Copenhagen

In November my sister and I booked a 2 night winter break to Copenhagen. It’s always been the iconic Nyhavn Harbour and colourful buildings that have attracted me to the city and with the cheap flights and amazing deal on our hotel it was a no brainer.

WEDNESDAY

We took the metro to our hotel when we arrived which only took about 20 minutes and cost about £8 each. This is the first impression we had of how expensive this city might be. Although everything had been super cheap up to this point we were kind of ignoring our friends who said to be prepared for just how expensive it is there, thinking just how bad can it be?! Well, they were right.

We stayed at Manon Les Suites which was absolutely incredible. I’ve stayed in some amazing hotels this year and this was up there, and we got a really great price!

The main draw of this hotel is obviously the insane hotel lobby with indoor pool. As we wandered in it was like arriving in Bali or a Riad in Marrakech! What’s also great is that all rooms are situated around the lobby. We really couldn’t get enough of this place and honestly it was probably the highlight of our trip. The rooms are suites without the suite price tag! With two beds, two TVs, a kitchen and two sofas in the living room it is more than we could have wanted! Also included is a Marshall speaker and Vogue magazines which are great little touches.

Being an eco hotel all toiletries were eco friendly and smelled amazing.  There are some great little extras that you usually don’t find in hotels like body and hair oils which are great after a couple of hours at the pool and the rooftop sauna and steam room!

You’re also provided with loads of different flavoured green teas and fair-trade coffees as well as reusable water bottles to fill up from the kitchen sink that they encourage you to keep after your stay. The water in Denmark is some of the cleanest in the world, they say it is even better than bottled mineral water!

After we’d settled in and forced ourselves away from our amazing room we walked over to Tivoli. It cost about £15 each to go in for the day. The first thing you notice as you walk in is the snow… but it’s not snowing… It really did make everything feel so much more Christmassy though! This place is so much bigger than we expected it to be! We just kept walking and walking and it never seemed to end! At one end there are gardens, cute little cafe’s and market stalls and at the other end a theme park! As we walked further it reminded me slightly of walking around a much much smaller Epcot (just absolutely freezing). One minute you’re in Germany, the next, China. It’s quite difficult to explain but we loved it.

There’s also a food hall linked to the gardens that we decided to go in to for lunch. This was really cool as just consists of loads of street food stands from Chinese to pizzas to sushi. We eventually settled on quesadillas and nachos!

Our favourite spot was this cafe/restaurant that had campfires and blankets outside. We sat down and ordered hot chocolates which came with a mountain of cream. Luckily it was a Wednesday in November so not overly busy so we kind of had our pick of everything we wanted to do.

Naturally, being in Denmark it got dark at about 3pm. We decided to just walk and see where it took us. We walked along the river taking in some of the beautiful modern architecture on the river bank and ended up at Nyhavn Harbour before heading to a nearby Christmas market to warm up!

Giving up on the cold we headed back to the hotel and made our way down to the pool. We were the only people in there which was fantastic. The hotel on a whole is pretty small and there seemed to be very few people staying there whilst we were there which was great for us!

After our swim we decided to check out the steam room and sauna on the roof. This was incredible! Again, we were the only ones in there and so nice after a day of walking in the cold. There is also complimentary fruit and drinks up there and a bucket shower!

THURSDAY

The next morning we headed out to Hyggestund for breakfast, it had great reviews and looked delicious when we looked it up on instagram places and I mean, it was okay. It’s great because it’s a really cosy café which is so nice to head in to when it’s so cold outside. The atmosphere was nice and the staff were really friendly. There are candles at every table and the filter coffee is great and a good price. I had their signature full breakfast of eggs, bacon and waffles with butter and a rhubarb compote. It was okay, but not as good as we expected.

After breakfast we were ready for a full day of exploring and getting our steps count up! We walked over to Rundetaarn, a 17th-century tower built to be an astronomical observatory that offers the best 360 degree views of Copenhagen. I really recommend this, and it’s cheap – tickets were DKK25 each (£3).

Processed with VSCO with e7 preset

We then walked through the city centre to Nyhavn harbour again, this time to see it in daylight! This was a really great time of year to visit Copenhagen I thought, because all along the harbour there are traditional Christmas Market stalls selling mulled wine to churros to Glogg. There are also loads of restaurants and bars with outside seating with heaters, blankets and great music. Today just happened to be Thanksgiving and after we chose a restaurant and sat down outside we realised that there were so many Americans here for the holiday and having their Thanksgiving dinners by the harbour! We had a feast of Lobster soup and chocolate cake but you could pretty much find whatever you fancied along here!

After exploring the shops and milling around with a coffee for a while we started walking back towards the hotel, making a stop at Rosenborg Castle.

That evening we headed to the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel which was really nice but expensive! We ordered a couple of cocktails and a charcuterie board and fries to share. We sat at a table by the window that overlooked the city and I can imagine this is a really great place to come in the Summer. There are balconies and a courtyard with outdoor seating and a great view. The rest of the evening was spent by the hotel pool once again and some long relaxing chill time in the sauna and steam rooms.

FRIDAY

Friday was our last day in Copenhagen so we had a bit of lay-in, checked out and  jumped on the bus to Superkilen, a famous park in Norrebro. It is filled with art and architecture, and objects imported from all around the world including a fountain from Morocco, swings from Iraq and palm trees from China.

We had actually considered taking the train to Sweden for the day! There is a train that goes from Copenhagen to Malmö and only takes 35 minutes (they also run every 20 mins)! Annoyingly though we only discovered this today and were a bit worried about missing our flight in the evening so unfortunately decided to give it a miss. Next time though!

We jumped back on the bus and headed to Gasoline Grill which we were told made the best burgers in Copenhagen and were Denmark’s answer to In-n-Out. If you didn’t know then you would probably think it looked dodgy, especially judging by the general standard of food at petrol stations across the UK. It was a tiny little walk-in that had a sign on the door reading ‘open 11am until sold out’. It was a good first impression to know that they were good enough to sell out. Outside were two petrol pumps and cars came and went as we stood at the outside hatch waiting for our order, some people just filling up and some people heading in to pick up a quick burger too. We ordered a cheeseburger, fries, some homemade mayo and a diet coke each, and it wasn’t exactly cheap costing almost £30 together! But it was damn good and took away the feeling of numb in our fingers as we sat at a table between two vans outside. Worth it though!

Being Black Friday we decided to go for a wander around the shops. There is some really great shopping in Copenhagen, from Gucci and Hermes to Urban Outfitters and H&M Home, they have everything! We planned to walk to see the The Little Mermaid sculpture that afternoon but it was so cold and starting to rain so we just didn’t think fancy the hike there and decided to miss this one out.

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset

After picking up a few deals in Sephora and Zara Home we came across The American Pie Company in a back street. It looked really busy (a good sign) but being Thanksgiving weekend we thought we could really do with some pie. We were lucky enough to get a table by the window and ordered some Pumpkin lattés and salted caramel pie and ice cream to share and my goodness this was amazing. We really didn’t need it after a big lunch but when it’s there in front of you, you have to. Since getting home all I have wanted is that PIE but I have no idea where to get anything like that here.

The American Pie Company is actually Danish as well, not American, and they only have shops in Copenhagen. You should visit Copenhagen, even if just for this place.

We wandered back through the shopping streets, having a browse around the Christmas Market and then walked over to Christiansborg Palace. We were just killing time at this point before our flight so thought we’d just have a wander around the grounds. It started to get really dark and extra cold so we walked in to the castle purely just to get warm and ended up in a queue we had no idea where it led to. We went through airport style security and then were guided to a lift which took us to the roof of the palace! All for free! One of those times when getting lost works wonders.

We really enjoyed Copenhagen. Although it’s not an overly busy city, it’s easy to get around and great if you’re looking for something a bit slower paced with lots of eating a drinking. My main takeaways are that the city is really safe and would be an easy trip for a solo traveller. It’s easy to get around with the metro, plenty of buses and bikes to hire. I loved that there are specific road lanes and traffic lights just for cyclists and you can see what an impact this as on the city as so many people choose to cycle instead of drive. It is extremely expensive though, despite being cheap to get there, so you have to be prepared to spend a lot of money even on the most basic of food and drink. The shopping is great, as are the Christmas Markets but my top three recommendations have to be Manon Les Suites, Tivoli and the American Pie Company. These are just the three places that i still can’t stop thinking about! It also goes without saying that Nyhavn should be at the top of your list as well!

Advertisements

Nagasaki & Okayama

THURSDAY

We left Hiroshima and one Shinkansen and a much slower local train later we arrived in Nagasaki and walked to our hostel: Casa Blanca. Our first impression of Nagasaki was how much quieter it was. It’s a coastal town, very industrial and there are very few tourists around. Honestly, this wasn’t a great hostel and a bit strange so we immediately headed out.

We headed to a restaurant in a back street of town that the lady in the hostel recommended. It was okay but very basic. We both chose katsu curries. The funny thing about ordering in Japan is that a lot of places have plastic models of the food in the windows, so you don’t need to understand Japanese, you can just point to the food you want. Although the plastic models are nearly always completely unappetising! At least the real food is always good!

It was suddenly dark and we decided to go for a stroll to the harbour which is a really nice area. There’s a garden and there are musicians just out practicing their instruments on the streets despite noone being around to listen to them. We stopped for a while and listened to a guy playing his sax from a distance. We wandered along the harbour front taking in the boats and passed two young boys who wanted to show us their football tricks which were actually pretty decent! As we kept walking we came across a few restaurants and bars which were all nearly completely empty so decided to give it a miss and just continue our walk.

There really isn’t a lot to do in Nagasaki, especially at night. And the thing’s that we did come across were closed, this even included bridges! It seems that Nagasaki might be a great place to visit in a few years as it appeared that they are undergoing some renovations but we just thought very early on that this is one place we probably could have skipped. I’m sure there was probably a lot more we could have done like going to the beaches, but we were only there for one night. But if you don’t try, you don’t know!

We found a supermarket and picked up some ice creams, milk teas and breakfast for the morning. We always seemed to be in the supermarkets just as they were closing which I always found hilarious as when they are trying to get you to leave they play ol’ lang syne over the tannoys really loudly and everyone starts running around as if they’re going to shut you in there and make you listen to it all night! Also as we left and made our way up the escalator, there were 5 male elderly staff members that stood at the top and bowed to us as we left. A really lovely goodbye that happened all the time and i started to get too used to!

FRIDAY

We checked out early (surprise, surprise!) and walked to the train station to jump on a train to the Ground Zero / A-Bomb peace memorial. After spending quite a lot of time in Hiroshima we were quite surprised at the lack of memorial in Nagasaki and how it all looked a bit neglected. There were very few people around, just one Chinese tour group whilst we were there.

We decided to leave Nagasaki early and start our journey to Okayama so it wasn’t so much of a rush later as this was the longest train journey of the entire trip. We took a tram back to the hostel to pick up our bags which was great as something we hadn’t experienced yet on our trip and then headed to the train station to catch a train to Hakata (Fukuwoka).

Hakata station is absolutely incredible! The fact we had a two hour stopover actually turned out to be the best thing ever because there were so many food counters and restaurants and shops here it was almost like the food hall in Harrods! Absolute heaven. This is one of my favourite things about Japan, they really take pride in travel and put a lot of money in to the facilities. Every train station is basically a shopping mall. We took it in turns to explore, picking up sushi rolls, gyozas, bento boxes and coffees and perusing the many many matcha counters before jumping on the Shinkansen to Okayama.

We made it to Okayama and walked to our new hostel: Kamp. This was a really nice hostel although pretty small and there were very limited bathrooms for the number of rooms but the people were really friendly and helpful. The restaurant and bar downstairs was really great as well and had a really chilled atmosphere.

As it was already late afternoon we decided to just go for a walk to Okayama castle and get our bearings.

After our walk we took a tram back to the train station which cost about 100 yen. On the trams here as you enter from the back you take a ticket (which reminds me of when you used to take a ticket at the deli counter at tesco lol) and naturally as the Japanese are so organised, as more and more people get off at their stops everyone moved down a seat. As you get off you then hand over your ticket and pay.

At the station we found the famous Momotaro statue. It was erected to be a meeting place for people to wait, chat and have coffee. It’s busy but relaxing, with people sitting around and appreciating the dandelion shaped fountain next to it. Although just like London, you can’t escape the pigeons!

We then headed for some food at a ramen restaurant i’m not sure of the name of. As usual the food was great. I loved this restaurant as it had that real authentic Japanese feel, where you wander in take your shoes off and sit down on the floor at your table. I just think there’s something really social and relaxed about doing this.

We headed back to the hostel not forgetting to grab some green tea ice creams on our way and had our ‘welcome sake’ in the bar. Just like our first hostel in Kyoto, the bar in this hostel was really popular with locals. After a quick shower we headed back down to the bar in our PJ’s and planned out the rest of our time in Okayama over a couple of drinks.

SATURDAY

Today was our last day in Okayama so we wanted to make the most of it. We had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and salad in the hostel bar and then made our way back to Okayama Castle.

After taking in the views from the top and getting our dose of history we were lucky enough to be dressed in kimonos. This is only open to five people every hour so you have to get your name down quick if you want to do it. We were just in the right place at the right time. Frankly this was hilarious and a great freebie. There’s also a traditional japanese ‘room’ so that you can have proper photos taken, but there’s no way i’m sharing those haha.

We then made our way to Korakuen garden which is Okayama’s main attraction, just next to the castle and really beautiful. Originally this garden belonged to the ruling family and was constructed in 1687 for them to entertain important guests before being opened to the public a couple of hundred years later. As with any Japanese gardens there are streams, bridges, stepping stones and lookout points but this garden was vast. There were even tea and rice fields. It’s an incredibly beautiful place and whilst we were there a wedding party were having their wedding photos taken. A perfect setting.

We made our way back to the hostel to pick up our bags and on the way we came across a cute looking ramen restaurant that did takeout! We ordered some gyozas to go and made our way to the station. Beats Wagamamas any day.

Next stop, Kobe!

Himeji, Hiroshima & Miyajima

TUESDAY

After a jam-packed few days in Kyoto it was time to head to our next destination: Hiroshima. We grabbed our bags and headed to the station and picked up our Japan Rail Passes! This felt like the real start of our trip and we were super excited because it meant we would be using the Shinkansen (bullet train) for the first time! We’d bought the 7 day passes so that all of the ‘expensive’ trips would be covered and we could cover a lot of ground before arriving in Tokyo for the end of the trip. I can’t recommend the JR pass more if you’re doing a big trip. This train is obviously known for being fast, but wow, it is fast.

We decided to make a stop at Himeji to check out Himeji castle and gardens. The great thing about the train stations in Japan is that they have a lot of storage so you can store all of your luggage if you want to make quick stopovers. After a quick stop for some lunch we wandered over to the castle and bought a ticket for inside the castle and the gardens. The gardens here are so peaceful and each one has a different theme. Somewhere you can definitely relax for a while.

We jumped back on the train and headed to Hiroshima. This station is pretty massive and we were a bit unsure of the best way to get to where we were staying. The tourist information people couldn’t have been more helpful or interested in our trip and recommended we take the sightseeing bus which took us right near our hostel which was included in our JR rail pass and saved us loads on a taxi! We stayed at the Santiago Guesthouse Hostel which was my favourite hostel of the entire trip. We had a private room and the facilities were amazing. It’s also really central so within easy walking distance to wherever you want to go. We also loved it so much more because it was a lot busier, the atmosphere was great and we met so many more people.

We headed out to the famous Okonomimura for dinner and this was the first place where it really hit me where we were. On wikipedia, it’s described as a ‘food theme park’ and that’s pretty much true. Although it actually has a deep history as well which fascinated me. Originally, street vendors sold food here after the second world war and the atomic bomb, when the city had to be rebuilt from scratch. As your enter you are greeted with an elevator and floors and floors of okonomiyaki restaurants, around 25 in total. It’s really overwhelming and tricky to decide which one to sit at! We did a few trips up and down the lift to choose and decided we should sit at one where the Japanese were at rather than a ‘tourist one’. Although, there were a couple of restaurants completely closed off to westerners and they got quite angry when we tried to enter!

We sat down and ordered some beers, gyozas and okonomiyaki which was fascinatingly cooked right in front of us, and my god was bloody delicious.  I loved the atmosphere here and despite the language barrier felt right at home with our fellow diners. I also loved the tiny tv in the corner showing a crazy Japanese talk show. And it’s incredibly cheap, bonus!

We strolled the streets, wandering in to some stores and arcades that seem to be open 24/7 and really sell some crazy stuff. Our first impression of Hiroshima was not one we were expecting. For a city that was destroyed in the second world war it is just like any other city, full of people and heavily built up. The atmosphere and people are wonderful and you can’t miss how extremely proud of the local baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp the locals area! There is merchandise absolutely everywhere. As a huge baseball fan, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a home game during our couple of days here, something I would have loved to have seen. I did grab a ‘Carp’ ice cream though on the way home.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday was my birthday and what a glorious day to wake up to! We planned to head to Miyajima island today for some bday fun, but it was absolutely torrential rain ALL DAY. Frankly, it was pretty nice to have a chilled birthday morning and a long lay-in after the the manic few days we had had since we had been in Japan but we were now completely thrown off our plans.

We had to make a rainy day plan which meant heading over to Hiroshima Museum. We  borrowed some umbrellas from the hostel but were still absolutely soaked by the time we go there! One of the thing’s I’ve taken away from Japan is the huge plastic problem they have. As Brits and Americans (more so the British…) we are much more cautious about our plastic usage. But in Japan, it’s everywhere. Even when you’re just buying a bottle of water in a supermarket, they automatically put it in a bag and you have to ask them to take it out. It almost feels rude to refuse. Anyway, when we made it to the museum we were given plastic umbrella bags to put our umbrellas in and as expected they were all then binned at the end. This is the one thing that really irritated us during our trip and it was hard to bite our tongues at times.

I really wish I was a museum type of person, but a lot of the time i find myself wandering aimlessly not really paying attention, just looking at the pictures, especially on my birthday! That was different this time though, there’s something about this museum that makes you take your time, because you’re so emotionally invested in the stories of the people affected by the tragedy and I found myself reading in to everything. The technology in this museum is also really advanced and I could see why there were so many school trips here. I imagine they come from all over the country.

After lunch we made our way over to the A-Bomb dome which after the museum was extremely poignant. Especially as the building almost appears untouched since the second world war, with a lot of rubble still sitting at the foot of the building.

We walked over the bridge to the Peace Memorial and then made our way over to Hiroshima Castle. This was a bit of an anti-climax though and not really worth the trek as it was completely different to the castles we’d been to in the way that it was surprisingly small and covered in scaffolding, so we didn’t bother paying a trip inside this one.

That evening we shared a bottle of sake and after our dinner drama at Tanaka Ya (everywhere closes at 9!) we headed back to the hostel with lots of treats and hung out drinking sake, listening to Japanese hip hop and playing uno in the common room with an Australian couple.

THURSDAY

Thursday was our last day in Hiroshima and we were incredibly happy to wake up and open the curtains to bright blue skies! We’d been worried that the weather would ruin our last chance to head to Miyajima (Istukushima) island but today couldn’t have been more perfect!

We packed our bags and headed to the station, dropping them off in lockers and jumping on a train to Miyajimaguchi where we then caught a ferry over to the island. As your arrive closer to the island the first thing you notice is the red Torii gate floating in the ocean. As we approach, everyone gathers at the side of the boat desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the unusual sandy beach. Arriving here reminded me somewhat of arriving on Gili T in Indonesia, jumping off the boat on to white sandy beaches with animals roaming round and very few vehicles. It was beautiful.

We arrived and wandered along the water, heading for the shrine and noticed the large amount of wild deer just roaming the streets completely unfazed by  all the tourists. Apparently there are around 500 on the island. We passed a number of small restaurants and shops and as we neared the shrine we noticed how crowded the beach was with tourists trying to to capture that perfect photo! We decided to keep on walking and go back later for low tide.

We headed through the shopping street and up to catch a bus and a gondola that would take us to the top of the mountain. You can walk this too, but it will probably take you an entire day. We opted for gondola up and walk down, because we had a train to catch later plus CBA! The bus and gondola ride cost us 1000 yen each.

The first ‘smaller’ gondola takes you up around halfway and offers you the first look at the scale of the island and an incredible view. You then jump on a larger gondola that takes you close to the top of the mountain and offers as even more amazing view, you can see for miles and miles!

We arrived at the tiny station and took a little while to appreciate the incredible view of all the other tiny islands from here before heading on our hike to the peak of Mount Misen! It was a bit of a trek, and on the way back down i just remember thinking ‘god help these people that are climbing the entire mountain, they have no idea’! When you arrive at the top there’s a wooden building that you can climb to the top of and it gives you 360 views, an ice cold bottle of water (thank goodness for the Japanese and their vending machine obsession) and a nice chance for a well deserved rest out of the sun!

The view of the second gondola station from near the top of Mount Misen.

The hike back down took around 1.5 hours and I definitely recommend doing this and not taking the gondola back down as it’s an absolutely beautiful trail! I was surprised  at how few people we saw on our way back down, those that didn’t walk definitely missed out imo. The trail and scenery was constantly changing, we came across a number of tiny temples and shrines, a waterfall and loads of deer that just walked right along side of us. There are hundreds of photo opportunities and places to sit down and relax for a while.

At the bottom, we headed to the shopping street to grab some lunch. This place is a food lovers heaven. There are loads of food stalls and gift shops and if there’s something ‘Japanese’ you really want to find, whether it’s chopsticks or anything you can imagine in matcha flavour, you can find it here. I was just gutted that I couldn’t buy everything I wanted here as we would have to carry it around the rest of the trip until we made it to Tokyo, which really wasn’t practical.

There were so many great little places to eat, it was hard to choose. There was this place that sold oysters…

…this place where I had a ‘potato and bacon stick’ for my lunch and bloody beautiful. Needed those carbs…

…and this place where I had my favourite thing I ever tasted in Japan: a chocolate filled Momiji cake. This was the most beautiful thing, it was freshly made and still warm, the chocolate still slightly melted in the middle. We had one each but could have eaten all of them. There were so many flavours to choose from including matcha, bean paste and custard. I was so tempted to buy a box to take home, but was reminded of the little space i had left in any bags to be able carry them. I thought i’d just wait and buy some in Tokyo, but I LITERALLY DIDN’T FIND THEM ANYWHERE ELSE AND I’M STILL DISTRAUGHT. So, if you ever go here, i’ll take 10 boxes of the chocolate, please and thank you.

We wandered around the Istukushima Shrine which is a world heritage site and then walked out to the Torii Gate. There were less people around which was great, but i soon realised new adidas white ultra boost were a bad idea as we walked out to sea and i sunk it to the sand.

We said goodbye to the deer, grabbed some green tea ice cream and jumped back on the boat to head on to the next stage of our adventure: Nagasaki!

Kyoto

SUNDAY

This afternoon we left Osaka and took the train to Kyoto. We decided not to activate our JR Rail passes just yet as we only had 7 day passes and wanted to make the most of it and allow for making our way to Tokyo at the end of the trip. The train between Osaka and Kyoto was also pretty cheap anyway.

When we arrived we made the long trek to our hostel, it was super hot and my bag was dragging me down so I was incredibly happy when we finally made it to ‘Len Kyoto’. First impressions of this hostel were great, there was a really cool bar/cafe/restaurant  downstairs that seemed to be most popular with people that weren’t staying in the hostel which was unusual. There were a lot of Japanese, some were dressed in work clothes and suits looking like they were there for after work drinks, some were tourists that had arrived just for dinner reservations. It just had a really cool atmosphere and we could have happily spent the evening in the bar but had to make the most of our short time in Kyoto, so after dropping our bags, we headed straight out to find some dinner!

We turned off the busy touristy areas to the back streets and stumbled across a really cute little restaurant. Whenever i’ve thought about restaurants in Japan i’ve always pictured the ones where you sit on the floor and I really wanted the authentic experience and that is what we got here! I’m not sure what the name of the restaurant was, but as we entered we noticed only 4 or 5 small tables (perfect), it was a quiet night and only two tables were filled, both with Japanese families. We took our shoes off as we entered (must remember socks next time!) and were sat down at a table in the corner. We ordered a couple of beers and some ‘sticks’ and bowls of rice. Once again, we found the price to be extremely reasonable! The food was basic, but great and authentic nonetheless, the chefs were just as I imagined they would be, the perfect Japanese hosts and we enjoyed some ‘Japanese ice cream’ which was incredible before heading back out in to the night.

We picked up some milk tea from the shop across the road and then walked towards the Old Town (Gion). This is where Kyoto stole my heart. It’s literally like walking in to Disneyland, the streets and buildings are immaculate, they’re so perfectly preserved that they almost don’t seem real. As you walk down the main street there are a number of beautiful small restaurants and I would have gone in to all had I had the chance. In a lot of them however, there are table charges, so you have to be careful to pick the right places! At this point it was dark and getting quite late so unfortunately we didn’t get to see much of Gion in daylight and when we wandered towards the famous temples, they were obviously all closed, which I was really gutted to miss, but unfortunately we knew that we wouldn’t be able to do everything purely because of the time we had. We did however stumble across the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art in Gion, which was closed but had one of Yayoi Kusama’s giant pumpkins outside! One of my missions of this trip was to find one of these! After the exhibition was in London and then I saw on Instagram (I think maybe Alexa Chung’s) that they were dotted all over Japan, I really wanted to find one!

We wandered around and came across Pontocho Alley which is an extremely busy and touristy narrow street lined with bars and restaurants famous for its nightlife and geisha spotting! After miraculously spotting a geisha walking extremely fast down the street my friend, Steve, became obsessed with everything there was to know about them and our night back at the hostel turned in to about 3 hours of geisha research to try and see another one again tomorrow! Apparently there are only around 150 real geishas / meikos left and they go through vigorous training to become one. Although Kyoto is famous for this, there are a lot of fakes and so you never really know if you’ve seen a real one or not!

All in all first impressions of Kyoto were fantastic. I loved how traditional Kyoto is compared to most other places in Japan and how you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s also beautiful to see so many women walking around in kimonos and traditional Japanese dress. Although it’s also very easy to hire these for the day and a lot of tourists do for the insta ops! Kyoto is also extremely touristy in a lot of areas so it is a good idea to do some research so you can find the hidden gems off the beaten track.

MONDAY

Monday was our first full day in one place since we arrived in Japan and we had an extremely bus schedule! On advice from a girl from New Zealand we met the night before in the hostel we decided to get up early to head to Fushimi Inari-Taisha to try and beat the crowds. We got there just before 9am and it was already quite busy even then, but mainly around the entrances and lookouts – we happily still were able to walk up through the gates and not see a lot of people which was great for photos. This place is never ending and not what i expected at all! It’s funny how as soon as you arrive everyone starts taking photos right at the entrance, but then as you go further on you realise just how big the place is and it’s a really long way to the top so there are plenty of better opportunities for photos, FYI.

All in all it took us a couple of hours to hike to the top and back. At the top there is an incredible view of Kyoto so well worth pushing through the pain as exhausting as it is!

We made our way over to Kyoto Imperial Palace but it was closed! Apparently Monday is the day that a lot of places close – probably should have done this research beforehand! We then headed over to Heian shrine which wasn’t too far away and really beautiful!

Next up on our busy schedule was Nijo Castle (we were definitely racking up the steps today!). We toured inside the castle, I had the obligatory photo with a group of school boys after being asked by their teacher to be in it (lol) and then wandered around the gardens and had some chill time.

Next up, we jumped on the train and headed over to Arashiyama. We wandered around and found a street food place selling hot potato beef cakes. I’m not sure what they were called but they were basically like fish cakes but with beef and potato in instead and bloody delicious. After our quick snack we walked through the bamboo forest which was insanely busy and then took the quieter route around to the river and over the bridge which was really cute. It was a really hot day and there were loads of people hiring out boats on the river and just chilling in the gardens. The main street here again is made for tourists. There are loads of shops and restaurants and even a cat cafe but I actually really loved this place! If you want to go shopping and buy all of your favourite things from Japan this is a great place to do it. Also as you walk along the street there are people handing out free tasters of basically everything, and you can’t say no to that.

We jumped back on the train and headed to the hostel to pick our bags up as we were checking in to a new hostel tonight because our current one was unfortunately fully booked! As ever we book everything right at the last minute. We checked in to Hostel Kyoto Kizuna which was much quieter than our other hostel, later that night we sat in the common room a while sorting out photos and having a drink but everyone mainly kept themselves to themselves which was shame. That evening we headed back to Pontocho for Steve to geisha hunt and had ramen at another restaurant i don’t remember the name of but it was delicious as ever!

We strolled along the river, exploring new neighbourhoods and then back to the hostel to pack and get ready to head to Hiroshima tomorrow!

Crazy crazy jam-packed but amazing day. These were our totals at the end!

TUESDAY

We got up fairly early this morning to wander back around Kyoto to say our goodbyes. This was one of our favourites places of the whole trip and I wish we could have stayed longer. We walked up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple and gardens, passing the enormous Nishi Otani graveyard that’s home to more than 15,000 tombstones.  We grabbed some green tea ice cream for breakfast on the way back down, went to pick up our bags and then headed to the train station for our next adventure!

Edinburgh

On Monday I (very spur of the moment) headed to Edinburgh for a couple of days.

We arrived around midday and took the tram to West End to check in to the Waldorf Astoria – The Caledonian. Built in 1899, this hotel is beautiful and was once part of the Princes Street train station, but I particularly loved the free locally made fudge at the check-in desk. The Caledonian is in a great location, within easy walking distance to all the tourist spots, bars, restaurants and shops and has an amazing view of Edinburgh Castle.

We headed around the corner to The Huxley for lunch, which was okay but quick and easy. I really wanted to to go the Edinburgh Gin distillery, but when we got there they weren’t doing any many tours that day. The bar also doesn’t open until 5pm and that evening they were closed for a private event which was disappointing. However I did manage to try most flavours during my short time in Edinburgh, and it’s bloody delicious. My favourite was the rhubarb and ginger.

We decided to make the most of the rest of the afternoon before we had to head out that evening, and went up to Edinburgh Castle. It was a bit of a challenge trying to find our way in if i’m honest, walking up from the hotel, there were very few signs and we bumped in to a lot of people just as lost! We eventually made it and bought tickets for the castle which were £18 each. I personally think this is pretty expensive! When i’ve been to castles before, for example in Japan, there are usually options for just the grounds of the castle or the grounds and the castle. I would have preferred just to have paid for a grounds ticket as we didn’t have a lot of time, but this wasn’t an option. It was cool to see, and the view was amazing but it was incredibly windy as you can imagine! Most areas of the castle are open, so you can see the prisons and crown jewels etc. too.

Fully windswept, we wandered down the Royal Mile and the famous Victoria Street then walked back to the hotel, picking up some prosecco on the way, to get ready for the evening.

The evening was spent at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for round 2 of Bill Murray’s New Worlds show. A crazy, surreal, gin-fueled night once again.

Day 2 started with a very long lay in and only just making it in time for breakfast. Although, as ever, the breakfast was amazing. It was another beautiful sunny day so we decided to hike up to Arthur’s Seat. It was a fairly steep hike and on a lot of it there aren’t actually any marked paths so trying to climb and make our own route in the wind was definitely a challenge. But when we reached the top it was oh so worth it! The view is insane.

img_0527.jpg

In total we spent about 2 and a half hours from hotel to the hotel, although we did stop quite a lot on the walk to take photos and wander around shops. After the climb back down we made our way back to the hotel, and just happened across The Elephant House, which is where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

We took a taxi to the airport, stuffed our faces with burritos, grabbed some Krispe Kreme’s and that, was that! A very short trip, but amazing as ever, mainly thanks to a few people!

Osaka

Japan has been top of my bucket list forever so when a friend said they were heading there in May, I jumped at the chance. We had a loose plan to start in Osaka before travelling to Kyoto and then using the Japan Rail Pass to travel to a few citites before finishing the trip in Tokyo. Today was the day to head to Osaka!

SATURDAY

Alarm set for 5am, I watched the Hong Kong sunrise for the last time and took a taxi to the airport. The flight was just under four hours with HK Express and I arrived in Kansai at about 2pm. Despite reading that security and customs was super strict in Japan and you can be hanging around for a while it only took me about 20 minutes from getting off the plane to getting on a train! My first impression was just at how amazingly helpful and friendly the Japanese people are. Everything I had read said that most Japanese don’t speak any English but that wasn’t my experience at all. I found that most Japanese people spoke at least some basic English, if not fluent! I had tried to learn some Japanese but everyone’s English was much much better than my basic Japanese. The train station area was super confusing though, there are so many different train companies, and even now after being in Japan for 10 days i’m still not quite sure how it all works! Luckily there were a group of Japanese university students who were there purely to help tourists, I just told them where I needed to go and they sorted everything on the machine for me, told me what platform to go to and everything. Perfect start!

I jumped on the train and headed to Osaka which took around an hour and then took a taxi to the Conrad hotel, which was bloody incredible. Luckily I have friends that travel all the time and so end up with a hell of a lot of points which brings a lot of perks (that I don’t deserve!). I arrived at the Conrad and was immediately taken to the Exec lounge where i plated up some food and grabbed a drink whilst they checked me in there at my table. The view was amazing, overlooking the city from the 40th floor and that’s where I stayed soaking up prosecco, watching the build up to the royal wedding and waiting for my friend to arrive in from Taiwan.

I should also mention that the taxis are quite an experience and one of my favourite thing’s in Japan! I just love that they haven’t seemed to change in years, they’re super old school but also super fancy. The rule is you absolutely do not touch the door yourself, they open automatically and only the driver has control of this. The taxis are immaculately clean (there were a few times I saw taxi drivers dusting the outside of their taxis with feather dusters – they definitely take pride in them!) and the drivers wear suits and hats and pristine white gloves. It’s all very professional.

The hotel was absolutely beautiful, although kind of out of the way of all the hustle and bustle of the city in the business/financial district, it was close to the train station and within easy walking distance to the really busy restaurant and bar streets as well as huge parks and a river. The staff were amazing, they literally couldn’t have done more for us and gave us a ridiculously big suite. Couldn’t recommend the Conrad more if you’re looking for a luxury hotel in Osaka.

After a freshen up we headed back to the exec lounge for dinner and drinks (it’s free afterall?!), had a catch up and then headed out to Dontonbori which is a really busy, super fun tourist destination and the heart of Osaka. The Dontonbori canal is at it’s centre and is lined with loads of restaurants, bars and shops. We explored the backstreets soaking up the atmosphere and wandered in to some crazy general stores and arcades.

d1b8465b-e89b-4ed6-9bd8-9f83269f7033.jpg

SUNDAY

Had a delicious breakfast in the lounge and then walked to Osaka Castle which was a bit of a mission but the perk of walking is that you find some right gems and actually see what the locals get up to. It seemed like Sunday’s are just like anywhere else on a beautiful day like today with people picnicking in the park, out running and cycling or just soaking up the sunshine. We were also lucky enough to see Japanese sound trucks go past, which are basically political parties that drive around the city shouting their views in to loud speakers. When I say they’re excruciatingly  loud, i mean it, literally, i reckon they could have heard that from Tokyo!

We then walked over to a nearby park where there was some kind of festival going on. There were loads of food stalls and music and we were treated to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and some proper green tea.

We tried to head over to Shitennoji temple, but when we arrived it was closed! It looked like they were setting up for some kind of market or something, and there was so much scaffolding that it didn’t even look like there was a temple even there. We decided to head back to Dontonbori where we found a place to eat and had some delicious food and an oolong tea. The great thing about most restaurants in Japan is that they always have photos of the food which makes it a lot easier to decide! There’s also a lot of the ‘plastic show food’ that they put behind windows outside their restaurants so you can choose. This actually really puts me off my food but hey. Osaka is known as the food capital of Japan and it didn’t disappoint!

Belly’s full and mind’s open we headed back to the Conrad and with the looming reality that the next week would be spent in hostels and not in 40th floor executive suites, we made the most of the free sushi and bubbles, and then headed to the train station for the next stage of our trip: Kyoto!

Hong Kong

A few weeks ago I headed to Hong Kong for a few days on my way to meet friends in Japan. I can only ever take around two weeks holiday at one time but when travelling so far I always like to try and fit in another city to make the most of the travel and this time Hong Kong was the obvious choice!

DAY 1

I flew in to Hong Kong from London with BA and arrived around 2pm. A friend who had been in HK a week earlier recommended to buy the Airport Express for a quick and cheap way to the island. This was actually so useful as the ticket i bought was valid for a one-way trip on the airport express as well as three days unlimited travel on the metro for HK$250. You also get 50 HKD back when you return the card at the airport, although of course I completely forgot to do this.

Hong Kong is made up of three islands; Lantau, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I stayed at the Cordis hotel in Kowloon, about 30 minutes from the airport. The hotel itself was in Mong Kok which is a really cool area, bustling with people and full of restaurants and shops etc. The Cordis is also attached to the Langham Place shopping mall which was really handy for grabbing breakfast when i didn’t fancy it at the hotel, as well as grabbing my daily bubble tea! I really rated this hotel purely for the great view and the check in staff. I hadn’t put any notes on my reservation, but a quick glimpse at my passport told the guy on the desk that it was my birthday the following week, and later that evening I had a surprise birthday cake delivered to my room from room service singing ‘happy birthday’. It’s the little things like that that really make the service memorable.

After a quick freshen up I headed out for a wander around Mong Kok and Kowloon. I jumped on the MTR and headed to the Choi Hung Estate before sunset; instafamous for its rainbow coloured flats and basketball courts which are atop the estate’s multi-storey car-park.

I then made my way down to Tsim Sha Tsui and the promenade which overlooks Victoria harbour and Hong Kong Island. I hadn’t planned it but was luckily enough to make it there just in time for the symphony of lights show that takes place every evening at 8:30; basically a light show of all the high rise buildings on HK Island and really worth the visit!

DAY 2

I got up pretty early today and took the MTR all the way to Tung Chung on Lantau, which was full of excitable kids in mickey mouse ears on their way to Disneyland which is also on the island. It’s Tung Chung where you can take a cable car up to Ngong Ping to see the famous Big Buddha. My friend recommended to take a bus up and the cable car down so i jumped on bus no. 23 and it was so worth it for the views of both sides (sit on the right side) of the island on the way to the top. It’s also pretty cheap at 18 HKD. At the top I made way up the many steps to the Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) and then for a wander around the Po Lin Monastery and Ngong Ping village. Unfortunately I had managed to pick the one day that the cable car was closed so had to make my way back down to Tung Chung via bus, not so much fun second time around!

I took the MTR to Central on HK Island and wandered the streets and shops, seeking out Man Mo Temple and the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators (can we have these everywhere please?!).

That evening I headed to the famous Ho Lee Fook for dinner and then back to The Garage bar at the hotel.

DAY 3

Still struggling with jet lag and not getting to sleep until 3am, I had a bit of a lay in this morning and then headed out to New Town Plaza before making the trek up through the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastry – they weren’t wrong about the ten thousand!

I then made my way over to Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery. It was so peaceful here just wandering around the gardens and nice to take in some old Hong Kong in the forefront of newer skyscrapers.

Next up was a trip to Victoria Peak via the Peak Tram. The tram is awesome but don’t be fooled in to buying the expensive viewing platform package, it’s really unnecessary as the view you get anyway is incredible. This cost HK$52 for a return trip. There’s also a shopping mall at the top and plenty of restaurants, I couldn’t help myself but buy a cheap plastic lucky cat!

I took the tram back down to central and walked along the waterfront where i took the iconic Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui. I bought an upper deck ticket, which basically costs hardly anything and takes only a few minutes. A nice change of scenery from the MTR.

I then wandered around the waterfront on the Kowloon side around the Avenue of Stars (although this was closed) and then explored Mong Kok on my way back to the Cordis to pack and get ready to head to Japan in the morning! I was so impressed with Hong Kong, I knew it was meant to be extremely busy, but it really wasn’t as crazy as I expected it to be, especially all the tourist spots! The people are lovely, and speak a lot more English than I expected, the food was delicious and i lucked out with the weather which was clear and beautiful sunshine the entire time! It was just extremely hot and sticky, around 30 degrees celsius everyday, but for me seemed like the perfect time of year to go.

Kefalonia

After a year of city breaks, we were in great need of a hot and relaxing villa holiday on a Greek island. After villa hunting for a few weeks we found the most perfect place set in the hills of Old Skala in Kefalonia. The unspoiled views were amazing, seeing as far as mainland Greece and the island of Zanté in the evenings.

On arriving in to Kefalonia the 28 degree heat hit us immediately as we stepped off the plane and headed to pick up our courtesy car. Our first stop was a supermarket, stocking up on halloumi, cans of mythos and cheetos and then down the stomach turning winding one-lane dirt tracks, with huge cliff drops up to our villa. I’ll admit I sat in the back of the car, with my hat covering my face, pretty unsure as to whether we were going to make it. Awful.

We made it to the villa alive and although we knew the villa looked beautiful in the photos it was oh so much more amazing once we arrived. It was called Villa Ambelonas, and the property owners could not have been more helpful or welcoming, leaving a welcome hamper of bread, wine and other treats for our arrival in the kitchen. Despite not being in the area, nothing was too much for them, even helping us to organise taxis in to and from the town when needed.

The main highlight of the holiday was just hanging around the villa, enjoying the infinity pool and the luxury of being up in the hills cut off from everyone. Being four of us there was still so much space, the outdoor covered seating areas and dining table by the pool was where we spent our nights eating and drinking and taking in the lights out to sea of neighbouring islands. We also had a great BBQ so we made a trip to the butchers in Skala for a blowout and had an afternoon feast by the pool. The only REALLY annoying thing was the wasps which unfortunately just had to be expected with the location we were in, so we only had the energy to have a BBQ once.

Thanks to our courtesy car, the island was our oyster and we drove out to quite a few places. Our first day trip was to Melissani Cave and then on to Myrtos beach which is absolutely beautiful! The bright blue sea and white beaches are to die for. The sea is just quite rough here and very stoney so it’s quite a challenge getting in and out! On our way home we stopped by a cove in Skala for a dip and a snorkel before grabbing some quesadillas and cocktails over the road at Ammos Beach Bar.

Being out in the sticks, we were quite limited for things to do in the evening if we didn’t want to stay at the villa or drive in to Skala. This was great but we did walk the 20 minutes down the hill a few nights to the local taverna, Taverna Kelari which I fell in love with. It’s all open plan so you can sit outside, the cocktails are amazing and during our week I pretty much ate my bodyweight in fried feta here, the best thing in the world. The walk home back up the hill was always interesting, tipsily navigating our way with head torches through the herds of goats with bells on the roads.

We did decide to one night book a taxi in to Skala for dinner and a night out, however the boys decided to drink a bottle of vodka in the pool whilst we were getting ready so it didn’t quite work out as planned! We made our way down to Ammos for a couple of cocktails and then to a gorgeous little restaurant on the beach for carbonara and more cocktails. The one thing i hate(/love) about Greece is that you’re always given a shot at the end of your meal, which tipped us all the edge a few times. We headed to a couple more bars after dinner, then back to the villa, passing out before midnight.

On our last full day, we chartered a boat and spent the day seeking out coves along the coast, topping up our tans and snorkelling. The absolute perfect day.

Leaving the villa was hard, it was the perfect place and the perfect holiday after a fairly stressful Summer. We said goodbye to our beautiful pool, deflated Flaminia the Flamingo and made our last trip to Argostoli for a wander and lunch before catching our flight back home.