Friendly Planet Blog

Japan: A Top Destination for Foodies

Japan. Beyond sushi: foodie heaven

SushiIf you live to eat and enjoy exploring food culture around the world, Japan should be at the top of your travel wish list.

In Japan, cooking is an art guided by centuries-old culinary traditions, but there are also modern chefs adding new twists to longtime favorites. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the very high end to inexpensive day-to-day treats. Whatever you prefer, there are foods to excite every kind of eater.

Japanese chef © JNTOJapanese chefs train for decades to perfect the work that they do. And this dedication pays off: Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, more than Paris and New York combined. Food is so important to Japanese culture that the United Nation’s cultural organization, UNESCO, recently added traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It was only the second national cuisine to be given this honor, after France.

Japanese chefs use only seasonal and top-quality ingredients. Simplicity is key, and they do as little as possible to fresh ingredients to bring out the color and flavor. Umami, the rich flavor profile prized in Japanese cooking, is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, and bonito (fish) broth. The food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

In Japan, seafood is king and sushi lovers should take advantage of some of the freshest fish you will ever eat. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi. Here are a few examples:

  • Yakitori © JNTORichly marbled Wagyu beef, often considered the finest in the world
  • Yakitori, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled over hot coals
  • Tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in bread crumbs
  • Okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes
  • Soba, udon, and ramen noodle soups

Japanese sweets © JNTOIf you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Japan. Each region has different styles of traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in convenience stores and train stations, and come in beautifully wrapped boxes because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. In the Kyoto area, look for yatsuhashi—thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste. Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture is known for soybean production, so you’ll find edamame used in many local sweets, including ice cream and even Kit Kat bars!

Wine lovers will love trying sake, or Japanese rice wine. Sake has been brewed for over 2,000 years and the flavors vary greatly based on where it is made and the natural characteristics of the rice and water. Spirit and beer lovers should try local whiskey and craft beers, both growing in popularity.

Here are some unique food experiences to add to your list:

  • Kaiseki Ryori © JNTOKaiseki Ryori, a refined multicourse meal with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is best experienced in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel where the meal is served in your room.
  • Kawadoko ryori, a unique summer dining experience where you enjoy your meal seated on a platform built over a flowing stream.
  • Shojin ryori, the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks served in a Zen temple.
  • Traditional Japanese tea service, to learn the ceremonial ritual and art of hand-grinding matcha green tea
  • Visiting local markets: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest wholesale fish market that sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In Kyoto, check out Nishiki Market, a centuries old gourmet market that lets you sample all the local specialties.
  • Browsing the food stalls in a Japanese department store. The lowest levels are dedicated to specialty foods and offer many unique items, including beautifully packaged sweets and prized varieties of fruits, including melons fetching over $200 each!
  • Mingling with locals after work at the neighborhood izakaya, a casual bar that serves small plates of food.
  • Sampling international cuisine and foods you know from home—Japanese chefs often find ways to put their own unique touch on international classics.
  • The most adventurous eaters can try fugu, a poisonous blowfish. The dish has to be expertly prepared to be safe to eat, but it’s one of Japan’s finest delicacies.

Kaiseki Ryori © JNTODishes vary across the regions of Japan, but wherever you go you are sure to find something unique and delicious. So pack your appetite and a willingness to try something new on one of Friendly Planet’s tours to Japan — you won’t be disappointed!

Cassie Kifer is a freelance travel & food writer from the the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the founder of Ever In Transit, an adventure & culinary travel blog offering travel tips, stories, and photography from destinations around the world. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

Using your Cell Phone Abroad

traveling with your cell phoneSo you’ve booked your dream vacation and plan to get in as much down-time as you can. But you still want to stay connected with your family and friends at home, or just need to be reachable in case of emergency. Do you take your phone? Will it work? How much will it cost? Here are some helpful options and considerations.

Which option you select will depend on where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and how much you’ll be using your device. For example, if you just want to be accessible in case of emergency, using your current phone with international roaming is probably easiest. If you want to check in with your loved ones each night or keep up on email, using WiFi at your hotel might be your best bet. If you are a data addict or will be making a lot of local calls, getting a local SIM card or renting a phone locally could be the option for you.

1. Use your existing phone ($$$)

Taking your phone with you and using it as normal will often be your easiest and most expensive option. Your U.S. phone should work in Canada and most parts of Mexico and the Caribbean. But unless you have a ‘global ready’ phone (such as the iPhone 5s or 6 or Samsung Galaxy S 4 or 5), it may not work in other countries. Call your carrier before you go and find out whether your phone will actually work abroad—for both voice calls and other features. Ask about coverage areas, international rates for calls and data, and special roaming plans that you can enable temporarily while traveling. Here are some examples of international rates from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

You’ll want to do everything possible to reduce your data usage abroad—see our hints below. Outside of major cities, don’t be surprised if your 4G device which is normally speedy at home falls back to much slower 3G or 2G speeds—or has no data coverage at all. You could be paying a premium for frustratingly slow data speeds or voice-only coverage.

2. Get a local SIM card for your phone ($$)

Inserting a SIM cardA SIM card is a small removable microchip that identifies your device to the network and associates your phone number with your phone. Most cell phones contain a SIM card, though some Verizon and Sprint phones do not. Replacing your SIM card with a local one transforms the identify of your phone, giving you a local number and local rates. (It shouldn’t have any effect on your contacts, photos, music, or apps.) It’s like getting a local phone, but with less hassle.

First, ask your carrier if your phone will actually work abroad and is compatible with the networks at your destination. Next, ensure your phone is unlocked—not restricted to a particular network. Most carriers will let you unlock your phone, but usually only after a certain amount of time has passed on your contract and for a small fee. You can also buy phones that are already unlocked with no contract (Amazon: unlocked cell phones).

You can pick up a SIM cardbefore you go (check out Mobal, OneSimCard, CellularAbroad, and Amazon). Or buy a local one upon arrival—they’re often available at the airport, at convenience stores, sometimes even in vending machines! But do a little research before you select one. In particular, be sure to find out the coverage and rates, especially if you intend to use the card for international calls. SIM cards come in different sizes—standard, micro & nano—so make sure you get the right one for your phone, and make sure you know where it is and how to remove it.

This is a great option if you’ll be making a lot of local calls while abroad. The downside is that anybody calling you from home at your U.S. number won’t be able to reach you (unless you set up some fancy forwarding). You’ll need to give them your new (temporary) local number, and international rates will apply.

3. Buy or rent a phone to use abroad ($$)

If your phone won’t work at your destination, and/or will be making a lot of local calls while you’re traveling, consider buying or renting a phone just for your trip, preferably one with no contract and pre-paid credits. You can pick up a phone before you depart from companies like Mobal, OneSimCard, and CellularAbroad, or get one locally once you arrive, which can be even cheaper still. Keep in mind that you may have to learn how to use this new phone, and options for sending text messages, installing apps and using data may be limited. And if you plan to make international calls, make sure you buy enough credits, which can be expensive.

4. Use your phone in WiFi mode ($)

These days, free (or cheap) WiFi Internet is everywhere—at musuems, coffee shops, hotels, airports, airplanes…even on some trains and buses. If your phone can connect to WiFi, then chances are you can disable the cellular network and only use WiFi. You won’t be able to use your phone for much when you’re not in range of a WiFi signal. But whenever you are, you’ll enjoy free unlimited connectivity, and with a couple of apps, you may be able to use your phone as usual—almost.

Skype on Android © SkypeTo make voice and/or video calls using WiFi, you will need a WiFi calling app (sometimes called VoIP). Phones from T-Mobile come with one pre-installed. Otherwise, download one such as Skype or Viber. For text messages, try WhatsApp. iPhone users can use FaceTime and iMessage to connect with other iPhone users (though these tend need a faster WiFi connection). If you have a Gmail account, you can use built-in chat features to call or text the U.S. free of charge. There are plenty of other options, so try a few before you go.

Note that you can use WiFi with any of the other options described above, to reduce your use of the costly cellular network. But also remember that WiFi can sometimes be slow, unreliable or even nonexistant, especially in developing countries.

We couldn’t mention WiFi calling without a special shout-out to Republic Wireless, a small but promising U.S. carrier. Their phones use WiFi first and (with an appropriate plan) fall back to the Sprint network when WiFi isn’t available. They don’t offer international roaming yet, but with their $5/month, no-contract, WiFi-only plan, you can take your phone abroad and use it like usual, making and receiving calls and text messages just like at home, with no special apps—but only when you’re connected to WiFi. We’ve tried it and it works great.

5. Consider other alternatives

traveling with your cell phoneSmartphones these days can cost a small fortune. Are you sure you want to risk taking yours overseas where it can get broken, lost or stolen?

You might instead consider bringing a small, inexpensive tablet (Amazon: tablets). With a WiFi connection and the appropriate apps, you can make and receive voice and video calls, check email, and browse the web. Accustomed to taking photos with your phone? Consider an inexpensive digital camera, which may take better photos. Dependent on map apps? Think about carrying a standalone GPS device, or getting one with your rental car.

Another interesting option: take a WiFi hotspot with you. SkyRoam offers just such a product: a pocket-sized device which provides a wireless Internet connection for up to 5 devices. For a flat daily rate, you’ll enjoy unlimited data with no overage charges in more than 45 countries (more coming soon). It works through local cellular networks, but you won’t be fussing with any SIM cards. We haven’t tried it yet, but it’s an enticing new option.

Helpful hints

  • Disable data roaming while you’re away to avoid using the cellular network and racking up charges. iPhone users: tap on Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming and toggle to “OFF”. Android users: Tap on Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks > Data roaming and uncheck it. Or in most cases, you can simply set your phone to ‘Airplane Mode’ and then manually re-enable WiFi.
  • If you are using data, track your usage. Most phones have this option under ‘Settings.’ Some also have an option to set a data limit and display warnings when you get close.
  • Configure email and other apps so they don’t automatically download data. Otherwise, simply turning on your phone abroad could leave you with huge unexpected bill.
  • Using Google Maps? Cache maps of the places you’ll be going so you use less data when out and about. You can do this for many geo-location reliant apps.
  • Print out the international dialing codes you’ll need for local calls and/or dialing home. Bring a list of your important contact numbers too, written out with the international dialing format.
  • Make sure you know the emergency numbers in the countries you’re visiting. (Note that these may not be accessible from WiFi calling apps.)
  • Use hotel phones to call other rooms—and to make local calls, if there’s no charge. And most hotels don’t charge for incoming calls, in case somebody needs to reach you.
  • Consider suspending your cell phone account at home, if you won’t be using it and your contract allows it. Most providers charge a small fee for this, but it’s generally less than your normal monthly rate.
  • Note that outside the U.S., the terms “mobile phone” and “SMS” are often used instead of “cell phone” and “text message”.

Charging your device

But wait: how will you charge your phone or tablet abroad?

If your device can charge from a USB port, you might get away with bringing just a USB cable. Some airplanes have USB charging ports at your seat, and many hotels have charging ports at your desk or in a bedside lamp.

Input: 100-240 volts, iPhone charging blockBut it’s a safer bet to bring your own charger. And the good news is that virtually all modern chargers and USB power blocks will accept 100–240 volt power, so they’ll work just about anywhere without a voltage converter—but check the fine print on your charger to be sure. The problem is that the plug probably won’t fit, so you’ll need a simple plug adapter for your existing charger (Amazon: travel plug adapters). Or just get an inexpensive travel charger (Amazon: international travel chargers) appropriate for the countries you’re visiting. To protect your devices, you also might consider a small surge protector.

charging your cell phone at the airportBut finding a place to charge your phone might not always be easy—especially at the airport! Spend a few bucks on an external charger/battery pack and you’ll enjoy 2-6x your regular charge (Amazon: cell phone external batteries). Or if you can access the battery in your phone, considering purchasing an inexpensive second battery that you can swap in as necessary (Amazon: cell phone internal batteries).

Happy traveling!

5 Things to Know About the New Cuba Travel Rules

 

A new era in travel to Cuba has begun, with revised rules for US citizens in effect as of January 16, 2015. President Obama’s December 2014 announcement regarding easing decades-old restrictions on travel generated huge interest and curiosity — but also some confusion.

In reality, it’s actually been legal for US citizens to visit Cuba since 2011, when new regulations were put into place allowing licensed travel under the proper conditions. Since that announcement, the unprecedented wave of calls and bookings is reflecting a poignant indication of the great interest among Americans in travel to the once-forbidden island.

We’ve reviewed and parsed the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (the “CACR”), so we can provide you, the traveler, a quick summary of the rules.

1. You’re still not allowed to spend a week lounging on the beach.

But educational travel is fine! In order to go there, you will still need to certify, by signed affidavit, that you’re traveling for one of 12 categories of authorized travel. You’ll need a full time agenda for each day you’re in Cuba focused on that reason, and you won’t find getting a tan at the beach on the list. People to people tours fit the new rules, and they will continue as usual. A tour company that’s experienced in Cuba travel, though, can help you navigate all the details and make it easy.

2. You can now bring home cigars and rum legally.

Finally, you’ll be able to bring home $100 worth of cigars and/or rum. You’ll also be able to bring home another $300 in other purchases, for a total of $400 in souvenirs. Original art, music and educational materials such as books aren’t subject to the $400 limit, so if you find that amazing original painting (and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do just that), you can buy it and bring it home legally.

3. Eventually, you’ll be able to pay with a credit card.

Now that’s a big deal. Travelers visiting Cuba have been forced to carry cash and exchange dollars for CUC’s, the Cuban currency. Once US banks have set up the infrastructure in Cuba, you’ll be able to use your credit card to pay for incidentals at the hotel or even that amazing painting you want to hang in your living room.

4. Flying to Cuba is going to get easier.

For the moment, no US airlines are flying directly from the USA to Cuba. It will take a little time for the Department of Transportation to create the procedures and guidelines that will make scheduled service possible, although United Airlines has already announced that it will begin service from Newark and Houston, direct to Havana. For now though, charters, mostly from Miami, will continue to be the way to go. While you could, even now, fly to Cuba via Canada, Jamaica or Cancun, those routes will increase the travel time as well as cost. The charter flights are, for the moment, the least expensive and most convenient way to arrange the trip.

5. Travel with a group is the best way to avoid a lot of hassle and keep the cost down.

According to the new rules, you will need a full time program of activities that comply with your signed affidavit of purpose. The best and least expensive way to adhere to these rules is to book into a group tour that has taken all the rules – and your best Cuban experience – into consideration. These groups book into the most appropriate accommodations for American travelers, and they include the experiences that are hard for travelers to arrange on their own. Considering the bureaucracy still associated with Cuba travel (new rules notwithstanding), having a full time tour manager, in addition to the guide, goes a very long way toward smoothing out all the unexpected wrinkles and make sure you have way more fun than you’ll ever believe.

While thousands of US travelers have had amazing cultural journeys to Cuba, it’s still not yet ready for prime-time mass tourism. Until there is sufficient infrastructure, and a lot less bureaucracy, it won’t be easy to handle the deluge of general tourists that experts are predicting will want to visit. For now, until more hotels are built, more guides are trained, and more restaurants are opened, established group tours operated by experienced tour operators with good local contacts and plenty of guaranteed hotel rooms will remain the best bet for travelers who want to avoid problems and enjoy the authentic Cuba right now, before it changes forever.

Special Edition Friendly Funny: Happy New Year!

This is a special early edition of our weekly Friendly Funny to wish you and yours a safe and happy new year, all across the globe.

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Why Thailand should top your 2015 travel bucket list

Thailand is truly one of the world’s most fascinating countries. Its alluring beaches, tantalizing cuisine, ancient culture, modern cities, and welcoming people make it a must-visit destination, one that all world-travelers should add back onto their bucket lists for 2015.

While Thailand faced its fair share of hardships in 2014, with the nation undergoing a significant governmental transition, 2015 will undoubtedly be the year of Thailand’s reawakening. It’s just as beautiful, tranquil, and spiritual as ever, ready to welcome a new wave of guests to its friendly shores.

But don’t just take my word for it; see for yourself why you need to add Thailand to your international bucket list.

What are you waiting for? With 2015 on the horizon, now’s the time to plan the vacation of a lifetime — one that will not only teach you about the world, but introduce you to your true self.

Friday’s Friendly Funny: Ice-land challenge

I hope you’re not traveling anywhere too cold this weekend. Happy Friday!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Happy Holidays!

 

All of us at Friendly Planet wish you and your loved ones the best of holidays. We’re grateful for your friendship and for the opportunity to help you explore our world.

This year, we created dozens of new packages to many exciting new destinations and sent thousands of delighted travelers to exotic corners of the world. And we’ve got big changes in store for 2015: adding lots more destinations, giving you more ways to travel, and providing an even easier, more flexible booking experience. Stay tuned as these changes are unveiled!

But for now, in this season of peace, generosity and goodwill, we invite you to join us in lending a helping hand. If travel has affected your life, consider giving back through one of the excellent organizations below. Still looking for a stocking stuffer for someone special? Make a small charitable gift (as little as $10) or micro-loan in honor of someone you love, and you can instantly print or email a card showing your contribution.

  • Trailblazer Foundation: Through our partner in Cambodia, you can help build wells to bring clean water to poor villagers, distribute water filters and cooking stoves, build schools, protect against malaria, and much more.

  • Doctors Without Borders: Help the heroic health workers on the front lines of worldwide illness, including Ebola, with desperately needed supplies and support.

  • Kiva: Make a micro-loan to hard-working, entrepreneurial people in developing countries. 99% of loans are repaid, and you can withdraw your money or relend it.

  • Mercy Corps: Contribute to disaster relief, medical care, vaccinations, clean water, education, sustainable agriculture, and more in developing nations.

May the coming year bring you many new adventures, discoveries and friendships as we continue those explorations together. With warm holiday wishes and thanks for all you do.

Peggy Goldman
President, Friendly Planet Travel

 

Friday’s Friendly Funny: Wake-up call

Happy Friday travelers! Hope you’re all planning on exploring the world this weekend!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

How Does the New Cuba Policy Affect Travel and Tourism?

New opportunities for Cuba travel

We are very excited and enthusiastic about the changes in Cuba policy announced today by President Obama. According to our understanding, there will be some changes forthcoming regarding diplomatic relations, commerce, flow of information and, of course, tourism. The new rules have not yet been announced, but several things are clear. 

  • Without an end to the embargo, we will not be able to hop on a flight and spend a weekend at the beach in Cuba.
  • With new rules that are sure to come in the next weeks, there will be many more opportunities and less restrictions regarding how Americans are able to travel to Cuba.

Regarding the second point, we are truly excited to be able to expand our group tours to Cuba. At present, we’re selling three programs with set departures. In addition, we operate many groups during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests. Among them are photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups and many others.

We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.

What will likely change, and what will not

Our travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA. However, since it will soon be possible to use credit cards in Cuba, we anticipate that traveling to the island will be much easier for our passengers. At the moment, travelers need to take cash with them, to cover any purchases they want to make. In today’s world, it’s not so common to have to carry cash, and that makes many people uncomfortable. Perhaps, although this is not yet clear, it will finally be possible to bring back some of those Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s traveler can only enjoy on the island.

According to the OFAC notice published this afternoon, Dec. 17, some changes will be made to the regulations. “OFAC expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming weeks. None of the announced changes takes effect until the new regulations are issued.”

So, for the moment:

  • We still need to carry cash when we visit Cuba
  • We still need to participate in a licensed program, according to present rules
  • We still have to leave the cigars and rum in Cuba

But if the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

See the REAL Cuba while you can

One last thought. For anyone who is anxious to see the “real” Cuba, do it now. In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.

Friendly Planet Travel Cuba Tours and Travel Packages

Friday’s Friendly Funny: Are we there yet?

Are you traveling with your family this weekend? I hope your hotel has adjoining rooms!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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