Tag Archives: Travel

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Office

Some people were born to be remote workers. They wake up, make some coffee, have good Wi-Fi, and then drift off to a room that is all kitted-out for a virtual office. They love the non-existent commute and they’re very self-motivated. They don’t miss the socializing in the office. Type B people…highly focused, not attention seekers. The money and time they save on lunches and travel alone means that they actually make more than all of us. In addition, babysitting becomes less of an issue.

I really had thought of what it would be like to be a remote worker – to not have the buzz of the office, the people smiling as I grab my morning coffee at Flour Bakery, the impromptu meetings, the beer after work, the buzz of the city. I just really couldn’t imagine myself being in that world of the remote workers. But…here I am tapping away, sitting on Zoom, and looking out the window. I am now one of them, a remoter, and it feels weird.

When I closed my office in mid-March, we all became affiliates of the remote club. Little did we know how long it would last. There are some people who never really get comfortable with working from home (literally and metaphorically). And there are some people who just simply find it so easy that they never want to return to the office. In fact, you may have to plead with them to come back.

Over the course of the pandemic calendar, one word gives it away…remote. I feel a bit remote. I miss the buzz and banter. I miss the innovation and creativity that often comes about through this buzz and banter. I miss the faces. I miss the city a little bit – probably because I’m not a rural guy – but I’ve adjusted to the sounds of hearing coyotes in the evening and wondered at the miracle of dragonflies and bats. And I wonder when the world will return to normal. And then I think that this is normal now; dragonflies are beautiful, bats eat mosquitoes, and maybe I’m going mad!

Reflections on the Pandemic: An April to Remember

As I now sit out in Western Massachusetts watching the annual invasion of Japanese beetles balanced by an influx of hummingbirds and crickets and dragonflies, I was thinking how quickly April passed and how Easter came and went. That’s when I realized I had never spent Easter in the USA. I always find myself traveling because that is when our groups travel and it’s one of the busiest times of our year. I find myself jumping on planes and trains and moving between London and Paris, while sometimes catching the processions in Seville or other times listening to the Papal Blessing in St. Peter’s Square. I rarely spend a spring without visiting Versailles. Even Notre Dame under construction would have been a place I would go. After all, I was there last summer when it took fire and I witnessed the scene from the top of the Montparnasse Tower with the fabulous Marie-Helen Hickman, our Frenchie-Alabaman Tour Manager whose whole family of stars have worked with us over the years.

So, this year I had Easter in Western Mass for the first time ever. April in New England is always interesting as we still have the occasional snow storm, the last splurge of winter, in between the mud season getting going. April came and went but at least I got to enjoy Easter egg hunting with Cecilia, my grandchild. And still we thought we would be back in travel mode sooner than later. We still had a bunch of groups who were hanging on for the summer. Although increasingly people began trending towards rolling over their trip to next year.


And then global travel started to really shut down. I would get reports from Jessica, our niece in Rome, who was locked in her apartment with her husband and daughter, Beatrice. Italy was under complete lockdown and masks were already mandatory. You could not leave your apartment without a certificate and you had to prove you were going to either the pharmacy or a grocery store. Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, all came tumbling down too. The UK followed – albeit halfheartedly at the beginning. And the USA finally started to take it seriously. Suddenly I started to delve into my bag of tricks and retrieved as many magnets as I could from all of the trips I had taken. I popped them on my fridge. Every now and again when I go to grab my milk, I stare at a magnet and disappear into whatever takes my fancy and whatever is on the fridge. I will always regret not buying more magnets for times like this.

And the toll of Covid-19 continued to spiral. Fatalities, sickness, it all became very real and very frightening. It was clear that we were going through something that we had never experienced before as individuals, as a company, as families, or as countries. This was huge.

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Beginning

Strangely enough, this whole challenging saga began after my second trip to Japan in January 2020. After visiting only a few months prior, I had returned to the country again to see Tokyo and Kyoto, and this time I even got to visit Hiroshima. As I love Japanese food, I ate up a storm on this trip, and I dove deeper into Japanese culture. Even knowing that this was my second time there, it was still mind-blowing and spectacular. But there was this thing in the background that I was aware of. I had picked it up on the BBC News and knew it was out there. But I thought it would be resolved.

There was a cruise ship in Tokyo Bay that had been stranded while they tried to figure out what to do with people who had been infected by isolated cases of this novel virus, Covid-19. I think we all thought that it would be sorted out quite quickly as Japan is highly organized and efficient and that they would help to isolate whatever this was, and life would go on. For me, I continued to travel.

Fast forward a few weeks to coming through the Marco Polo Airport in Venice on February 20th. It wasn’t a big deal but I had my temperature checked before immigration. Immigration in nearly every European airport is electronic. So, it was strange to see somebody jumping out of nowhere with a machine that detected your temperature. I didn’t think too much of it and headed into town on a boat across the glorious lagoon. Had I known what was about to follow, I think I would have asked the motoscafi guy to go super slow so that I could taste every single aspect of that journey from the airport into Venice. It is probably the greatest single airport transfer in the world.

I checked into the hotel and went for lunch at a cool place as I waited for a friend of mine to come in that evening. I even met up with an ACIS group. I hung out with Anna Costes, our fantastic and fabulous Tour Manager, and we made some silly poses with masks on. We didn’t think much of it except how lucky we were to be in a town like this, in a setting like this, as everyone walked around in wonderful Venetian Carnival costumes and masks. It was a theater set in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The next day, I walked around the city and people were flooding in from everywhere since it was Saturday. At Carnival, the city usually enjoys three million visitors. I had a bite to eat, left Venice, and drove with my friend to Switzerland. Every year I go skiing there – the same hotel, same mountains, and same friends. We have been doing it for 20 years. I know exactly what is around every corner of the mountain. Believe me, at my age I’m not looking for surprises. I’m more of a sightseeing skier and I like to coast and cruise while I take in the scenery. I even know what the hotel room looks like and I know the people in the hotel. Had I known what was about to unravel, I would probably have savored that week a little more. But same hotel, same mountain, same bartender, same friends. It seemed just like any other week in the mountains. Except it wasn’t.

This was the last week that Europe would be open. That week was when the cruise ship in Japan became a deteriorating situation, and Japan had shutdown. Italy, one of the first European countries to experience this outbreak, started to shut down too. The Carnival was cancelled. Borders were closed. Literally the lights went out during the course of that week slowly but surely. By the end of the week, Europe was shutting down.

By the time I got back to Boston, I wasn’t even sure what kind of entry issues immigration would give me. I boarded the busy British Airways plane from London to Boston, and upon arrival, I had to ask somebody if there was any special immigration protocol for Covid-19, or new entry requirements, or new concerns. An immigration official said that nothing unusual was required. Welcome home. There were no temperature checks or masks being worn then and they let me through as normal.

The first 10 days of March was confusing. Italy had essentially shut down right after I left, some countries remained fairly open, and we still had groups traveling. The last two groups out there were Jim Minor from Sarasota on an amended European itinerary, and Lucy Bartholomee from Dallas was in Australia. Everyone else had cut their journey short or rethought their plans. By mid-March, everyone stopped traveling. In four weeks, this virus, which started in China, became global.

I was thinking of all the traveling I had done since the start of the year. When I was in Barcelona in January to celebrate our Global Teacher Conference (with more teachers than ever before), I wish I had stayed a little longer to taste this wonderful city by the Mediterranean. It always energizes me. When I went to Bruges, I was so charmed by the place, and a beautiful evening hanging out in a gorgeous converted monastery, that I nearly took it for granted because I knew I would be back since that’s what I do. I travel, I wonder, I learn, I travel, and it changes me. And then the world stopped.

Roman Ways

Beatrice en Vélo

My niece lives in Rome and has been there since 2001.  Due to Covid-19, she has been locked down since the end of February and has only recently been able to leave the apartment to start enjoying again the beautiful city that she lives in with her husband and 9-year-old daughter, Beatrice.  As part and parcel of being on lockdown, she has been tutoring Beatrice and working on all sorts of projects with the French school that her daughter attends.

This latest project was one that I was particularly struck by as it was based around a French poem from Jacques Charpentreau.  The idea behind the original children’s poem, called “Paris en Vélo“, took us by bicycle through the various districts of Paris.  Below is the original poem and assignment.

Beatrice’s project was to replicate the poem using her own words and taking us through her neighborhoods in Rome.  Below is her final poem along with a picture of Beatrice on her bike.

It is extraordinary for me to follow Beatrice and Jessica’s adventures on WhatsApp.  Most of all, it is incredible to watch the creativity of her teachers as they continue to keep the kids engaged while they were literally at home unable to even walk 100 meters outside.  “Rome en Vélo” is wonderful because Beatrice was able to take her bike out for the first time in nearly three months.  While she couldn’t cover all of the neighborhoods, she was able to experience life outside of the apartment en vélo.

For all of the teachers who have been teaching remote over the past 2.5 months, Chapeau Bas!  Thank you on behalf of all of the parents and students.  Whatever country, whatever subject, you have all done quite an amazing job of keeping the knowledge flowing and the creativity blowing our way.  I wanted to share this delightful poem because it says so much about the innovation and importance of education even when things are so difficult.  Of course, grazie Beatrice for being the inspiration.

And I Found Myself in Venice

Today I dreamed of Venice. I had never been to Venice during Carnevale di Venezia but for some reason, some weeks ago, I found myself transiting through this great city and arrived in the middle of the Carnevale spirit.  Venice in the winter is something incredible.  If you fly into Venice on a clear day, you are struck immediately by the silhouette of the fish that is Venice from high above – stretching all the way from the Arsenal to the Piazzale Roma.  Upon arrival, there is a new walkway at the airport that takes you from the terminal building to the ferries and motor boats.  From there, after usually a little bit of chaos, you find your boat and sail across the wide lagoon.  Looking back beyond the airport, the snow capped Dolomites are a stunning sight like the backdrop in a theater.  You pass San Michele Island before entering the small canals that lead into the main artery of the Grand Canal.
Venice never ceases to amaze.  It is like a Hollywood set – the Doge’s Palace, the gondolieri, Santa Maria Della Salute, San Giorgio on the Giudecca, and of course, the jewel in the crown, the Basillica of San Marco and its clock tower looking out across the square.  In this dream, I walked through the streets and into the piazza where I ended up in the middle of the Carnevale.  There were elaborate costumes, people posing at the Quadri, and walking deliberately, slowly, disguised with their Carnevale masks.  Everybody appeared to be on show, with some sitting in the piazzas, where musicians in costume played, while others walked along the Promenade of the lagoon.  It is the most colorful spectacle I have ever experienced.  In my dream, I walked through the centuries in slow motion with all of these characters.  I never thought that three or four days later, the narrow alleyways, the main piazza, and the canals would be empty of the three million people that come to celebrate Carnevale every year.  Venice would then take on an emptiness that it will probably never see again.  I cannot wait to go back.
It is bizarre in this time of COVID-19, to think that the masks that we wear now are strangely derived from this ancient festival where people actually wore the masks to conceal their identity and to have fun.  The masks enabled different classes to mingle together through the festivities and all sorts of debauchery took place.  A lot of people ask about the long nose masks and they are particularly relevant today.  The PesteMaschera were used by doctors to treat people with plague-like symptoms by stuffing the nose with herbs and spices.  The aroma enabled the doctors to work without the stench of the plague around them.  In addition, they believed that the mask would help ward off the plague.
The Venetian mask makers, the mascherari, held a special place in Venetian society and had their own laws and their own guild.  And the masks themselves became a central feature of the Venetian Carnevale.  It began as a Baroque carnival in the 1600’s and was then used in the 1800’s as a form of fun and pleasure.  And as a way to insulate the Venetians as their world slowly changed and alternative trade routes bypassed this great city and left it for the grand tour travelers to enjoy.

And I Found Myself in London and Rome

In my Facebook and Instagram world, I find myself traveling to all of my familiar haunts and daring to step into places that I am not so familiar with.  A friend of mine, who lives in the center of London, keeps me updated with his afternoon walks through the deserted city.  It makes me nostalgic as a Londoner.  I remember my mother telling me stories about the Blitz in World War II.  She lived in London and they would have to take shelter in their houses until they got the “all clear.”  The streets were empty.  I wondered if that emptiness was a little like the emptiness that we see now.
As a traveler, it’s fascinating to see a city like London with all of its craggy alleyways, pubs, and bookstores, its parks and squares, laid out perfectly with not a hint of a car, taxi, bus, or person.  I know that this is a temporary state of affairs, but the magic of my friend Jim’s afternoon walks replenish the soul and makes me smile and reminisce.
Then there are those memories in my photo library that I can plug straight into – like a Roman walk that I do every time I go to Rome.  Pictures from the past that I find myself scanning and then I recount in my mind the history of these walks that accompany me every time I return. And I wonder, how many years it will be again before we see this quietness.  Not a plane in the sky, not a horn on the roads.  It is as if the world has decided to give us a break and show us a “what if” in an attempt to slow down the madness of global warming and self-inflicted climate change.
When I look at the pictures that our beloved Carlotta posts from our Rome office, I walk with her through the empty streets around the Circus Maximus and look at the ancient temples and stroll through the Capitoline Hill, and look down to the Piazza Venezia, and it seems peaceful.  My niece, Jessica, who lives near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, looks down on empty streets that lead to the Spanish Steps.  The beautiful, the Baroque, the Roman, all empty.
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Every city almost feeling like a busy museum that was on a lunch break.  Statues and churches that we had barely noticed come out of the woodwork.  Crossing the streets, you now have time to look up rather than trying to avoid the chaos and cacophony of cars and buses and scooters.  There they are and they have always been there.  We just never noticed.
And I wonder, when it all ends, when we return and jump on the planes and populate the places again, whether we have learned anything at all.  We do not have much time to think about it but it’s worth the thought.  These places need to be beautiful for the next 2,000 years.  It’s down to us.  We can have an impact on how we maintain the gardens we live in and how to proceed for the future.

Baku or Bust!

Driving over the Steppes of Georgia

The drive from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan is quite stunning. The mountains are always hovering over you with the snow capped peaks soaring above the plains. To drive from Tbilisi to Baku, we decided to spend an overnight en route and visited a Soviet-era spa hotel. It was quite a treat – dreadful decor and awful food with zero charm but worth every minute of it. To get to the spa resort, we had to negotiate the steppes and switch vans to ride on a four-wheel drive truck that seemed to stay precariously close to the watch towers that are dotted along the Azerbaijan border.

The wild landscape, with the wind whipping across hundreds of miles of barren earth, was stark and unforgiving. The guys in the watch towers had their guns pointed at us, which was not entirely reassuring, but our drivers knew the boundaries and told us not to worry. Yeah right! We just couldn’t take photos! We visited a remote cave monastery in Davit Gareja dating from the 6th century before we headed to the Vashlovani National Park near the Azerbaijan border. The spa scene here was pure Soviet. Rough and ready with bright lights and gangsters. Georgia sits on the precipice of the oil rich Azerbaijan, but the border crossing was yet to come. And there as so far no sign of wealth in the Georgian countryside.

The Border Crossing and Baku

The town where the Georgia-Azerbaijan border sits is called Lagodekhi. It is basically a busy street with traffic and trucks rolling back and forth between the Caspian Sea port of Baku and the Black Sea town of Batuni. We had to get out of our Georgia vehicle and walk the 200 meters with our bags across the border to Azerbaijan. It’s a strange feeling. The crossing can take an hour and if you mention you have visited Armenia, it could take longer. We hadn’t, but if we had, there would have been a much larger hassle as they tend to go through everything. No love lost between the Azerbajanis and the Armenians! We still had to have an interview, showed our visas (necessary for Azerbaijan but not for Georgia), and then were walked across to a new vehicle on the other side. Then the slow descent to the modern and ancient city of Baku begun.

The drive was beautiful and the sweeping vistas down to the Caspian Sea were dramatic. This is the land of oil riches and caviar, if Georgia missed out on the oil, it also didn’t do too well on the caviar side of things. As we arrived in Baku, we were greeted by a skyline of skyscrapers and the iconic Flame Towers. We stayed in one of the pointed skyscrapers covered with LED screens that mimic huge flames throughout the night. It’s quite a sight.

Baku is famed for its medieval walled old city, which contains the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a vast royal complex, and the iconic stone Maiden Tower. We drove past the stadium, a huge complex, as we headed out of the city, driving next to hundreds of oil rigs bobbing up and down like horses at the trough. It became obvious that this was a city of wealth. We saw the Mud Volcanoes and the Fire Temple outside of the city before getting back to Baku in time for a delicious dinner accompanied by….caviar.

Is Baku worth it? Yes, it is. It’s easy to get here too as you can easily connect back to the USA. We flew back on Turkish Airlines, stopping in Istanbul first, and then all the way to Boston. An amazing place to visit.

A Visit to the Stalin Museum

The Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia is very bizarre. There is the train carriage, green and primitive, that used to cart Stalin all over the country. It’s where he slept and had meetings and almost certainly condemned friends and foes after some feel good strategic get together across the Caucuses. There are statues everywhere in the museum. Paintings adorn each room along with incredible photos and depictions of his life.

This guy was a big deal. Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili in 1878) was a Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1952) and premier of the Soviet Union (1941-1953), succeeding Lenin. They say he made 25 million people “disappear”. He was the most feared Soviet leader in the history of the Soviet Union. A small guy with huge statues to deceive his diminutive stature.

At the end of his reign and under Krushev’s new Soviet era, they rethought his contributions to the world of Soviet peace and reconciliation. On reflection, they decided he was a jolly bad person. And so the city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961. Although to celebrate the huge battle that effectively sealed the Germans fate in the second World War, Stalingrad made a comeback on the anniversary of the battle that claimed 2 million Russian lives. Rehabilitating Stalin has become quite a thing.

The museum shop here is one of the greatest understated museum shops in the world. Nobody cares, there’s nothing to buy, and you are much better going outside to the street sellers to buy your Stalin statue and trinkets. This place is so amazing I wanted to stay longer. However, we had a date at a restaurant to have Georgian dumplings filled with mashed potatoes and who would want to miss that?!

Charm and Wine in Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia is a look back to an era of Soviet rule. Stalin’s birthplace of Gori is not far away. He is celebrated throughout the country and several wineries even carry his face on their wines. Yep! Maybe he was not a perfect human being, but he was a lovely psychopath who every now and then weeded out large swaths of his enemies. A mafia-inspired dictator but absolutely beloved in Georgia.

So, why go to Georgia? The country sits with its western shores on the Black Sea and has holiday resort towns like Batumi. It is in constant awareness of its Russian neighbor. In fact, Russia invaded it once and simply held onto the northwestern piece. It’s called Abkhazia, a closed-off and fairly impossible to enter sovereign state that is barely recognized except for by Russia. But Georgia is an extraordinary country. Medieval castles, beautiful spas, national parks, and tall mountains as high as 20,000 feet. And Tbilisi, its capital, is home to a blend of cultures. The old town, with its cathedral, mineral baths, and delightful cobblestone streets, is quite beautiful in the evening, and the center is a lively scene. Views of the city from the hilltop accessed by the cable car are stunning and the food is really remarkable as well.

Not to mention the wine in Georgia. The ancient tradition of wine making actually began in Georgia. It is highly recommended to get outside Tbilisi and visit a winery. The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back by archaeology to when people of the South Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice turned into wine when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This dates back to 6000 BC. To this day, Georgia still maintains the old tradition of burying the wine underground in clay kvevris for storage. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years! I wouldn’t really recommend drinking that stuff!

The wine tastes different to something you might be used to – it’s a little bizarre, almost like sherry if you are drinking the white wine. But you adapt to the taste. It’s sort of historical realignment; an homage to the history of wine making. After a while you get used to it. Nowadays Georgia also boasts modern day wine making techniques. Still, you have to try this stuff. I brought back some bottles but haven’t touched them yet. I need to wait for a proper Georgian feast to accompany the wine.

To get to Tbilsi easily, I suggest having a stopover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has great connections to the Georgian capital and why not grab a couple of nights in Turkey at the beginning.

The Lure of Istanbul

I have been to Istanbul quite a few times. I love the buzz of the ancient city and you can feel its history hanging in the air. I always go to Mısır Çarşısı, the spice bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar, which is the main bazaar in the city. What I like about the spice bazaar is that it is right by the ferry terminal and next to the Galata Bridge and Tower. It’s just relaxing and so different from its counterparts in Morocco. The colorful stacks of spices make a wonderful photo opportunity and the smells of saffron and cumin float through the air. It’s never too crowded and there are always bargains and fun to be had here.

From here you can walk to most places and certainly walk across the bridge to the other side of Istanbul. Restaurants near Taksim Square are not bad and the Besiktas Stadium, where the main soccer and basketball clubs play, is only a 10-minute walk away.

Down towards the Bosporus, there are lots of restaurants which liven the waterfront. Everyone that visits Istanbul must do a cruise of the Bosporus. It takes you under the great bridge that connects Istanbul to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea. It’s the best sightseeing tour in Istanbul as it escapes the clogged streets of polluted traffic. It’s cheap to do and you can book directly at the port terminal by the Galeta Bridge.

And in the meantime, go see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, visit the Basilica Cistern, a sunken palace and one of the largest of the ancient cisterns, and of course take some time out to visit the beautiful Topkaki Palace with its stunning views across the Bosporus. Finally, end your visit at the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s most famous souks, comprising of more than 60 streets brim full of anything and everything. So much shopping to do and so little time.

If you are a US citizen, you will need a visa to get into Turkey. It costs $35 and can be purchased on line. The great news now is that the old airport is closed and the new one open which is about a 45 minute taxi ride from the city. The new one is HUGE – so big in fact that it can take 30 minutes to walk to your gate so be aware! Istanbul is a city with so much to see and ancient reminders of old civilizations. The old city of Constantinople is everywhere. Turkey is one of my favorite destinations.

Hiroshima in a Day

From Kyoto, Hiroshima is a must-see day excursion on the shinkansen train. It takes about 1.5 hours on the train and nothing can quite prepare you for how beautiful this city is and how extraordinary the full day excursion including Miyajima Island and the Hatsukaichi Temple are. Hiroshima was the first city, Nagasaki the other, that were obliterated by a nuclear bomb in August 1945 which effectively ended the second World War. 200,000 people were killed.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hiroshima is a vibrant, modern city with wide boulevards and beautiful parks. We took the shuttle bus to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. After a short walk from the stop, we saw the mangled structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Preserved in a sea of rubble and surrounded by the beautiful Peace Memorial Park, it is a melancholic and beautiful place to walk around. The bridge close to the dome carries two pieces of the original bridge. It is then a short walk to the Peace Memorial Museum where the tour of the museum takes 30-40 minutes. It is one of those places that you enter with apprehension, you see the after effects of a nuclear explosion, and you come out understanding why it is called the Peace Memorial Museum.

We then took the train back to the main station and connected to Miyajima – a completely different experience from the heavy heart of Hiroshima. Now we were back to the temples and a beautiful stroll through a town filled with deer freely moving throughout the streets and walkways. There were eateries and food stores that tumbled into the lanes.

Eventually we caught sight of the beautiful torii gate there that sits in the water with a 14th century temple that sits in the background. Sadly for us, the breathtaking torii gate was under wraps as they were sprucing it up for the Olympic games this year. But even so, walking out at low tide and looking at this incredible structure sitting in the sea, was enough. Looking back at the shrine also sitting in the sea, was breathtaking. This place was one of the great highlights of my tour to Japan and it is something that everybody should do.

Frankly, after a couple of hours of weighing the value of nuclear power, it was refreshing to get back to a little bit of Shintoism. We then took the train back to Kyoto in time for sushi and miso in the Gion area.

The Colors of Kyoto

Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.

On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.

Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.

But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.

From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.

Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.

Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.

There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.

Japanese Food Models

One of the most bizarre things that you can see and buy in Japan, are plastic replicas of food. There are shops that specialize in selling these as gifts. Believe it or not, they are so artistically revered that they were exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It all really started in the 1920s when Japanese artisans and candle makers developed displays of food that made it easy for people to order at restaurants without the use of menus which were completely uncommon in Japan. These things are so sought after by restaurants and by tourists that the market has been growing and growing. The level of detail in creating a display or a dish is extraordinary. Restaurants spend far more money for beautiful displays of their offerings than they do on the actual food itself. The plastic food manufacturers compete for an industry that conservatively runs at billions of Yen per year.

I brought back a piece of fake tuna sushi which is now beautifully displayed on my colleague’s desk. Honestly, it looks so good that every time I walk by I want to throw some soy and wasabi on it. The good news is that they last forever. You just need to keep them clean. They never fade, they rarely break, and they make great souvenirs!

Far Beyond the Average Train

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is the busiest railway station in the world. It carries multiple train lines, including the metro and an above ground railroad, and is used by an average of 3.5 million people daily. It has a subterranean shopping mall and street that stretches for miles. It is teeming with people and it seems impossible that chaos would not be pervasive here. But, this is Japan and Japan is super organized and super functional. So it works.

The metro is clean and logical, and once you get the hang of it, you can get from one end of this vast city to the other in no time. All signs use the Japanese and Roman alphabet so you can pretty easily figure it out even if you do not know Japanese. Getting tickets at the automatic kiosk is a piece of cake and there are so many people that seem to work at the metro who can help you that nothing seems impossible to figure out. So you will never feel stranded. Ironically, nobody really speaks English. The culture is kind and forgiving and they are pretty good at sign language.

And then there are the Shinkansen trains. The bullet trains. Faster than any train on the planet – they rule the train world. They are awesome to ride on plus they are frequent and always on time. They travel around 225 mph and transport you across Japan in super elegant fashion. Nobody takes flights inside Japan when it simply makes sense to just take the train. Imagine this…Boston to Washington is currently 8 hours on our Acela trains. But on the Shinkansen it would be 2 hours. It’s extraordinary and perfectly configured. First class has a green cross to mark the carriages. Second class is barely second class and feels like first class in any other country. The doors of the carriages pull into the station precisely in sync with the openings marked on the platform.

The trains stay for maybe a minute and then they are gone. But the next one arrives within four minutes. There are six trains to Tokyo from Kyoto within 24 minutes. There are different types of Shinkansen trains and the faster they are, the more extraordinary the front of the train looks. And guess what? They are building a new one, the Maglev, that should be ready shortly and it travels at speeds over 300 mph. So, Boston to NYC would only take 40 minutes! City center to city center. I had a dream! You can buy weekly train passes (7, 14, 21 day), called the Japan Rail Pass, in either first or ordinary class travel. They have to be bought outside of Japan and it’s a fantastic deal. Traveling by train in Japan is one of the highlights of traveling in Japan. And it’s about to get even better.

The Bento

Imagine the lunch that you bring to work every day. A microwavable pasta sauce, a Lean Cuisine, maybe your own concoction of carrots and hummus, or a granola bar. And then there is bento – Japanese lunch boxes. They are found practically everywhere in vending machines, but most impressively, they are found mostly in train stations where people race for the train and can grab their lunch box to-go. They are beautifully presented in colorful boxes with a perfect depiction of all of the amazing ingredients inside. They are almost too good to eat. Walking through a bento food stand and looking at the various options is almost as thrilling as eating them. There is eel, sushi, sashimi, chicken with rice and seaweed, roe, and noodles. You name it. All perfectly compartmentalized with the perfect sashay of soy sauce and wasabi (real wasabi) with a pair of chopsticks of course. Grab a drink and you have been fully “bento-nized”.

Bento boxes are different wherever you travel. Outside of Tokyo, the bento will represent the local cuisine and ingredients of that city or town. Then there are holiday bentos such as the specially prepared boxes for New Year’s packed with poached tiger prawns, root vegetables, roe, and chestnuts. A bento is an amazing meal. The origin of bento comes from Makunouchi which literally means “between acts”, as they were originally packed for a light meal to be enjoyed between intermissions of lengthy kabuki plays.

Tokyo Sights

Honestly, Tokyo is not a city of great sights. Yes, there are palaces and significant shrines here and there, but it’s more or less a city of feeling. Of foreignness and touch. With taxi cabs where the drivers wear gloves, where the car doors open for you, and where the interiors are immaculate with sometimes lacey curtains. Where citizens might not speak English but are nonetheless polite, courteous, and bow to you. There are crazy train stations that work and are reliable.

Tokyo is a city that sprawls for miles and miles with huge skyscrapers and narrow, compartmentalized houses side-by-side. It is a city of small, ancient bars juxtaposed against giant skyscrapers. This is no more dramatically illustrated than in the Shinjuku area of the city. Here, the Golden Gai District, an architectural relic, is a cluster of six alleys connected by even smaller passageways, with over 200 tiny bars, often with room for only six people, that burst into life at sundown. This is where you can pick up a bowl of ramen, some sushi, or a beer before the unenviable prospect of a 1.5 hour minimum commute to the outskirts of this sprawling metropolis of 9.3 million. Tokyo is even where the busiest intersection in the world is. No kidding. It is a series of zebra crossings that literally buildup with people who wait diligently and patiently for the red light to turn green. By the time that the light has turned green, there are thousands of people crisscrossing across multiple different streets. Traffic waits until their light signals that they can go again. In Japan, order is everywhere. There is no jaywalking and no jumping lights.

Tokyo is a fashion show with its elegant strip of designer stores and cafes for people watching in the Roppongi District. It has more style than any other city I have been to in the world. And Tokyo is a city that hits you in the face. If you are sightseeing, you’ll go to the Imperial Palace Plaza, you’ll visit the Meiji Shrine and Atsakusa Temple, and will certainly see the second tallest building on Earth, Tokyo Skytree. And sometimes, you might just be walking through shopping malls, and yet it does not feel like any old shopping mall. You are almost certainly the only Western person walking through this mall.

I went to the Tsukiji outdoor fish market and ate ridiculous amounts of raw fish. Even though the indoor fish market has moved from this original location for wholesale purposes, it left behind a vibrant bunch of small stores and sushi places that serve fresh seafood and those delightful steamed buns that you see everywhere in Japan. There is always a line outside of the best places. It is easy to get there on the subway. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to get there at 5:00 am anymore because the wholesale market has moved to the suburbs. But the outdoor market is quite content for you to show up at 10:00 am or later.

I saw Japan in both the fall and in the winter and both times I was blown away. But Tokyo for me was about the buzz, the pace, the order from chaos and the sheer size of it all. It was an adventure and at one point I thought how much it looked like New York – but then I blinked and it simply couldn’t be NYC. There is too much order, it is too clean, and it feels too foreign in its absolute homogeneity. The colors, the skyscrapers, the tiny bars, the traffic, the fashion, the lines outside of popular lunch spots. Trust me, this is like no other place in the world. Hop on a plane, fast!