Tag Archives: Architecture

Travel Guide: Tokyo

People love Tokyo. Rave about it. Spend days there and then return for another visit.

I have to admit, I don’t quite get it. I liked being in Tokyo because it’s just sort of cool to be in a city of 9.2 million people with the greater population totaling around 13 million. Unlike many other major cities, Tokyo is clean and it functions and people are so polite and helpful. It also, oddly, doesn’t feel crowded at all, perhaps because it sprawls. As a friend pointed out when I shared my lack of enthusiasm of Tokyo, the city is fascinating because there’s no other place like it.

Tokyo was the last stop on my Japan trip with my parents when they came to visit Singapore. We were based in Kyoto and Hiroshima before spending the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima and passed the enormous Mt. Fuji on the way. I was too enthralled with staring out the window to take out my camera; it rose up out of nowhere and then the landscape flattened out again. I’m using to seeing mountain ranges, not singular mountains. Really quite cool.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we had to navigate the metro to the hotel. I don’t know whether it’s better to say that I went the wrong way or that I lost Mum and Dad, but everyone arrived in the end. Tokyo’s metro is confusing because it’s comprised of multiple train systems that seem to overlap but tourist passes only work on some of them. Multiple train lines are located in the same stations so you really do need to know where you’re going and how to get there. If you’re not looking at the correct map, it’s really easy to get on the wrong train going in the correct direction. If this happens, your ticket won’t scan on the way out and you have to pay the ticket agent in cash. Not a big deal but best to avoid since you’ve paid for a pass anyway.

After reuniting, our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. I was definitely more interested in the walk through the trees than the shrine itself. It was nice to see grass and feel wide open space after a long train ride and an abrupt reintroduction to urban life.

From there we made our way to Harajuku to walk down Takeshita Street where there’s something for everyone as long as you’re open to it.

Takeshita Street felt like a place of relatively few rules or boundaries where kids could act like adults and adults could remember being kids. It was a fantastic place to look around and laugh at the juxtaposition of Tokyo business suits and teenagers wearing the height of Japanese fashion trends.

After some browsing in shops along the way, our last stop for the evening was Shibuya Crossing. Like everyone else, we crossed the street and then looked out the windows of the train station across the road.

In contrast to the lights and glamor of Shinjuku where we were staying we spent much of the next day in Asakusa, a neighborhood typical of traditional Tokyo.

We enjoyed looking at all the little shops and stalls but were not fond of the crowds leading to the temple. Senso-ji is a popular tourist attraction and was extremely busy on this Saturday morning. I was more than happy looking at the intricacies of the gates and leaving the temple itself to devotees.

The weather in Tokyo was the best we’d had so we took the opportunity to walk across the river on our way to the Tokyo Skytree. Much like travelling around Europe, it wasn’t hard to find. We headed for the tallest building and followed the signs as we got closer.

There are two options if you’re interested in the observation deck of the Skytree, which is the world’s tallest tower. You can take the lift up 350 meters and stop there or go all the way up to 450 meters. There’s a third option that is an open air guided tour complete with hard hats, but Mum vetoed that. The view from 450 meters was astounding enough.

It’s dizzying being up there, too! It’s really, really high!

We wandered around some more for the rest of the afternoon and then found Popeye, the bar that sells the greatest variety of beer in Tokyo and also brews its own. Their happy hour deal included a free appetiser with every beer ordered. Dinner, anyone?

To close the day, we looked down on Tokyo at night. The observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is free, open late, and 200 meters up. Pretty cool view from up there, too.

And then it was back to vibrant, bright Shinjuku for bed. I’d wanted to visit that neighborhood since I read my first Haruki Murakami novel and there we were. I don’t know if I’ll make much of an effort to come back to Tokyo, but I’d love to visit Japan again. There’s so much more see and experience. But then, that’s true of every place. Mum and Dad, thanks for joining me on this adventure! I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Celebrating Lunar New Year

Singapore does’t shut down often, but it shuts down good over Lunar New Year. Unlike China, where new year celebrations last for weeks and schools and businesses are closed during the busiest travel season of the year, Singapore grants two days of public holiday for the celebration. Many restaurants and businesses also shut their doors for two days or more, which only otherwise happens around Christmas. And even then, it’s not hard to find places that are open.

Lunar New Year, though, is different. The roads are quiet, public transportation is quiet, and there’s little activity around town. I headed to Chinatown one morning to look at the decorations and see what was going on; it was slightly busier than I expected but not busy at all.

The exception was at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple where I opted not to wait in line for admission.

There is also a really beautiful Hindu temple in Chinatown and its well-wishing puts into perspective one of the aspects of Singapore that I really love.

The following day I headed to Little India early in the morning and watched the neighborhood wake up. The sights and sounds of Little India are like nowhere else in Singapore and it feels like a different world entirely.

I love the colors . . .

. . . the markets and shops . . .

. . . and echoes and signs life being lived.

Singapore is glittery and shiny and other worldly and yes, it looks like whatever you saw in Crazy Rich Asians (or The Bachelor though I haven’t actually seen it). But when you look closely, Singapore looks like this, too.

Travel Guide: Athens and Delphi

Don’t spend much time in Athens, they said. There’s not much to see there, they said.

But I loved Athens and wish we’d been able to stay longer! Then again, I studied history in university and taught history until last year so I’m a little bit biased. We were also in Athens in October when it was far emptier of people than it would be during high tourist season. The temperature was also quite cool, which was nice coming from Singapore.

Upon arriving from Santorini late in the afternoon, we headed straight for the Acropolis. It was a beautiful sunny day and the sun cast long shadows on the stone. We entered the Acropolis at 4:15pm and were escorted out when it closed at 6. That’s the one downside to traveling in the offseason – limited hours for many sites and museums. But nearly two hours was enough time, especially because of how empty it was! Many of our photos had no other people in them!

We were already excited on our way up . . .

and then we just stood at stared at Parthenon and ruins around it.

The Erechtheion is really interesting because the statues are copies (the originals are in the museum) in the condition of the excavated originals. so I didn’t actually know until visiting the museum later.

I was also excited to see the Temple of Athena Nike because I remembered studying it in art history in university.

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The view from the highest point in Athens (the literal translation of Acropolis is “high city”) was incredible, too.

And we had to sit in the stadium before we left!

Then we visited the Acropolis Museum, home of most of the original statues and artifacts. The floor is glass so we could see the site excavation, which was really neat.

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The coolest part of the museum was the top floor, lined with three walls of windows looking out to the Acropolis, housing the original sculptures and frieze from the Parthenon laid out in the dimensions of the actual building.

In terms of its vibe, Athens feels a bit gritty and rough around the edges, like its residents have something to say that only they can understand. And there are amazing views of the Acropolis all around the city.

There are cool hidden gems that I wish we’d had more time to explore and pretty awesome graffiti that seemed a bit more like vandalism than street art.

Athens has a number of neighborhoods full of restaurants and cafés, which is another reason to come back. We saw a few areas that looked really interesting from the windows of our bus ride to Delphi (more below) but spent our evenings in Plaka where we were staying. There was plenty of deliciousness there, including the best ice cream I’ve ever had, so next time I’ll have to see what’s elsewhere, too. And I haven’t had ice cream since.

We were staying basically across the street from Hadrian’s Arch . . .

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. . . which is located right next to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, we could only peek through the gates because closing time in the offseason is earlier than was we read online.

The morning of our only full day in Athens, we took a free walking tour with an incredibly knowledgeable guide who literally walked us through the history of Greece from ancient through modern times. (I even made an account on TripAdvisor to write Michael a review when he said that’s how the company determines who gets tours.) It was very cold that day so we looked for sunny spots to stand in at each place we stopped.

We visited Hadrian’s Library . . .

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. . . Monastiraki Square and flea market . . .

. . . and the Roman Agora.

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For lunch, Michael recommended Bairaktaris Taverna in Monastiraki. It was great and definitely the most local of our meals. And what an experience! The restaurant was large and crowded with tables covered in green-and-white checked cloths. There were large framed photos on the walls and beams leading up to the ceiling of people enjoying their food. At least two walls contained a wide variety of Christian art and the kitchen itself seemed to exist on one long counter at the back where we were sitting and another counter towards the front that may have also been operating a takeaway window. There were tables outside, as well. And to top it off, a three-man band was playing Greek folk songs and a very elderly man, possibly the owner, clapped along every so often. The place has been around since 1879 and it felt like we’d walked into a large family party.

I made the mistake of smiling twice at a line cook, once when I heard him singing and once when I saw him turn a mixing bowl into a drum, and after our gruff yet warm server brought us dessert and mastika on the house, he sent over a plate of lamb kebabs. Adorable, but I’m a vegetarian. (And I instantly had visions of having to break that to him on our third date.) What a country.

After our tour, we continued to follow Michael’s recommendations and went back to visit the Ancient Agora. We started in the museum, which had some interesting artifacts from the site and then walked around. It is really so cool to wander through something so old.

The reason we only spent one full day in Athens was because we wanted to visit Delphi, which was a wonderful day trip. Along the three-hour drive through Mount Parnassus and its environs, our tour guide, Effie, told us in English and French about the city of Athens, pointed out geographic areas of interest, and talked about the lifestyle in the small towns we passed.

When we arrived in Delphi, Effie provided a fascinating history of the oracle and Ancient Greek politics and explained architectural and archaeological features, as well as changes to the site over time.

Effie took us through the Delphi Archaeological Museum, as well. While I could have spent more time there it was good to learn from someone with deeper knowledge than what was written on wall placards.

We stopped for a late lunch at a taverna with beautiful views of the mountains . . .

. . . and then spent a few minutes in the ski town (yes, the only one in Greece) of Arachova.

Then next morning, before we were ready, it was time to go. And we agreed that we’d have to come back.

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