Country Diaries

In Bruges

Based solely on the fact we love the movie, In Bruges, we head to Belgium for a few days. Bruges in December is magical –  cobbles, canals and festive Christmas markets.

Belgium makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – quite literally. The streets are groaning with cute little chocolate shops. Delicious home-made chocolatey smells waft down the street, beckoning you inside.

Innocent-looking Belgian chocolate shops will lure you in with an open door and the delicious smell of homemade goodies 🍫🍫

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

We head to the Christmas markets in the town’s historic centre and suddenly I hear the clickety-clack of horses hooves on the cobbled street behind me. A horse and carriage clatters by.

Call me a sentimental fool, but I have tears in my eyes it’s all so beautiful and romantic.

As we amble around the Christmas markets taking in the handmade toys, candles, Christmas decorations, bratwurst and mulled wine stalls – there is the small matter that we are in the middle of a tiny fight.

I want to tell you we hold hands as we sip hot chocolate – feeling more deeply in love than ever as church bells ring out across the medieval square.

But actually, we’re jet-lagged, tired and seriously grumpy with one another.

Sitting snugly by the roaring fireplace in a charming Belgian cafe, Jim leans towards me and quietly murmurs that I’m doing his head in.

Moules and Belgian beer fireside.

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

“You’re so annoying” I whisper taking a deep sip of delicious cherry beer.

We lean back on our comfy leather couches and marvel as a brass band strides past the window, bellowing music into the damp night air.

I’m pretty sure Bruges is a place other couples come to declare love, propose marriage, conceive babies. But Jim and I? We scrap our entire three days here.

Day four, the jet lag and grumpiness has gone and we’re friends again (hurrah!) We load up our suitcases with Belgian chocolates and it’s time to move on.

Next stop is a good one – we’re skipping over the channel to England to surprise family and friends for Christmas.

Over the last few days we’ve been pretending, ok – lying our heads off – that we’re in Cambodia to ensure maximum shock factor. English country Christmas, here we come!

Has anyone else had a small domestic with their other half in a beautiful destination? Share your stories with me!

 

Bentos, buddhas and bullet trains

newlanterns

Kyoto is renowned for its Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, tranquil gardens and elusive Geisha – offering a quieter side to Japan after two frenetic weeks in Tokyo.

Part of the joy of visiting Kyoto from Tokyo is riding the bullet train. ‘Shinkansen’ trains epitomise Japanese efficiency, zipping along at 320 kilometres per hour. They are also insanely good-looking.

The slinkiest train I've ever had the pleasure of meeting #bullettrain 🚄🚄🚄

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

We arrived at Tokyo station with just enough time to grab a tasty bento box for the ride. Bento boxes are an upscale Japanese lunchbox, perfect for hungry travellers. Delicious bento places are dotted all around the station, and it sure beats crisps and an apple as far as travel snacks go.

We get to our platform and the gleaming white Shinkansen positively slinks in – on time, of course – to greet us. Bullet trains are renowned for offering a world class service – fast, punctual and super-efficient. In just over two hours, we arrive at our destination.

Kyoto is old-world Japan and quickly charms with its rich traditional Japanese culture, from zen gardens to majestic temples.

When we arrive, busloads of tourists are spilling out to witness the famous Kyoto changing leaves, heralding the arrival of Fall.

 

Near the Gion district, home to Japan’s few remaining Geisha, is the Ryozen Kannon Temple. Here a 1.5 metre giant Buddha sits atop a lotus throne – a memorial to the fallen on both sides of the Pacific in World War II.

There are over 1,000 temples in Kyoto, making it hard to narrow down choices. Day two, we head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

This is a dramatic and impressive temple – thousands of blood red Torii gates along the mountainside marking the presence of sacred ground.

Five thousand vibrant red gates snake their way up the mountainside at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto.

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

The gates create a blood-red tunnel that takes three to four hours to trek through on foot. Shrines and shops along the way offer rest stops for quiet reflection, souvenirs and food.

Our final port of call in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, the ‘golden pavilion’. This Zen Buddhist temple gleams in golden splendour.

It’s reflection shimmers gently in a peaceful pond reminding me of the tale of Narcissus – a vain river god’s son who wasted away gazing at his own watery reflection.

The temple suffered a similar grisly fate in the 14th century when it was torched by a young, apparently schizophrenic, monk who believed such beauty should not exist. It has since been fully restored to its former golden glory.

We’ve spent nearly a month in Japan, absorbing its fascinating culture, both past and present. However, the bullet train back to Tokyo is calling and its nearly time to move on.

There’s so much to see and do in Kyoto, we only had time to scratch the surface. Tell me – what are your favourite spots to visit?

 

Holy Tokyo!

There’s something strange going down in Tokyo. Against a neon-lit skyline, french maids, robots and cosplayers rub shoulders with crisp-suited salarymen in this fast-paced metropolis where anything goes.

Our first stop, Shibuya – the beating heart of Tokyo, crammed with amazing shops, cat cafes, fish-shaped pancakes, insane theme bars and blaring gaming arcades.

It’s sensory overload. It makes no sense. And I love it.

Neon-lit Tokyo at its finest at #shibuyacrossing – rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world.

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

Colour and chaos in Shibuya

We have been in Tokyo all of five minutes when a seven-foot Japanese cyber goth with rainbow hair, massive platform shoes, dressed in tight, red, latex strolls through our hotel lobby.

I’m so surprised, I literally do not know where to look. I know I should whip out my camera for a pic, but suddenly come over all shy and study my feet.

The smart salary men sipping Oolong tea don’t even raise an eyebrow as Japanese-Lady-Gaga-on-acid heads for the lifts, casual as you like.

We check into our hotel and head into the streets to check out Shibuya. A stream of go karts whizz down the street, the drivers clad in an assortment of colourful onesies and Pokemon costumes.

Welcome to Tokyo, huh?

Super hero go-karting. Just another day in #Tokyo!

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

 

Fashion, and shops – oh my!

Tokyo makes me want to be a better version of myself. Everyone here is immaculate, with a fashionable twist. Elegant women dangle Louis Vuitton bags alongside perfectly made-up goths, squealing bunny-eared girls and preppy guys with funky haircuts and those little hipster tortoiseshell glasses.You know the ones.

Clearly you need ‘props’ with your look here. Shallowly, I am happy to have a good handbag with me.

The girls here have the loveliest hair I’ve ever seen. I immediately want to straighten the hell out of my own, slather it in serum and twist it into jaunty pigtails. Jim tells me I would look ridiculous and the pigtails are forgotten.

I do, however, shop. The shopping here is insanely good. Harajuku is the fashion capital with shops specialising in gothic Lolita, punk, hipster and high-end fashions – plus everything in-between.

Cosplayers often hang around Harajuku train station on weekends.
Kawaii fashion and cosplayers can often be spotted at Harajuku train station on weekends.

I need stuff in Tokyo. I buy a scarf, a lipstick, shoes. I want a panda backpack and furry rabbit phone cover. I don’t buy them. I shop more until my feet hurt and my bank balance dwindles.

Eat your heart out in Tokyo

And the food, oh god the food. Everywhere we go is bursting at the seams with traditional Japanese eateries, upmarket restaurants and eclectic dining options from around the world.

The great man, Anthony Bourdain, wisely said – of all the world’s cities, if he had to choose one to eat in for the rest of his life, it would be Tokyo.

So, we eat.

Sashimi served without a smile. Who cares when it tastes this good?
Sashimi served without a smile. Who cares when it tastes this good?

 

Unique ramen experience at Ichiran

A great, and unique, ramen spot is Ichiran in Shibuya. As we join the queue at the entrance, we have no clue what is going on. This is par for the course in Tokyo.

Entrance to Ichiran. All we know at this point, is we need to be inside.
Entrance to Ichiran. All we know at this point, is we need to be inside.

 

Once inside, a wall of digital menus faces us and we bang in what we hope is a couple of ramen orders. We fill in a form to customise our order, specifying our preferred firmness for the noodles and how spicy the broth. (Firm, and medium-hot incase anyone’s interested.)

The introvert’s ramen restaurant of choice

Finally, we’re ushered into a tiny cubicle. A pair of hands slides through a partition in the wall from the kitchen and pops our condiments on the table. Two minutes later, the ramen follows – and the hands pull the partition down for privacy.

Lip-smackingly good ramen, without the chat, at Ichiran, Shibuya
Lip-smackingly good ramen, without the chat, at Ichiran, Shibuya

 

In this high-density city of around 14 million, people appreciate a spot of privacy where they can grab it. This place is perfect for introverts, or those wanting to avoid needless chatter – you don’t need to utter a word.

Oh, and the ramen? Deliciously salty and brimming with noodles, topped with melt-in-your mouth pork and a kick of chilli.

Fast food, Japanese style

Another Shibuya spot, Genki, is worth a visit  for sushi. You place your order on an ipad and the food whizzes along on an electric conveyor belt to you. Efficient, quick and very, very tasty.

Be warned – it’s easy to get quite greedy using this method with no waiting staff to judge the copious amounts of food you tap onto your screen.

 

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hoardes of hungry-people

Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku is an epic dining experience not to be missed. Blink and you’ll miss the concealed entrance to the alleyway – but once you’re in, you won’t want to leave.

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hundreds of hungry-people

The alley is packed with small cubicle-sized restaurants. Make a selection, and squeeze up at the counter. It’s an intimate dining experience, with a bunch of strangers!

Most of the eateries serve delicious skewers of roasted meat (yakitori) cooked to perfection in front of you. Best washed down with a cold Asahi, or delicious local plum wine.

Charred delicious skewers at Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku.
Charred delicious skewers and rice wine at Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku.

 

Sensory overload in Electric Town

Next day, we head to Akihabara the ‘electric town’ famed for its maid cafes, gadget shops, anime and comic boutiques, not to mention hundreds of gaming arcades.

Akihabara, Tokyo's 'Electric Town'.
Akihabara, Tokyo’s ‘Electric Town’.

 

I’m not a gamer, but Jim persuades me to him in a two-man pod to shoot some monsters in a 4D game, Dark Escape.

Now, to be honest, I don’t even really know what 4D is. I’m wearing the glasses and not expecting much of anything to happen.

A bloody great zombie leaps out of the screen towards me as the whole pod starts shaking. Holy hell! I let out a blood-curdling scream.

The monsters keep coming. Cold air is suddenly blasting into my face as they grab right at me with gnarly fingers. I’m meant to be shooting, but I scream some more.

Really loudly.

Jim is disgusted and calls me a newbie. As I exit the pod, rattled, at the end of the game, surly-looking Japanese teenagers look my way and snigger.

Watch out - those games will getcha!
Watch out – those games will getcha!

 

Delicious dining and perfect pooches in Nakameguro

After a few days in Shibuya, we rent an airbnb in Nakameguro to sample a different side of Tokyo. The Meguro river runs through this area and is lined with contemporary and traditional restaurants, funky boutiques and seriously cool little bars.

There are also some majorly stylish little dogs round these parts – all of them sporting jumpers to ward off the cool November nip in the air. The fancier ones prance around in rhinestone-studded jeans and doggles.

These pooches are perfectly coiffed, no doubt thanks to the large amount of doggy beauty spas in the area – complete with mini-doggy hairdryers.

Yup, that’s a thing here.

Great hair, little fella.
Great hair, little fella.

 

Micro bars for major drinking sessions

There’s something new to discover at every twist and turn. On our way back from the train station one night, we stumble across Soul 26, in Nakameguro.

Here, the bar fits a squeezy six and the owner is an absolute character. He did tell us his name, but somewhere along the line, we forgot.

Soon we are singing along to blaring music and grooving with his elderly golden retriever.

 

As it happens, we *ahem* seem to discover quite a lot of bars. These amazing microbars are dotted all around Tokyo.

You just have to keep alert to spot a clue – peak through curtains and doorways opened just a crack – perhaps you’ll get lucky and glimpse revellers around a tiny bar.

Bar-hopping heaven in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai 

However, if you like all your microbars bundled together for ease – head to the Golden Gai district. This amazing precinct in Shijunku is bar-hopping heaven.

Over 200 tiny drinking havens packed together across a couple of blocks. The vibe is ram-shackled and buzzing, teeny tiny watering holes all piled on top of each other.

Bar hopping at its finest. Golden Gai, Shinjuku.
Bar hopping at its finest. Golden Gai, Shinjuku.

“We’ll just stay for a couple,” are famous last words here.

You won’t want to stop exploring and each new drinking den you wander into – most only seating a max of half a dozen – offers a distinctly unique vibe

The universal language of a good, old-fashioned magic trick.
The universal language of a good, old-fashioned magic trick.

We found ourselves squashed shoulder to shoulder with locals, salary men, expats and tourists. Everyone singing songs, performing magic tricks and swapping stories under the dim blue lights. This ridiculous, yet brilliant, song cropped up often.

Breathing in Tokyo’s natural beauty at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Our poor livers need a break, and we take a recovery day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The leaves on the beautiful ginkgo trees and maples are changing into a riot of fiery autumn colours and the air is alive with birdsong.

Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

We’re in the heart of Tokyo but the park is so cleverly designed there’s not a skyscraper to be seen. Autumn foliage is beginning to take hold amidst a sea of green tranquility.

Traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku's heart.
Traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku’s heart.

Fortified with fresh air and the soothing beauty of nature, we stroll to Yoyogi Park, home of the Meiji Shrine where visitors can cleanse themselves spiritually pouring water over their hands using wooden ladles. Exactly what we need!

Yoyogi Park, home of the sacred Meiji Shrine

Yoyogi is amazing with massive 40-foot Tori gates marking the entrance to sacred land.

They are awe-inspiring and my mouth hangs open. Jim comments they look just like something from the Minecraft games he loves so much.

Majestic Tori gate marks the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park.
Majestic Tori gate marks the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park.

Here old-world Japan, meets new, and on Sunday locals wear traditional dress to visit the shrine and pay their respects.

Resplendent in traditional Sunday best, locals visit the shrine.
Resplendent in traditional Sunday best, locals visit the shrine.

We were lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding taking place – the red paper umbrella to ward off evil spirits.

Traditional Japanese wedding parade.
Traditional Japanese wedding parade.

 

Lose your mind at Robot Restaurant

We have just one night left and decide to check out the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Placed firmly on the map by its cameo in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, I’m not sure it can live up to the hype.

It does and I’m delighted. The show is camp, colourful and extremely silly.

Nothing to see here, just a couple of wrestling dinosaurs.
Nothing to see here, just a couple of wrestling dinosaurs.

Girls in bejewelled bikinis writhe around atop gigantic robotic sharks and dinosaurs. Monsters duel and lasers dance in this crazy, camp, kaleidoscope of colour and sound.

Just nipping out for a casual Thursday night dinner in #Tokyo

A post shared by C O U N T R Y D I A R I E S (@country_diaries) on

The magic ends and we are spat out onto the street. Shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering what the hell just happened, we hail a Tiffany-blue cab and head home.

Tokyo, I love you. Don’t ever change.

What are your favourite Tokyo haunts? Did we miss anything? I’d love to hear your Tokyo stories in the comments.

 

1 2 3 4 5 6