Even the familiar is foreign in Japan

Shinjuku, Tokyo
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Imagine holding up a mirror and reflected back at you is everything you’re not.

Well, Japan is like that—which is why it’s so irresistible for those of us who yearn for travel experiences that make us question everything we thought we knew.

For one, they speak Japanese in Japan. Imagine that. English is not a predominant second language. In fact, outside of Tokyo, you’ll be hard-pressed to run into people who can actually converse with you. If you’re like me, this is all the more reason to go. IMHO Westerners are spoiled with English everywhere. Japan presents an opportunity to stretch ourselves in ways that few industrialized countries demand of us.

Oh, and the street signs? The train system information? The packaging on the things you buy? All written in Japanese! Folks, this is as foreign as it gets. You’ll be completely out of your element, and that, for those of us who really travel, is what we’re after, anyway, right?

Another thing, Japan is mostly Japanese. In this homogeneous society of 125 million, you’ll be a minority. Regardless of your race, if you’re not Japanese, you’ll be far outnumbered. It’s a startling experience if you’ve never had it before. And if you’re tall, you’ll feel like a giant in Japan. If you’re of medium height, you still might feel like a giant in Japan. (Sometimes like a big lumbering oaf, too.)

If you’re still with me, if you’ve got a sense of humor about all of this, book your trip and pack your bags. Japan is about to show you who you’ve never been.

What the mind can conceive, the vending machine can achieve

Over the last decade, the West has seen things like canned coffee showing up in places like Starbucks or the local convenience store. Thanks to Japan’s vending machine culture where rows of brightly lit machines offer every variation on hot black, hot black with milk, hot black with milk and sugar, cold black and on and on—with similar variations on tea—we’ve adopted some of these options for ourselves.

But just when you thought you knew a little something about Japan, betcha didn’t know what a few hundred yen can actually get you from a jidōhanbaiki (vending machine).

Try cold beer, canned or bottled, right out of the machine up until 11 p.m. at night. Need some eggs? Grab a dozen from the vending machine. Heck, get some boiled ones, too. Fresh produce, like bananas, daikon (Japanese radish) and negi (green onion), by the bundle, from vending machines. Toys, in case you forgot a gift for the kids, like Legos and Jenga, or a bouquet of flowers for your honey. Umbrellas, always handy, right out of the machine. Going fishing? How about some live bait, right there in that vending machine. You can even buy live crab and lobster from a machine. Then there’s the ladies underwear (and a whole range of questionable items we won’t get into here), along with flip-flops and even toilet paper, coarse or fine, you get to choose.

And what’s really refreshing is that the machines always seem to work. They accept coins as well as bills up to 1000 yen (US$10) and reliably spit back your change.

Faster than a speeding bullet train

Hold onto your hairpieces, the modern day shinkansen runs up to 200 mph. Since it made its debut just before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, it has transported more than 10 billion people with zero derailments or fatalities. As with every other form of transport in this country that relies heavily on mass transit, the bullet trains run perfectly on time, down to the minute, as orderly and reliable as everything in Japan.

And you thought it was all sushi and ramen (think again)

Don’t get me wrong. Sushi in Japan makes sushi “at home” seem like an impostor. And there’s nothing like a ramen shop to cozy right up in Japan.

Eat like a local: But while you’re seeking out the culinary experiences you thought you’d have, the locals are hanging out at izakaya (kind of like a Japanese tavern) throwing back drinks and supping on inexpensive eats like goma-ae (vegetables tossed in sesame dressing), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), agedashi-dofu (deep fried tofu in broth), tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and all manner of salads, sashimi, and noodle dishes. Look for the red paper lanterns that glow around the entrances to izakaya. When you duck in, you’ll have the option to sit on traditional tatami mats and eat from low tables like the Japanese, or sit at the bar or at table and chairs. In the winter months, your host will greet you with a warm oshibori (wet towel) to wipe your hands, or a cool refreshing one in summer. Izakaya often offer all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat options for a fixed price for several hours. Food comes out rather slowly but dig right in and share everything. This is Japanese family-style eating at its best.

The eats on the streets: Popular around shrines and temples, and on festival occasions are yatai (food stall) that sell Japanese street food like takoyaki (a delicious dumpling with little bits of grilled octopus inside) bathed in a sweet brown sauce and okonomiyaki (meaning “cooked as you like it”), a Japanese pancake cooked with cabbage, shrimp or pork, and green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, bonito (fish flakes) and seaweed seasoning. Also keep an eye out for mitarashi dango, mochi balls (made of rice paste) skewered on a stick and slathered in a sweet soy sauce glaze.
Nightlife in Yurakucho, Tokyo

Utterings, offerings, prayers and good luck

The Japanese aren’t particularly “religious,” yet a spiritual undercurrent guides them in daily life and through times of challenge as well as hope for family, children and self. The predominant religions are Buddhism, which made its way from India and China, and Shintoism, the ancient animistic religion that recognizes spirits or deities in every thing.

Your crash course in Japanese religion goes like this:

  • Sh is for shrine is for Shinto is for jinja, or jingu when used as suffix. You will always enter a shrine through a distinctive red torii (gate). And “sh” is also for shisa, the lion-dogs that guard the entrance.
  • T is for temple is for tera (or honorifically, otera, or dera when used as a suffix). You’ll always see a Buddha image at a temple and there’s usually a massive incense burner near the entrance. Wave some incense over you, or an affected area of your body, for healing.

Mind your manners at temples and shrines. Purify yourself with a ladle of water at the basin when you first enter. Keep your voice down. Observe any rules about photography. Take shoes off whenever you see other people taking shoes off. And always carry a handful of coins to toss in the offering box. It’s not required but it’s customary.

It may be awkward the first time you try to get the prayer sequence down. Ring the bell, bow, clap twice, bow again. And then you see some Japanese person doing it completely differently so you have no idea what you’re “really” supposed to do. But fortunately, nobody’s paying attention and the idea is to simply show reverence, say a prayer, and give it up to the kamisama (spirits) or Buddha or whoever happens to be listening from on high.

Shrines offer an opportunity to deepen your connection with Japan and do a little reflecting yourself. You can purchase omikuji (kind of like a fortune) for a buck when you first enter a shrine such as Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken were fond of writing these poems in 31-syllable form known as waka. He was quite prolific and left behind 100,000 such writings; his wife left a legacy of 30,000 herself. One such waka by the empress reads:

Let us be gentle, honest
Though we lack the worldly greatness
In the bamboo grove of life
To tower over all.

Another way to reach the heavens is to write supplications or thanks on an ema (little wooden board) and hang it at the shrine with hundreds of others, or write a kiganbun (letter to the deities), which you can place in an envelope with a small offering and drop in an offertory box.

Before you leave the shrine or temple, be sure to stop in the shop and pick up an omamori, a Japanese amulet. These beautifully brocaded charms cost around US$5 and are thought to bring good luck. Some are quite specific—for example, passing an exam or finding a spouse, or safety while driving or traveling—while others are for general good fortune and good health.
Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto

Hey hey, it’s the Year of the Monkey

The Chinese zodiac with its 12 animals and their distinct characteristics permeates Japanese culture. Throughout 2016 you’ll see monkey-themed decoratives at shops and shrines. Unlike in Western culture, where people may or may not be “into” astrology, in Japan, people are in tune to the spirit of the year, depending on which animal it is. (By the way, if you were born in 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944 1932, 1920 or 1908, this is your year.) In 2017, it’s the Year of the Rooster and so on.

Saru is how you say “monkey” in Japanese. The term also means “go away” so according to an old saying, wearing red underwear during the monkey year can ward off unwanted things such as disease or financial hardship. This fun, widely held superstition makes for great gifts for the folks back home. Stop into a Japanese department store such as Seibu to view an assortment of monkey year red undies for men and women.

Lose your inhibitions and your ailments

We can’t emphasize it enough. If you really want to “see” Japan, you gotta get naked. Visiting onsen (volcanic hot springs) is a cultural tradition enjoyed by men, women and children of all ages. Because Japan is so volcanically active, there are several thousand onsen throughout this island nation, attracting tourists all year long. Business associates often go to onsen together to help strengthen relations between co-workers. Hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion) allows people to connect in a more relaxed atmosphere.

And because of its mineral content, onsen water is also thought to have healing properties. Different onsen in different locations may have an indoor bath with one type of water, a rotenboro (outdoor bath) with another type, and so on. Not to be confused with sento (public bath houses), which use regular heated tap water to fill the baths, onsen are more of a zen spa experience.

Again, be sure to mind your manners at the onsen. Cleanliness is key since everyone is sharing the water. First, you must wash and rinse yourself using the personalized shower stations that are situated away from the baths. (Pay special attention to your tush or you could get some glares.) As you tiptoe from the shower station to the hot spring, you’ll carry a scanty little towel that allows some modicum of modesty. Be sure to take the towel off before you dip in or, as some Japanese do, pile it on your head while you’re soaking in the water. Don’t wring your dingy cloth out in the water though. It’s very bad form. And, uh—no selfies, please!

Visiting onsen usually includes staying at a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn) but some, like Kurama Onsen in the Kurama Mountains north of Kyoto, offer day spa privileges for about $25. Less than an hour train ride from downtown Kyoto and you can be fully immersed, as it were, in a Japanese ritual.
Nasu Onsen, Tochigi  © JNTO

Think outside the karaoke bokkusu (karaoke box)

Public bathing isn’t the only way the Japanese unwind.

Whether you love it or hate it, you’ve probably never done karaoke like it’s done in Japan. While generally a reserved bunch, the Japanese do love to sing. Work relations soften, friendships form, romances evolve in karaoke bokkusu from Hokkaido to Okinawa. For about US$20 per person for two hours, you get your own private soundproof room, a handful of maracas and tambourines, multiple microphones, and a zillion songs in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean to choose from. Grab friends and family members for an unabashed evening of self-expression and soulfulness.

Sure play a mean pachinko ball

Any time of day, any day of the week, walk by a pachinko parlor and you’ll see tight rows of men (and increasingly, women), smoking heavily, mesmerized by a cacophony of sound and light as they fire tiny balls into a vertical machine, kind of like a pinball machine without the flippers, and wait for the balls to hit certain pins and land in certain locations, which then earns them more balls. The object is to win a lot of balls and then trade them in for prizes such as snack food or electronics. Most Westerners simply “don’t get it” but if you’re curious, you can learn how to play pachinko.

Casting call for geisha and samurai

Picture yourself in samurai or geisha garb, strolling through the streets of a bygone era. Now make it happen at Eiga Mura (Movie Village) in Kyoto where almost all of the Japanese samurai films, still popular on television, are created. You pay about US$22 for admission and an extra fee to be fussed over by professional make-up artists and get dressed up in traditional costume for an hour-long stroll around the movie sets.

Things to bring home

  • Kimono (traditional silk garment worn by women) or yukata (lightweight cotton garment worn by men or women)
  • Zodiac memorabilia
  • Noren (Japanese doorway curtain)
  • Chopsticks
  • Zabuton (Japanese floor cushions)
  • Amulets from shrines or temples
  • Japanese pottery

Japanese pottery, an acquired taste: Generally devoid of fancy decorations or colorings, Japanese pottery tends to be rather austere, which may at first appear “boring” to the untrained eye. Yet consider that the country has more than 50 pottery towns, each with their own distinct style of pottery sprung from a rich tradition of pottery making. Kyoto, for one, is known for its Kyo-yaki or Kyomizu yaki which has no particularly unique characteristics, but happens to be famous and sought after merely because it’s Kyoto-made, each piece lovingly crafted by a skilled potter (no mass market, machine-made wares here).

Recommended reading/watching

Lost in Translation with Bill Murray
Shogun by James Clavell

Getting to know Japan is like getting to know yourself. It turns you inside out. Stirs you up. And sends you home with a glimpse of self you never knew.

10 Super Cool & Totally Affordable Things to Do in Tokyo

The Tokyo Tower & Rainbow BridgeSaturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:

 

Cosplay1Behold the youthful dazzle on Takeshita-dori.

If you want to feel the pulse of Tokyo, go where the young people go. This narrow shopping street in Harajuku teems with young, trendsetting Tokyoites browsing the fashion boutiques and chattering away in the cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the street. On Takeshita-dori, teenagers dress up in cosplay (costume play), parading around as their favorite Japanese anime characters or going Goth with outlandish looks of leather, lace, dyed hair, painted faces and thick black eye liner. Giggling girls twirling frilly parasols go by in baby doll dresses and fancy pinafores, legs peeking out with kooky patterned socks pulled up over their knees. Giant bows adorn their girlie ponytails. It’s like stepping into your very own Japanese cartoon land.

 

A Tokyo "maid cafe"2Be a part of manga culture in Akihabara.

Akihabara district has been called Otaku Paradise, an oasis for Japanese pop culture nerds who come here to shop for everything anime, as well as games, manga (comic books), and the latest gadgets and electronics. Anime refers to the the Japanese animated cartoons loved by children and adults alike, and increasingly popular and influential outside Japan. Easily recognized by their characteristic wide-eyed people and animals (think Kimba the White Lion or Speed Racer), anime can be thought-provoking and imbued with life lessons.

Akihabara is also where “maid cafes” have sprung up, a cosplay phenomenon featuring young girls in French maid-inspired uniforms serving up tea, coffee and refreshments. Your maid will role play, never breaking out of character, as your very own servant.

 

Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku3Get assimilated at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.

Mr. Roboto is alive and well in Shinjuku. You’ve never seen such a display of lights, sequins, girls on motorbikes, feathered headdresses and tiaras—a dancing, drumming robotic carnival involving people dressed up in bizarre animal costumes and performing nonsensical skits that nobody understands but will leave you enthralled, nonetheless. All for about US$70 plus another $9 for a meal. Reservations required, of course.

 

Meiji Shrine4Show some respect at Meiji Jingu.

The Meiji Shrine and public park is a spiritual tribute to the Emperor Meiji, perhaps the country’s most beloved leader who opened the doors of Japan to Western influence in 1868 after several hundred years of relative seclusion from the outside world. Meiji brought technological change as well as world literature and new ways of thinking to Japan. Here he is enshrined as a deity in Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, an animistic view of life in which there are spirits in everything. (Remember: Shrines are Shinto, temples are Buddhist.) Read up on shrine etiquette beforehand.

 

Mt. Fuji5Take the cable car up Mt. Takao (Takao-zan).

Just an hour outside of Tokyo, take the cable car or lift halfway up Mt. Takao, then climb the remaining 40 minutes to the top for a most exquisite view of Mt. Fuji. Visit the temples on the way back down the mountain, making offerings to Buddha and uttering prayers of thanks you didn’t fall out of the lift on the way down (no safety bar!). Round trip cable car or lift is less than US$10. Takao is also home to the Takao Monkey Park where a community of 50 monkeys frolic and perform for tourists.

 

Japanese bath house6Take a bath, Japanese style.

You’ll be able to say you really “did” Japan if you visit a local sento (public bath house) or venture to an onsen (spa-esque bathing in volcanic spring water). Bathing in Japan is a ritualistic experience that often includes a sauna, outdoor spring, whirlpool baths and massage options. Men and women bathe separately, but be prepared to get naked in front of the same sex, and quite possibly be ogled. Be mindful of shoe and slipper etiquette as well (you’ll wear different slippers for the bath than you wear for walking around the facility) and be sure to take a shower first. Plenty of shampoo and liquid soap is provided in the showers and you’ll be given a towel that’s about the size of a kitchen dish towel. There’s nowhere to hide! But once you slip into the bath, a wide-open steaming pool you’ll share with other bathers, close your eyes and luxuriate in one of the most blissful cultural experiences you can imagine—especially in winter! You can visit a Tokyo bath house for US$4–$22. Going to an onsen is a more luxe experience that usually involves an overnight stay in a traditional Japanese inn.

 

Nabe7Eat with the season.

In the winter months, especially, it’s customary to eat nabe, a Japanese stew that may consist of meat or seafood and a bounty of vegetables like daikon (Japanese radish), enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and udon noodles. Every region of the country has its own variation on nabe and families often have their own renditions as well. Not to be confused with “noodle soup” found in ramen shops, nabe can only be had if you’re invited to someone’s home or you go to a place that serves it up, like Nabezo in Shinjuku and other Tokyo locations. For about US$17 you’ll feast like a local. A tasty bowl of ramen is good any time of year and you can easily spot a ramen shop marked with a short curtain over the door and patrons often standing at a tiny bar within. A hearty bowl of ramen is quick, cheap and tasty, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with Japanese so you can watch them slurping the noodles and drinking  broth from the bowl—all the etiquette lessons you’ll need to fit right in.

 

Edo-Tokyo Museum8Experience Tokyo through the ages at Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Step back in time to the Edo period (1603–1868) and wander through a fascinating, life-size exhibit featuring different “corners,” such as Aesthetics of Edo, Edo’s Four Seasons and Entertainment Districts, Commerce of Edo, and Theatres and Pleasure Districts. You’ll feel like you’re a part of the elaborate scenery complete with full-scale buildings, shops and home interiors, as well as models of festivals and bustling street life. You’ll then cross a wooden bridge into “Tokyo” and experience life and culture from the Meiji Restoration to modern day. At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, you’ll easily absorb 400 years of history in an afternoon for about US$5.

 

Spanish Fort, Mediterranean Harbor, DisneySea Photo by J. Miers9Get lost at Tokyo DisneySea.

While you might not think to go halfway around the world to an American-inspired amusement park, Tokyo Disney Resort does have a few surprises you won’t find anywhere else on the globe. Adjacent to the main amusement park (Cinderella’s castle and so forth) is Tokyo DisneySea, a nautical extravaganza catering more to adults. You can glide along in a Venetian gondola in the Mediterranean Harbor. On the American Waterfront, subject yourself to the Tower of Terror, a haunting ride that takes you to the top floor of a mysterious 1912 New York Hotel. Or spin and twirl in giant bumper boats in Aquatopia. It’s about US$60 for a day-pass at Tokyo Disney Resort.

 

Bob Sheppard live at B-Flat Jazz Club, Akasaka  Video by Giarola7710Tap into your soul at a live jazz house.

An unexpected find in Tokyo is jazz culture, often in minuscule spaces where people go to simply hear recorded jazz or see a favorite performer on screen. For live jazz performances, the jazz houses host a bevvy of internationally known musicians and groups, as well as local performers. When the music starts to play, a reverence sets in and Japanese audiences tend to be immensely present to the music. To take in some stellar entertainment try B Flat, a jazz live house venue in Akasaka where you can enjoy two evening sets for about US$22. At Chigusa, a jazz café in Yokohama that’s been around since 1933, they play vinyl recordings, and you can put in requests. The venue has some live shows as well.

 

At the end of the day you’ll likely be shindoi (completely exhausted) and looking to kick back with a can of Kirin or a cup of hot green tea. So drink up, drink in, and get ready to do it all again tomorrow. This is Tokyo, man—and it’s for real.


* Mikan = clementine orange. The Big Mikan, as Tokyo is affectionately called, is Japan’s variation on the Big Apple.

The Galápagos: one big evolutionary party

Elaborate mating dances. Posturing and parading. Whistling and twittering. Lounging and basking. Such is the festivity of the natural world in the Galápagos Islands—where there’s always something evolutionary happening.

We can’t help but go all Darwin on you when it comes to the Galápagos, seeing as how the young naturalist’s visit to these islands in 1835 sparked a new conversation about life itself that is still ruffling feathers. From his observances of subtleties in animal adaptation in the Galápagos, Darwin determined that living things are shaped by the world around them.

The Galápagos Islands will feed your sense of awe and wonder.  It is here, and only here, that you’ll find the giant Galápagos tortoise, a 500-pound vegetarian that lives to be 150 years or more; the marine iguana, the only lizard that swims in the ocean; the Galapagos land iguana, poor thing, according to Darwin, from its “low facial angle (has) a singularly stupid appearance”; the Galápagos penguin, the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild; and the “true” Sally Lightfoot Crab that tiptoes nimbly across rock and sand.

Then there are the blue-footed boobies flaunting their cerulean feet for all the single ladies. These guys court, mate and nest all year round—talk about a party!

So what else do 95 species of birds, mammals and reptiles do for fun on the 13 main islands that make up the archipelago?

Galápagos island action

San Cristóbal, where Charles Darwin first touched down, was turned into a penal colony for mainland Ecuadorian prisoners in 1880. Today it’s a free for all of frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and blue- and red-footed boobies. Punta Pitt at the far eastern end of the island is home to a raucous bunch of stag sea lions.

On Santa Fe Island the unruly sea lions sprawl such that you can barely get to the footpaths. Dining nearby on succulent prickly pear cactus is the Barrington land iguana, endemic to Santa Fe Island. The island’s finches feast on ticks and parasites off the backs of these cold-blooded creatures.

Geological wonders abide on Santa Cruz Island, itself a dormant volcano where you can explore lava tunnels more than a mile long and visit “Los Gemelos” (the twins), giant holes that were formed from a collapsed magma chamber.

Santa Cruz Island is also where you’ll visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, an educational resource center on everything Galápagos where you can learn about breeding of giant tortoises and efforts to save them.

For tortoises in the wild in greater abundance than all of the Galápagos Islands combined, head for Isabela Island where there’s a different tortoise species for every one of the island’s six volcanoes. The surrounding waters of Isabela also happen to be the best for spotting whales while the mangroves along the coast at Playa Tortuga Negra and Caleta Black are home to the mangrove finch—a sadly dwindling party with fewer than 100 left in the world.

The Galápagos underwater party

The more serious revelers take it “underground.” Snorkeling just off shore you can peer into a see-and-be-seen world of frolicking sea lions, curious marine iguanas, tropical fish, plus rays, eels and sharks.

Scuba diving in Galápagos is exclusively for intermediate and advanced divers. Some of the hottest spots are Gordon Rocks where the hammerhead sharks hang, and Leon Dormido (also known as Kicker Rock), so named because the formation looks like a sleeping lion.

In the Galapagos you’ll wish the party never ended. The up-close moments with wildlife. The intimate experience of nature doing its thing. And you, the observer and the observed, part of the whole brilliant cycle of life.

It’s time to get this party started. Book your Galapagos adventure now.

Recommended Reading

The Beak of the Finch
http://www.amazon.com/The-Beak-Finch-Story-Evolution-ebook/dp/B00JNQMLDG/

Happy Diwali

Happy Diwali noCaptionIn the Hindu world, Diwali is celebrated with beautiful lights, sweets, feasts, fireworks and general partying. It’s a time to shed light on the darkness, a metaphor for a victory of good (the light) over evil (the darkness). A deeper meaning has to do with light as metaphor for wisdom and enlightenment. Diwali is actually a five day festival, but the main event occurs on the Hindu month of Kartika, the first and darkest night of the new moon, and in our Georgian calendar, between mid-October and mid-November.

If you’re planning a trip to India or Nepal (or half a dozen other countries around the world), you’ll be in for a major treat if you happen to travel during Diwali. You’ll see families out and about in their new outfits, participating in prayers to Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity) lighting lamps and candles inside and outside their homes, setting off fireworks and exchanging gifts with families and friends.

The holiday of Diwali is all about the lighting of lights, both external, as in flames, fireworks, and candles, and internal, as in becoming happier, wiser and enlightened. In gaining this wisdom, you find the way to a more fulfilling, richer life, both for yourself and for others. It’s a beautiful holiday full of meaning and blessings for everyone who participates, Hindu or not.

10 Reasons You Should Visit Greece Now

Mykonos, Greece1Without a doubt, Greece is comprised of some of the most beautiful islands in all of the Mediterranean. There are thousands of gorgeous islands to choose from, spread over just a few hundred miles. This makes Greece the perfect destination for island hopping.

 

Enjoying seafood in Crete2Foodies rejoice! In Greece you’ll find fresh seafood (and we mean fresh!), local produce and fruits, tender oven-roasted lamb, and the original feta cheese. And don’t forget the olive oil, wine and Ouzo!

 

Parthenon, Athens3History comes alive! Greece is the country that gave rise to Western Civilization and the birthplace of democracy, drama, art, science and philosophy. From the Acropolis in Athens, to Knossos Palace in Crete to the site of the first Olympic games in Olympia, Greece is filled with important historical sites and archaeological wonders.

 

Romance on Santorini4Romance is no stranger to Greece. Whether you’re planning a honeymoon, anniversary, or just looking for a romantic getaway, the charming island of Santorini is just one of the many perfect fairy-tale settings.

 

Meteora 5Greece is one of those destinations that truly has something for everyone (it’s also kid friendly). Whether you’re a history buff, adventure seeker, foodie, nature lover, or you’re just looking to soak up some rays on the white sand beaches, Greece is the place for you!

 

Canal D'amour Beach, Corfu6If you’re looking for breathtaking beaches, look no further! Greece has hundreds of diverse beaches to choose from for swimming, snorkeling, or just relaxing.

 

Sunset in Santorini7The scenery in Greece is second to none. From lush gardens filled with olive trees, to the picturesque whitewashed villages in Santorini, to the rocky view of Mount Olympus, you’ll put that camera to good use.

 

 

Greek Man with Donkey

8Greek people are some of the friendliest, happiest people you will ever encounter. Despite the hardships the Greeks have faced over the years, they’re still as warm and welcoming as ever.

 

Heraklion market9Right now traveling to Greece is more affordable than ever. Tourism also happens to be one of Greece’s main industries, so you won’t be the only one benefiting if you decide to travel to Greece.

 

Caryatids porch, Acropolis, Athens10If you ask us, Athens is one of the most interesting and unique cities in all of Europe! While it’s one of the world’s oldest cities, it’s also modern and cosmopolitan.

 

Visiting the Most Popular Greek Islands

Santorini windmills

There are some places on earth you have to see to believe, because you can’t possibly imagine them in all of their vivid colors, smells, sounds and tastes. Greece, with its countless picturesque, ancient and famed islands, is one of those places.

Thousands of islands, endless beauty

No matter how many times I visit, I’m always stunned by the impossibly beautiful vistas from Santorini’s steep cliffs; intoxicated by the juicy freshness of Greek tomatoes, feta cheese, grilled octopus and squid; and altogether charmed by the many whitewashed villages and quaint, labyrinthian island towns that beckon you in to while away an afternoon, or an entire week, exploring them further.

Island hopping is one of the best ways to experience this traveler’s bounty, as there are more sights and experiences than one could squeeze into a lifetime. Greece boasts as many as 6,000 islands—depending upon how you count—though only about 200 are inhabited. Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Patmos, Rhodes, Symi, Chios- just to name a few!

Here are 3 of the most popular islands:

Crete

The largest Greek island, and among the most storied. The colorful history, legends and mystique surrounding Crete are tied to many sources. read more
Knossos Palace, Crete

Santorini

Another must-see on a Greek island itinerary. Some even go so far as to call the island’s village of Oia one of the most beautiful and romantic sights on earth. read more
Nea Kameni volcano and Fira, Santorini

Mykonos

One of the most popular and bustling Greek islands, Mykonos offers everything from designer boutiques, to beautiful beaches, five star hotels and trendy nightclubs. read more
'Little Venice', Mykonos

Miles of Isles

No matter where you start your journey, here’s what you will find — a place of more colors than you knew existed, unforgettable sunsets, tiny villages that in some cases, time seems to have forgotten; warm, welcoming people, and archaeological ruins whose combination of mind-boggling antiquity and intellectual advancement will confound you.

Exploring Santorini

Another must-see on a Greek island itinerary is Santorini, (known as Thira or Thera by the Greeks), one of the world’s most photographed and famous islands. Some even go so far as to call the island’s village of Oia one of the most beautiful and romantic sights on earth.

But this is no ordinary island. Santorini is a large volcano that has repeatedly exploded and collapsed, leaving a ring of steep cliffs surrounding a large water-filled caldera. Its eruption around 1,650 B.C. is the largest in recorded history, rumored to have wiped out the Minoan civilization on Crete and caused havoc in Egypt, throughout the Mediterranean, and as far away as China. But this tumultuous history is long past, and today Santorini is famous for its quiet, stunning beauty.

Santorini today is a magnet for the jet set, romance seekers, artists, photographers and those simply wanting to experience a slice of Greek island paradise at its finest. Arriving by boat, the clusters of Cycladic white houses scattered atop Santorini’s cliffs look like a light snowfall. When lit up at night, the homes resemble a glittering string of Christmas lights strung along the crescent-shaped island.

Akrotiri

Other highlights of Santorini include the charming main town of Fira, and the ancient village of Akrotiri, which dates back 7,000 years. Some believe Santorini is the site of the lost city of Atlantis and Akrotiri has a lot to do with the island’s tie to that legend.

Akrotiri’s first inhabitants have been traced back to at least the 4th millennium B.C. Some of the fascinating accomplishments here include an elaborate drainage system, multi-story buildings, sophisticated wall paintings (many seen as high art), and equally exquisite furniture. At the same time, pottery making, metalworking and shipbuilding all flourished here. It’s hard to believe that this is a place just shy of 10,000 years old!

Today Akrotiri is a covered museum and archaeological site. You can wander amid its many, partially intact ruins and streets, getting a close up view of its cosmopolitan sophistication.

The town was abandoned around the middle of the 17th or 16th century B.C. Its inhabitants are believed to have fled a volcanic eruption or were perhaps forced to leave after an earthquake. Where they went however, is a mystery. Their remains have never been found. Could this remarkable village have been Atlantis? The answer to that question remains the subject of much debate.

Oia

Oia, on Santorini’s northwest tip, is a picturesque town of narrow, winding walkways connecting houses, shops, hotels and restaurants – many of which seem to spill impossibly down the side of the caldera and have been carved into its face. This is also where you’ll find many of the stunning blue-domed churches that have come to typify Greece in our collective imaginations and on mass-produced postcards.

The best activity in Oia is simply wandering to your heart’s content, following an intriguing path here, traipsing down a winding stairwell there — color and charm are around every corner, bend and alcove. It’s a visual feast. Once you find you can absorb no more, and your senses are overwhelmed, relax in one of Oia’s bars, restaurants or cafes that look out over the expansive, sapphire blue ocean below. The views here are breathtaking and watching the sun slip below the horizon amid a rainbow sherbet sky, with its softly merging streaks of orange, pink and powder blue, is an experience you’ll not soon forget.

Also see:

Exploring Crete

Exploring Mykonos

Exploring Crete

Crete, the largest Greek island, and among the most storied, is where I started my recent visit. The colorful history, legends and mystique surrounding the island are tied to many sources including that it once was the center of Minoan culture, the earliest recorded civilization in Europe. For mythology fans, the island is said to be the birthplace of Zeus. An island whose recorded history is more ancient than that of the European continent, Crete has been written about by Homer, Plato and Aristotle.

You could easily devote a week to exploring just this one island, which is home to stunning beaches, pastoral hillsides of olive trees, and magnificent gorges. I had merely an afternoon, which I spent wandering the mysterious Minoan ruins of Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

Knossos, Crete’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site, is thought to be Europe’s oldest city, and for 2,000 years it flourished as a civic, economic and religious center. Today, there’s little left of that original grandeur, but on portions of the site there are reconstructions of what the original buildings might have looked like, assembled by archaeologists in the early 1900s.

What you will see during a visit is a series of workrooms, storerooms and living spaces surrounding a central square. The highlight is the complex’s royal domestic chambers. The most complete portion of the former palace complex, these rooms provide the best sense of Knossos’ past glory and sophistication. In the Queen’s Megaron (bedroom) for instance, there’s an elaborate, playful fresco of dolphins, while in the adjoining rooms there’s a bathroom and beyond that, the Hall of the Double Axes – a large, airy, elegant room that belonged to the king.

Even without being fully intact, a visit here is eye-opening. Knossos was a remarkable place. It had at least three separate water management systems, and the first water-flushing system for a toilet. Pottery making at Knossos was also prolific, involving the creation of heavily decorated and uniquely styled vessels. The palace itself was a place of high color – its walls and pavements coated in paint made from red ochre.

The nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where all the finds from Knossos have been transferred for safekeeping, helped bring all of this to life. The museum is filled with rooms of recovered pottery, statues, frescoes and more. In a sense, the museum picks up where a visit to Knossos leaves off — helping to fill in the visual gaps and presenting the site’s treasures and grandeur in full color and detail. 

Also see:

Exploring Santorini

Exploring Mykonos

Exploring Mykonos

mykonos

One of the most popular and bustling Greek islands, Mykonos offers everything from designer boutiques, to beautiful beaches, five star hotels and trendy nightclubs, all with a picturesque Cyclades island backdrop. In many ways it is an island to see and be seen, and party all night long, but it also offers much of the charm Greek island vacations are famous for.

Windmills in Mykonos

Mykonos Town is a warren of tiny winding streets, homes with colorful doors and tiny blue chapels that look as though they would barely accommodate one dozen people. The smell of freshly baked Baklava wafts from bakeries and lazy cats sleep in doorways. Three iconic Greek windmills stand watch over the town, and there is no better place to enjoy them or the ocean view, then from “Little Venice” – a charming quarter that seems to spill out into the Aegean, it’s bars and cafes built right up to the water’s edge, waves lapping at their foundations. But getting a seat here early is essential, because watching the sun set from Little Venice is on nearly every visitor’s agenda and tourism is Mykonos’ number one industry.

Little Venice, Mykonos

Beyond the reaches of cosmopolitan Mykonos Town, there are smaller and quieter coves and villages, including the charming Ornos, where it’s easy to while away an afternoon or an evening at a tiny restaurant, sipping on Ouzo and dining on freshly caught local seafood.

Also see:

Exploring Santorini

Exploring Crete

Cruising the Greek Islands

Santorini

The appeal of small ships

It’s safe to say I’ve never really been a cruise person, but 10 days cruising the Greek islands changed that point of view.

Sailing effortlessly from one colorful port to the next, visiting islands big and small, touring charming Cycladic villages, intriguing archaeological sites and sleepy out-of-the-way beaches, I suddenly realized the value, ease and possibility that comes with touring this way.

There is a certain delight in waking up in a new location each morning, the sun rising outside your cabin window to illuminate all the colors and sights of a new port. There’s also a comforting feeling each night as you drift off to sleep, knowing that the chore of traveling to a new destination will be taking place while you rest.

With thousands of islands large and small spread over only a few hundred miles, Greece is uniquely suited to island-hopping.

And touring the Greek islands via a small ship allows you to visit a long list of destinations in a compressed period of time. In some cases, you can tour one island in the morning and enjoy dinner on another that evening—without feeling rushed. Trying to coordinate visits to this many islands on your own would be logistically daunting, to say the least.

Halfway through my recent trip, I started thinking about Jackie Kennedy and her days sailing amid the Greek islands while being romanced by Aristotle Onassis. Suddenly this mode of travel took on a whole new meaning and historically glamorous appeal.

Syros

Island hopping

For my recent journey, I sailed with Celestyal Cruises, a Greece-based company. With small ships, Celeystal is able to access tinier harbors that the large cruise ships cannot — a feature that sets the company apart and allows its cruises to include charming, less frequented ports of call.

My island hopping was divided between two different cruise itineraries — one that focused on the iconic Aegean islands: Mykonos, Santorini, Patmos, Crete and Rhodes and a second that highlighted smaller, more idyllic ports and lesser-known islands like Samos, Milos, Syros, Kos and Ios.

I also appreciated the fascinating variety of pre-arranged, hassle-free excursions on each island. There were options for those interested in scenery, culture, fine dining or merely beach hopping, or a little bit of all of the above.

When touring the island of Kos for instance, the excursions included visiting local, family-run wineries and honey makers; spending the day lounging on remote, pristine beaches or touring the intriguing archaeological ruins of Askleipion, which date to around 400 B.C. Often, there were simply too many tempting choices to squeeze into a single day’s visit.

There was a similar variety of choices on Ios — including whiling away the day on the pristine Maganari Beach, touring the pre-historic ruins of Skarkos, and meandering through the charming Chora village, where picturesque white cube houses and narrow stone streets cling to a steep hillside and offer dramatic views of the bay below.

On Mykonos, I enjoyed dinner in an incredibly quaint and charming beachfront restaurant in Ornos that I probably would not have found were it not for the cruise company. The small community offered a quiet, idyllic place to dine and escape thecrowds of Mykonos Town. A smattering of kids played in the water a few hundred yards from my open-air table. Sailboats bobbed quietly in the cove before me, and lights from the houses cascading down the nearby hillside twinkled, as the sun slipped beneath the horizon.

Kos

Traveling with Relaxation and Comfort

After a long day exploring archaeological ruins or wandering down the winding, cobblestone streets of the many small villages we visited, I was ready for a little rest and relaxation.

Back on the ship I found the perfect antidote in the spa, where each afternoon I pampered myself as we sailed from port to port — choosing a facial one day, a pedicure, foot and leg massage the next. I also enjoyed lounging on the poolside deck as we cruised through the impossibly blue waters of the Aegean, observing the island scenery as we sailed.

And because I did not have to waste time packing and unpacking each day, I was able to focus more time on just relaxing, digging into a good book, or reading about our next destination. During our sailing time, Celestyal also showcased Greek culture with language lessons, dancing classes and mythology quizzes.

Celestyal Cruises Olympia

A trip I won’t soon forget

Visiting the Greek islands is easily a bucket list trip. The islands have long had a special glamour, mystique and allure associated with only a select group of other destinations. There’s a reason Jackie O, as she later came to be known, came back again and again.

And cruising from one island to the next, not worrying for a moment about how you will get from place to place, makes the experience all that much more pleasant. Instead of being distracted by any of the hassles of travel, I was free to focus on the many pleasures of vacationing in this fabulous part of the world.

What’s more, I took my trip amid the height of the Greek financial crisis. While news headlines around the world projected gloom and doom, and a descent into chaos for the country, the islands remained as they ever were: a quiet sanctuary from the cares of the world.

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