Sunday, 10 December 2017

Toyko, Japan

After a perfect wedding, my wife Emily and I recently went on a three week honeymoon adventure to Japan. We travelled with Qatar Airlines, booking a flight deal to fly via Doha in business class, for the same price as an economy flight from London. The only 'snag' was having to fly from Amsterdam, so we had a 30 hour layover there, which gave us enough time to quickly explore the city, as neither of us had been before.

We arrived in Tokyo early in the evening, flying into Narita, which is quite a distance away from the action in Tokyo. We bought train tickets at the airport on arrival to get to our hotel, and with various changes and trying to navigate the train system for the first time, it ended up taking us the best part of three hours to go to our hotel. We were so glad to finally drop our bags and head out for our first bowl of Ramen :) 

We stayed at the APA Higashi-Shinjuku-Kabukicho hotel, which was only a few minutes walk from the more bustling parts of Shinjuku, but quiet enough to get a reasonable nights sleep. As we had heard is common in Japan, the room was tiny, but perfectly fine when we wanted to spend most of the time out sightseeing anyway.

tokyo art
Street Art in the backstreets of Harajuku

On our first full day in Tokyo, we again tried to master the train system and again got a bit lost, but that's all part of the adventure! We headed to Harajuku, which sounded like a cool area to visit, reading our trusty Lonely Planet guide book. Harajuku is essentially a very hipster area, full of lots of different weird and wonderful shops, along with lots of big brands that have moved into the area. It's well known for streetwear and interesting fashion, and is notably written about in Gwen Stefan's song Harajuku Girls. Harajuku also has plenty of street art and great places to eat; particularly lots of places for sweet treats, crepes and ice cream. 

takeshita street
Takeshita Street

The Takeshita exit of the JR Harajuku Station takes you straight out onto Takeshita Street (I laughed), which is a great starting point to browse lots of shops and pick up souvenirs. The street leads out onto a main road and then beyond that, there is a small labyrinth of roads that are filled with streetwear and other cool shops. 

When we returned to Harajuku for a bit of shopping at the end of our honeymoon, we visited Cat Street, which has lots of bigger brand shops and particularly outdoor and skate brands, including Patagonia, Burton, DC, Columbia etc. I picked up an awesome Burton t-shirt with a Tokyo design on it.

tokyo old building
Thought this rundown building looked cool!

japan street art
Harajuku Street Art

harajuku shrine
Tōgō Shrine in Harajuku

Whilst working our way around Harajuku, we stumbled across the Tōgō Shrine, which was a nice little spot to wander around and have our first taste of Japanese history. We didn't get any photos of the main shrine itself as there was a wedding going on, so we kept out of the way and let them enjoy their special day. 

We decided to visit the Harry Harajuku Hedgehog Cafe, which is very close to the JR Harajuku Station. We were unsure about whether or not to visit, as I am very conscious of animal welfare. The hedgehogs seemed well looked after, although I'm not sure they really want to be manhandled quite so much on a daily basis! It was a fun experience and cost about JPY 3000 for the two of us to sit and play with the hedgehogs for 30-minutes and have a coffee, which was included in the price. 

hedgehog cafe tokyo japan
Emily with Harold II. Harold I was not so friendly.

After our time was up with the hedgehogs, we headed to the highly regarded Meiji Shrine. This is classed as being in Shibuya (a big and famous area next to Harajuku), however the main entrance is actually located directly outside of the JR Harajuku Station. The Meiji Shrine and grounds surrounding it were impressive, and despite there being a lot of people there, was a relatively relaxing place to wander around for an hour. 

sake barrels japan
Sake barrels at the Meiji Shrine

After an action packed first full day in Tokyo, we walked from our hotel to the busier area of Shinjuku to go to the Robot Restaurant. We had heard about this from a few different people and a visit here seemed to be an essential part of visiting Tokyo. The tickets were quite pricey at at JPY 8000 each, but we were told it was worth it. The show itself is in a small auditorium and is a carefully choregraphed and crazy show, featuring radio controlled carnival floats, dozens of performers and a sea of light and colour. The production value was huge - they definitely had not skimped on making it a 'full on' experience! It's hard to explain the craziness of the show, but there are plenty of videos online if you want to check it out.

Our friends Alyssia and Jon had been to Robot Restaurant a couple of years ago, for Jon's birthday. They didn't say what what the surprise would be, but to say that it was one of our birthdays. We did try and say at the ticket counter that it was in fact our honeymoon, but it was lost in translation a little bit. They did a big embarrassing announcement about it being my birthday and gave me a robot souvenir. It was hilarious!

robot restaurant photo
Emily outside the Robot Restaurant

robot restaurant tokyo
Robot Restaurant show

robot restaurant japan
Robot Restaurant carnival float

The next day we headed to Shibuya, which is synonymous with the Shibuya Crossing - supposedly the busiest road intersection in the World. Throughout the day, hundreds of people cross the road from all angles at the same time and it's quite an impressive spectacle. There is a Starbucks that overlooks the crossing - incidentally probably the only Starbucks in the World to only serve small drinks, as it's very popular and they want you in and out quickly. The Starbucks is a great place to watch the crossing - even better if you're lucky enough to grab a seat at the window.

Despite it pouring with rain all day, we enjoyed wandering around Shibuya, particularly Center-gai, which is a pedestrianized shopping area.

shibuya japan tokyo
Emily with a very Instagrammable building

Emily had heard about a Tokyo fad called Purikura, which is essentially a room filled with elaborate photo booths - you take your photo and you can then edit yourself to be the wide eyed, made up popstar you've always dreamed of. Check out the glamorous photos below!

purikura kawaii

purikura photo

After lunch we headed to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town. The area is well known as the 'geek district' where everything seems to evolve around all things gaming. It was cool to see all the buildings covered in gaming imagery and advertising and see all the different shops - even though I'm not a gamer myself. Well worth a visit for a couple of hours.

geek district japan

After staying in Shinjuku for two nights, it was time for us to move to an AirBnB in the 'Old Town' part of Tokyo, nearer Ueno. We had decided that it would be nice to stay in two separate places to explore more of the city. Although the AirBnB was great, in hindsight it was not necessary to move, as it is so easy to get around Tokyo with the trains being so efficient. 

Top of our list of things to do the 'Old Town' was to visit Ueno Park. This is well known for being very beautiful, and alongside being a lovely park to wander around and visit shrines and temples, is also home to several museums - which we did not visit. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the park, taking lots of photos and enjoying the beautifully colored trees. 

ueno park tokyo
Ueno Park

tokyo japan shinto shrine
A temple in Ueno Park

ueno park trees japan
A pagoda in Ueno Park

honeymoon in japan
A shrine in Ueno Park

japan pretty trees
Views from the top of a temple in Ueno Park

japan ueno park photo
Ueno Park 

A reasonably short walk from Ueno Park is the historic area of Yanaka, which is a very relaxing area to walk around and has many temples and shrines to visit. In the photo below, I enjoyed the contrast between the very old building, alongside the zebra crossing in the foreground.

yanaka japan tokyo

My boss Grahame and his pals James and Alan had booked the same awesome flight deal as us, and arrived in Tokyo three days later for a short trip. We arranged to meet them at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where we enjoyed the incredible views of the Tokyo skyline from the 41st floor at the Peak of Joy bar, whilst making the most of the 'all you can drink' bar and tasting board. The food wasn't magnificent, but we did well with the drinks and the view and company were great. Later in the evening we heading further up the building to the New York bar, as seen in the movie Lost in Translation. The views were again amazing and we had some live jazz to set the mood nicely too! We later headed into Shinjuku for drinks, and a bizarre Michael Jackson themed bar and live show.

The next day Emily and I dragged ourselves out of bed with sore heads, to travel to Hakone to see Mt Fuji, which I'll write about in my next blog post.

peak of joy bar
Tokyo skyline from the Peak of Joy bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

After spending another two weeks traveling around Japan (which I'll write about in further blog posts), we returned to Tokyo for two days at the end of our honeymoon, to do some shopping and fly home. We visited Harajuku again, as we enjoyed it a lot the first time round and thought it was the ideal place to do some last minute shopping.

This time around, for our last night, we stayed in Kinshicho, which is much further out from the main action in Tokyo. We wanted to stay at the Moxy hotel there, which is a new brand of hotel by Marriott, which we had stayed in earlier in the year in Berlin and really enjoyed. The hotel was brand new, only opening five weeks before our stay. The hotel was spacious, modern and with a hipster vibe - and a quiet and ideal place to spend the last night of our honeymoon. It took the best part of an hour each way to get from there to Harajuku/Shibuya, which would have been a pain if we'd book there for all of our nights in Tokyo. 

moxy hotel
Moxy hotel Tokyo Kinshicho

Near the JR Kinschico Station is the Skytree Tower, which we're told has great views of the city. We decided we'd go up on our last morning, however unfortunately it was a very cloudy day, so we gave it a miss. On our last night we had a drink at the Skytree View Bar, located opposite and a couple of blocks away from the Skytree Tower. We had a cocktail each there and it was pleasant enough, although not as impressive or as luxurious as the Park Hyatt bars we had previously visited.

skytree tokyo japan
Cocktails at the Skytree View bar

I'll write some more posts soon about the rest of our honeymoon in Japan, including Mt. Fuji, Ito and the Izu Peninsula, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and The Japan Alps. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Montréal, Canada

This is my third blog post about our recent trip to Canada. You can read about our first week in Toronto here and our visit to Ottawa here

After a very long and delayed train journey the day before, which ended up being over seven hours total, the two hour train journey from Ottawa to Montréal seemed to fly by! After our fleeting visit to Ottawa, we had a little longer in Montréal, as a few people had said there was more to see there. We had two days to explore Montréal and we booked ourselves another AirBnb apartment there, for the two nights. 

via rail train canada
VIA Rail train from Ottawa to Montréal

The apartment was loft style and in a swanky apartment block, very close to Place des Festivals, in the centre of Montréal. The apartment was really lovely and the guy who owned it sent us lots of good tips for things to see and places to eat in Montréal. Once we'd dropped our bags and had a quick coffee, we headed out and it was just a 20-minute walk to the Notre Dame Basilica, in the heart of the city.

airbnb montreal
AirBnB loft style apartment in Montréal

This was the second replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in France that Emily and I have visited. We've previously visited a replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which I wrote about here. This replica was of course similar, and didn't look quite so out of place as it did in Vietnam! There was a statue of Paul de Chomedey, the founder of Montréal outside the Basilica, who of course we needed to have a selfie with. 

montreal notre dame
Emily, me and the guy who founded Montréal, outside the Notre Dame Basilica

After paying our $5 entry fee, the inside of the Basilica was a sight to behold, with the front of the Basilica and the ceiling being particularly impressive. We had a quick wander round and headed back out into the cold to check out the Montréal Old Town. The Old Town is made up of beautiful old buildings and cobble-stone streets. It's nice to wander round and there are loads of places to eat - including the nice restaurant we stopped at for dinner and wine.

basilica notre dame
Inside the Notre Dame Basilica

We walked back to our apartment via Place des Festivals, which is an arty precinct in the city, surrounding by galleries and other arty type stuff. I stopped to take the photo below, which is a very cool homage to jazz music, which Montréal is well known for.

montreal jazz
Art installation in Place des Festivals, Montréal

On good recommendation, we headed to the Montreal Olympic Park, where there is a Biodome, Planetarium and Botanical Gardens. You can get combined passes for one, two or three of the sites and we opted for two, as we decided we didn't have time for the Planetarium. The Biodome was a wonderful collection of wildlife, and it was great to explore. We were wearing our thermals as it was so cold outside, so we were absolutely boiling when we went in, as the Biodome is kept warm and humid for the animals and plants that live there.

The Biodome was similar in some ways to the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK and also Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, which I wrote about here. The highlight of the Biodome was this cute beaver building a dam, which we stopped to watch for ages! 

After lunch at the Biodome, it was a ten minute walk through the Olympic Park to the Botanical Gardens. We thought it was shut at first, but it was so quiet in the off-season that we practically had the place to ourselves. The are outdoor gardens which were mostly frosted over. There are also a series of giant greenhouses connected together which different types of plants in each. We are big fan of cacti and succulents, so the 'arid' greenhouse was a highlight for sure.

We briefly visited the Insectarium, which is a part of the Botanical Gardens, but I must admit that this was only a very brief visit as we didn't find it hugely interesting!

montreal nature
Cacti greenhouse at the Montréal Botanical Gardens

biodome montreal
Inside the Montréal Botanical Garden

After a quick photo opportunity outside the Olympic Stadium, we headed back on the Metro to go back to Montréal's Old Town for more exploring. 

olympics montreal
Montréal Olympic Stadium

We had a quick walk along the Old Port, but it was pretty deserted. There was a huge ice rink there which was not open yet, but it looks like it will be very popular closer to Christmas. 

Montréal has a wonderful feel about it and it really does feel as if you are in France, with the general feel of the place and of course the language. Although most people speak English, I hadn't realised that all the signage would only be in French and that it would be so dominant. I had thought it might be a lot like Wales in the UK, where the signage is in Welsh and English, but the Welsh language is not the most used language there.

old port montreal
Montréal Old Town

We wanted a fancy dinner out, and researched good places to go. We had seen a nice looking sushi restaurant in the city when walking to the Basilica the day before and the menu looked good, with some nice looking vegetarian options. The restaurant was called Kyo and it fantastic. There was a really cool feel about the restaurant and the food, cocktails and beer were delicious and well presented.

sushi montreal
Kyo Sushi Restaurant in Montréal

After a lovely couple of days in Montréal, it was time for us to head back to Toronto on the train. I'll be writing about the last few days of our Canadian adventure in my next blog post.

Thanks for reading :)

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Ottawa, Canada

After our first week in Toronto [which you can read about here] and a trip to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake [which you can read about here], Emily and I headed for a what felt like a holiday within a holiday, to Ottawa and Montreal. 

I visited Canada on a work trip in September and drove from Toronto to Ottawa and back. I discovered then that this journey is very long journey [around five hours each way] and not very scenic, so we decided to travel by train for this November trip. We booked the train tickets online with VIA Rail, which worked out at about £200 in total for the two of us to travel from Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto. We think this is a great price, especially given the very expensive price of train travel in the UK!

ottawa canal walk
Walking to the city via the University of Ottawa

The train was spacious and clean, and unlike UK trains, it was great that all seats are designated [with no one having to stand or sit on the floor!] and that there was a good regular trolley service with decent food. Unfortunately our rail trip didn't get off to a great start, with a two hour wait on the train, on the platform, due to a mechanical fault. We were later able to get some money back for the delay, although they didn't make this easy. Other than that, and the fact that our train was also delayed by nearly an hour on the way back, the VIA Rail experience was good overall.

On arrival in Ottawa, we jumped straight into an Uber to our AirBnB apartment, located on Mann Avenue, near the University of Ottawa. The apartment was in a fancy apartment block, which turned out to be upmarket student housing. The room was nice enough and good value compared to lots of quite pricey and boring looking hotel rooms when I was researching places to stay.

ottawa parliament building
Canada Parliament building

After a week of very unseasonably warm and sunny weather, it had gotten very cold, with sub-zero temperatures and a chilly wind. It felt like we had finally been smashed in the face by the cold Canada winter we had been expecting! We are told the temperature drops as low as minus 40 degrees celsius or even colder in the winter, which is unimaginably cold.

We wanted to check out the Parliament of Canada in the centre of the city, which took us on a nice walk via the historic Rideau Canal, which was especially breezy! After some nice lunch and coffee in the Rideau Shopping Centre, we headed back out into the cold to check out the Canada Parliament building. The building and clock tower looks strikingly similar to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London.

canada parliament fire
Canada Parliament building by night

We thought we may have been too late for a tour of the Parliament buildings, as we arrived quite late in the day and the ticket counter for the free tour was shut. After chatting to someone at the tourist information centre, they suggested we head straight to the visitor entrance for a chance to sit in on Parliament. We went through two rounds of airport style security and weaved our way around the building, before finding ourself sitting in the public gallery of Canada's Parliament, which was in session. There were small phone style speakers next to each chair, to be able to listen to proceedings in English or French. It was a very surreal and interesting experience! 

ottawa brunch
Brunch at Wilf and Ada in Ottawa

After having a drink in a nice bar in the lovely Byward Market area of the city, we headed back to our apartment for a takeaway curry. The height of fancy local cuisine! 

The following morning, we wanted to have a nice brunch and had scoured the web to find a good spot. We found Wilf and Ada's, which was a short Uber rider from our apartment. Web reviews said it gets very busy at the weekends, but as it was a Wednesday morning, we had no trouble getting a table. The service and food were amazing; the photo above is of Emily's french toast with cider and berry compot. 

ottawa rail journey
Snowy, scenic train journey to Ottawa

After our short and sweet visit to Ottawa, it was time to head to Montreal for a couple of days, again by train with VIA Rail. I'll be writing about Montreal in my next blog post :)

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Niagara Falls

After an awesome few days in Toronto [which you can read about here], Emily and I set off for a trip to Niagara Falls with our friends Alyssia and Jon. It was 17th November, exactly one year before Emily and me will get married in 2017! It was around an hour and a half drive from our friends' home in Bloor West, Toronto to Niagara Falls, with some great views of lakes on the way. 

niagara falls photo
Seeing Niagara Falls for the first time :)

We checked into the Ramada Inn, which Alyssia and Jon had kindly booked for us as an engagement present. The hotel room came as a package with some restaurant vouchers and winery tours, which I'll mention later. The Ramada was a few minutes walk down to the Falls, which we were super excited to see! As we walked towards the Falls, you could start to feel the mist in the air, being blown far and wide. As we were visiting in mid November in the off-season, the area was very quiet and it felt like we practically had the place and the view to ourselves!

niagara mist
The American Falls, The Rainbow Bridge ...and a rainbow!

Emily and I went on a boat trip to the foot of the falls with Hornblower Cruises, although we still like to think of it as the famous "Maid of the Mist"! Our friends' had been on it before so gave it a miss. There were very few people on the boat, so we had unhindered views, but also no one to protect us from the mist - we got very wet very quickly! We were given ponchos to wear by the boat company, but this only goes a small way to keeping you dry.

The Rainbow Bridge, pictured above, connects Canada and the US, aptly named due to the beautiful rainbow that can be regularly seen here at the foot of the American Falls. I hadn't really understood the layout of the Falls until seeing them myself, with the American Falls adjacent to the main sidewalk and harbour, and the much larger [Canadian] Horseshoe Falls curving around further down the river. It's still hard to explain even now I've seen it myself! 

maid of the mist
Getting soaked on 'Maid of the Mist'!

Many people say that seeing Niagara Falls from the Canadian side is better than the US, and due to the layout, I can understand why, despite not having time to go over to the US side myself. I am also told that the Canadian side/town is much better kept than the other.

This lovely little video below, made by Emily, depicts the Falls better; however there isn't much footage of the Horseshoe Falls, as the mist was so vast that it was getting the camera very wet!

niagara falls
The American Falls

After a brilliant couple of hours of enjoying the Falls, Emily and I headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake with Alyssia and Jon. Firstly, we stopped off at the Oast Brewery, where we tried some tasty beer and had a mini ping pong tournament! We then popped into a nice farm shop supermarket and had salad and fresh baked bread for lunch outside in the sun. The weather has been very unseasonably warm for the whole week we had been in Canada so far, and it was lovely to sit outside in the sunshine to eat our lunch.

niagara brewery
Oast Brewery

niagara oast
Oast Brewery bar

As part of the hotel package, we were able to visit some wineries in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. We first went to a shop, the name of which escapes me and tried three fancy wines each. Niagara on the Lake is a very quaint and very well kept village, with vintage shops and houses, making it a lovely place to wander around.

niagara house
Guest house in Niagara on the Lake

Our next stop was the Trius Winery in Niagara on the Lake. This is a very fancy winery, which included a 'farm to table' brasserie, wine shop and hospitality/tasting rooms. The four of us had a private tour with host Steve, who was very lovely and knowledgable. He clearly had a passion for what he does and this showed in his engaging tour of the winery. We tried several wines at the end of the tour and bought a fancy bottle of red for a gift for someone at the end of the tour. I'd have bought a lot more if it would have fit in my suitcase!

canada brewery tour
Trius Winery tour

trius winery
Trius Winery vineyards

After a very lovely day out, we went back to our hotel to rest before an evening of food and drink in a slightly less refined area of Niagara Falls than earlier in the day! We had been told that Niagara Falls was popular with stag and hen [bachelor and bachelorette] parties and couldn't really understand why, until we walked down a large strip filled with bars, clubs, casinos, fast food and all sorts of random amusement attractions. We had some epic burgers at The Works and some drinks in the town. 

Whilst walking between bars, we popped back to the Falls to sneak a quick look at night. The Falls are lit up at night, glowing in lots of different bright colors. They have fireworks displays there three times a week in the peak season, which would look amazing I'm sure.

Niagara Falls, lit up at night

The next morning, Emily and I indulged in an IHOP breakfast, which are typically found all over the US. If you're not familiar with IHOP, it's a budget restaurant, specialising in huge stacks of pancakes and Emily and I love to go whenever we visit the States. What better way to end a brilliant trip to Niagara and to start the day, then a plate full of sugar and a million calories!

IHOP breakfast pancakes of dreams