The Way of Tea in Japan

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.

The Way of Tea is the traditional method of preparing and drinking matcha, or powdered green tea, first practiced by Zen Buddhist priests to achieve a contemplative calm. Traditionally, the ceremony is performed in a chashitsu, or a room specially built for tea ceremonies, with a waiting area, tatami floors, screens, and a hearth built into the floor for boiling water.

You can see in the video all the tools used for the ceremony, collectively known as chadogu. The maroon hemp cloth used in the beginning to wipe the spoon is known as the chakin. And the spoon or scoop is called the chashaku, which can often be made of bamboo, wood or ivory. The natsume holds the powdered tea, while you mix the tea with water in the chawan with the chasen, or tea whisk.

Participating in a Japanese Tea Ceremony is an incredible way to discover the culture of Japan, not to mention an incredible way to rest and relax after a long morning of sightseeing. Here are a few tea houses in Tokyo and Kyoto recommended by Japan National Tourism, though not an exhaustive list:

Hot Chinzanso Tokyo, Tokyo
Tea is served in traditional Japanese tea houses located in the hotel’s garden. The houses are very old, and one of them has been registered as a tangible cultural asset. Please make a reservation at least 3 days in advance.

Imperial Hotel, Tokyo
The Imperial’s “TOKO-AN” is a set of three ceremonial chambers, all faithful in minute detail to the prescribed sukiya style. Guests are invited to watch as their tea is prepared in the traditional fashion. Prior reservation is necessary, and you will actually stay at this hotel on our Japan Panorama small group escorted tour.

Nishijin Tondaya, Kyoto
In addition to the tea ceremony, you’ll also have the opportunity to try on or purchase a kimono, or eat a traditional Japanese lunch.

Joukeian, Kyoto
Here you’ll have the opportunity to experience the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and even take various courses (with English explanation) about the Way of Tea. Again, reservations are recommended.

On our Japan Panorama escorted tour, you’ll have free time built into your itinerary in both Tokyo and Kyoto, where you can venture out on your own to experience the Way of Tea. On our Tokyo Express, Singapore & Tokyo and Orient Adventure independent packages, you are free to explore Tokyo unescorted, and we certainly recommend making a tea ceremony part of your adventure.

First time to South Africa? Expect the unexpected.

If you are heading to South Africa for the first time, consider yourself warned. Expect to be blown away. Expect to have your soul stirred. And expect to have your expectations shattered and rearranged beyond your imagination. Here are seven experiences I wasn’t expecting on my visit to South Africa.

Zulu warriors

1 Hundreds of Languages are Spoken in South Africa

Though there are 11 official languages recognized in South Africa, hundreds more are spoken by its people, most of whom speak more than one language. Visitors will most often encounter English, yet it is spoken by fewer than 10% of the population. Make it a point to ask the people you meet along your travels about the languages they speak and you will be surprised, and even heart-warmed, by the efforts of many who are learning a new language to better be able to speak to more of their brothers and sisters.

Pay attention. You never know when your hotel receptionist might effortlessly switch from English to Zulu, or when the guide and ranger team on your safari might share stories about how they are teaching each other’s families English and Xhosa (respectively).

You’ll also quickly realize that though English is often spoken, South Africans have a wide array of slang words that will confuse Americans. To brush up on your South African slang, check out this post of terms compiled by our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa.

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An Intro to South African Slang

School girls with painted faces
Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. One very helpful tip: learn to speak a few words of the country’s language. For Americans visiting South Africa, you can check this ‘to-do’ off your list! Though South Africa actually has 11 different national languages, you’ll find that English is widely spoken. But like English speakers in other parts of the world, South Africans have their own slang words that might leave Americans scratching their heads.

Our own Product Development Manager, who was born in South Africa, has compiled a list of South African slang words and their ‘American’ translations. Take this list along so you can preempt any confusion and even impress your new South African friends with your knowledge of what’s in.

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The epic love story that built the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?

Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

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3 KonMari-Inspired Tips for Tidy Travel

Packing can actually be a pleasure

You know how it goes before you leave on a trip. You swear you’ll have your loose ends tied up. Get a good night’s sleep. Drink lots of water and eat healthfully. Then you find yourself packing at 11 p.m. the night before and frantically asking around for someone to check on the cats while you’re gone.

Chances are it’ll play out the same way for the next trip—but what if we brought a little “KonMari” to it?

I recently delighted in a wonderful little book called “Spark Joy” by Marie Kondo whose Zen-like “KonMari” approach to tidying up and holding on to only those things that bring us joy and appreciation has inspired people around the globe to see their “stuff” a little differently.

One such person is Brooke Booth, a professional organizer in Detroit who’s in the process of becoming a certified KonMari consultant and bringing Kondo’s methods to her own clientele.

When it comes to packing and prepping for a trip, says Booth, some of the stress we feel comes from the fact we’re not clear what really sparks joy, whether it’s the things we’re packing (a wrinkle-free shirt we think we should bring) or even how we pack (throwing it all in the bag and hoping for the best).

If you haven’t already KonMari’d your home and surrounded yourself only with things you love, packing your suitcase offers an opportunity to do just that.

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Tapas


Tapas are small savory dishes often served as a side dish to drinks, and they are ubiquitous in Spain. On our Discover Spain tour, we’ve built wine and tapas tasting into the itinerary. But you’ll also have free time on the main tour, as well as on our Barcelona extension, when you may want to venture out and try tapas on your own.

There are several theories as to the origin of tapas. The first is that the thirteenth century Spanish King, Alfonso X, was ill and had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his health. After he recovered, he passed this practice as law to maintain the health of his kingdom. Perhaps a more practical genesis lies in the practice of farm workers eating small snacks during the day to tide them over between meals. Although most likely, the practice of tapas has a highly practical purpose. Throughout Spain’s history, bread or small plates of olives or pork were used to cover drinks and prevent insects from getting in, and this food was then eaten. The word ‘tapas’ literally translates to ‘lid’.

Whatever the origin, tapas are now a social mainstay of Spanish culture and a must-try for any visit to Spain. So we’ve compiled these three videos, courtesy of the Spanish Tourism office in America, to help you navigate some of the Do’s and Don’ts of tapas etiquette.

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7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:

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UPDATE: Miracles from pennies: the Trailblazer story

In early June, we brought to your attention the Trailblazer Foundation and their mission: building wells to bring poor villages in Cambodia clean, drinkable water. The Foundation is in dire need of a new truck so they can continue to deliver well building materials to outlying villages.

Their fundraising campaign to raise $7500 is coming to an end on Sunday, August 7th. Trailblazer was actually able to sell their old truck for $1500 and put the money towards the campaign. They now only need $1830 to reach their goal. That’s only 92 people donating $20! Once Trailblazer reaches their goal, we will match a final $2500 so they can purchase a brand new truck and continue serving the poor of Cambodia. If you would like to help us and Trailblazer reach the goal, you can donate any amount to their campaign on IndieGoGo.

And if you haven’t already, read below to learn more about Trailblazer and their amazing work.

Scott & Chris Coats (2nd & 3rd from right) of the Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia

Meet Chris Coats, co-founder with her husband, Scott, of The Trailblazer Foundation. Friendly Planet has supported Trailblazer since 2007, when we first discovered we could pay to dig wells in the Siem Reap area and help provide clean, potable water for the villagers surrounding the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat—a site that we visit on our tours. We’re proud to support the Trailblazer Foundation, and through our own Friendly Planet Foundation, we look forward to working together to help improve the lives of the villagers of Siem Reap who so graciously welcome us into their communities. The Trailblazer Foundation is currently running a fundraising campaign to help buy an equipment delivery truck, which they desperately need to continue their mission. To help raise awareness of the campaign, Chris took some time to tell us a little bit about herself and her husband, and why they started Trailblazer. She said:

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7 reasons you’ll love Sri Lanka

Judy Poliva is the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. She traveled to Sri Lanka to plan our new Best of Sri Lanka Tour. She took some time to write about her favorite parts of the adventure, and here’s what she had to say:

In February, I traveled to Sri Lanka to plan a brand new Friendly Planet adventure. It’s important for me to experience first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation, so that I know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers (and it’s my favorite part of the job too!). Not only was I not disappointed, I completely fell in love with the country. From the bustling modern capital city of Colombo, to the tea highlands and game safari, there was so much to savor.

As I prepared for my trip, it occurred to me that despite having visited and planned tours for many destinations, I really didn’t know very much about this small island nation south of India. I discovered that it’s a wild and ancient destination known for its lush rainforest, tea-growing highlands, diverse wildlife and world-class Buddhist ruins—with a history dating back to 3,000 years ago. And while it’s an up-and-coming travel destination that has made the “must see” lists of various well-regarded travel publications like Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, it hasn’t yet breached the beaten tourist path, which is great news for world travelers who revel in the newly discovered places that offer authentic cultural experiences. Here I compiled some of my favorite experiences from my trip to give you a better idea of what Sri Lanka has to offer.

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What you should know after the Ecuador earthquakes

Ecuadorian woman

I recently returned from a press trip to Nepal, where I accompanied a small group of journalists to check out the country after last year’s devastating earthquake. While there, I got an up close and personal look at what it means to live in a country that depends upon tourism for its livelihood, and how crippling it is when the tourists stop coming. Like Nepal, Ecuador has just suffered a massive earthquake of its own, and while the effects of the quake in the major tourist areas of the country are not as significant in Ecuador as in Nepal, there is a real fear among Ecuadorians that travelers will cancel or simply not book trips to the country.

Like Nepal, Ecuador’s people are poor, and they rely on tourism in a big way. The country’s major tourism centers, Quito, Cotopaxi, Cuenca, the Amazon, the Galapagos, to name just a few, have been spared the earthquake’s devastation, which appears to have been limited mostly to the country’s central coast. In most of the country, hotels are functioning normally, airports are open, and touristic activities are continuing as usual.

Friendly Planet has an extensive program to Ecuador, and fortunately, none of our itineraries have been impacted by the earthquake. All of our partners in Ecuador are fine, including our passengers who were in Quito at the time of the earthquake, and our tours are proceeding as usual. I’m happy to report that despite dire predictions that tourism to Ecuador would crash after the quake, we have not had any cancellations, and reservations continue as usual.

If you’re planning a vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please take a moment to read this short piece by Laura Dannen Redmen of Conde Nast Traveler.

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