthand is unlike anything I have ever seen. The costumes, dramatics and even stamina of these performers is really unparalleled – it’s crazy to think they’re amateurs. TOUR 2: Yamaguchi Prefecture  Due to its rich history which spans nearly 700 years, Yamaguchi is the perfect place to explore with experts.   Yamaguchi is renowned throughout Japan for its impressive 300-year history and its ties to the Meiji Revolution.   While sitting as the seat of the powerful Ouchi lords, Yamaguchi grew as a rival to the war-torn capital of Kyoto during periods of Japanese conflict. As a result, the city grew in popularity as the ‘Kyoto of the West’ and many of its smaller cities have come to resemble the eastern hotspots many travellers know and love. Exploring Tsuwano With old samurai mansions, dark red roof tiles, wooden grated windows and koi carp fish,  Tsuwano is a bustling, pleasant town at the western edge of Shimane Prefecture.   Walking through Tsuwano is a blissful experience: peaceful mountains envelop the town and its surrounds. It has an energy of ancient Japan, alongside a contemporary atmosphere that allows it to not feel dated.   The town was built around the Tsuwano Castle in the early 14th century, and while the structure does not exist anymore, several business and samurai residences still remain in their original locations. You are also able to visit the castle ruins, accessible by chairlift.   Spend your time walking down Honmachi and Tonomachi avenues, memorable for their cobblestone streets dotted with established sake breweries, folk craft shops and Japanese sweetshops. The Shinto Shrine Yamaguchi is also celebrated for housing the Taikodani Inari Shrine, one of the five most significant Inari shrines in Japan.   [caption id="attachment_45086" align="alignleft" width="600"] The shinto shrine overlooks Tsuwano.[/caption] The site was built in the mid-18th century in close proximity to Tsuwano Castle, with the aim of driving away evil spirits and bringing in good luck.   Today, vermillion-lacquered Torii gates are erected over a long series of stairs leading up to the shrine. Visitors are encouraged to make the 15-minute climb through the gates and pray for prosperity, good luck and harvest on the way to the main shrine grounds.   [caption id="attachment_45087" align="alignleft" width="600"] Visitors are encouraged to make the 15-minute climb through the gates.[/caption] Large sacred straw ropes line the front of the halls, which is a feature that occurs at other shrines in the Shimane Prefecture.   Visitors to Taikodani Inari Shrine can buy fortunes, also known as Omikuji. A bamboo aparatus allots you a number, which coresponds to a tiny slip/roll of paper on which your fortune is written.   [caption id="attachment_45089" align="alignleft" width="600"] White pieces of paper contain discarded bad fortunes.[/caption] If you draw a good fortune, keep it, take it home with you. But if it’s bad, you’re encouraged to tie it among the wall of other fortunes. The idea is to leave all bad luck at the shrine, where the divine spirit can exorcise it. Ogawa Sumikawa Sake Brewery Driving towards Susa Bay, you may start to feel an appetite for Japan’s most prized and celebrated alcohol: sake. Fear not, the team at HEARTLAND are quick to replenish, taking you to one of the country’s most celebrated breweries.   For novices, sake is a traditional Japanese rice wine, made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. At Ogawa Sumikawa Sake Brewery, the place you’ll visit, you will learn and watch the signature manufacturing process using the unique brewery rice, ‘sakemirai’.   [caption id="attachment_45090" align="alignleft" width="600"] Local markets sell traditional sake cups.[/caption] Very few breweries can brew with this rice, and the much-loved taste led to this brewery being chosen to provide sake for the 2008 G8 summit.

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