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Japan: The Spiritual Side

The well-traveled person knows all too well the spiritual enrichment that comes from visiting religious sites around the world, how experiencing the myriad ways people worship will feed the soul in ways nothing else can provide. With more ancient worship sites continuously maintained and still in prominent use today than any other country, the experiences that await you in Japan can’t be matched anywhere else! Shinto, known as “the way of the gods” and built on the foundation of honoring your ancestors as well as divine deities, is the religion of ancient Japan. Shinto was first documented in writing in the 8th century but existed for millennia prior, while Buddhism made its way into the country in the 6th century. They make up over 80% of the country’s religion, and have coexisted harmoniously for over a thousand years, with many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples sharing grounds in the same worship complexes.

Senso-ji Temple Tokyo by Hans-Johnson / Flickr

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Even upon approach, Senso-ji Temple will instill you with awe. The huge Thunder Gate, the Kaminarimon, looms in the distance like a crimson storm, enormous and hypnotic, with larger than life statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder. These statues are posed on either side of the gate to watch visitors as they walk beneath the 1500-pound, 13-foot-tall paper lantern painted scarlet and black like a flame of lightning and pass through the gate into the street beyond. As you enter, be sure to take a moment to turn around and thank the dragon gods, Tenryu and Kinryu, who will guard you on your visit. Their statues, a gift to the temple by 106-year-old master sculptor Hirakushi Denchu, are positioned at the rear of the Thunder Gate where they can look out over the Nakamise-dori. This street is lined with stalls and vendors participating in a living tradition dated back several centuries of selling goods and wares to pilgrims making their way to the temple. When the cherry blossoms are peeking out over the tops of the stalls and the air is thick with the scent of divine incense said to bless and heal any body that bathed in its smoke, and when the sound of the o-mikuji oracles shaking their cups of painted sticks while the Treasure House Gate, the Hozomon with its gargantuan Nio guardians protecting the entrance and the National Treasures housed inside, towers over the end of the Nakamise-dori, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more iconic image of Japan.

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10 Surprises Borneo Has In Store For You

Many travelers may have heard of Borneo, a tropical island off the coast of Southeast Asia that is famous for its rainforests, majestic wildlife and fascinating indigenous communities. But Borneo is so much more than a lush, tropic isle in the Pacific Ocean! This beautiful biological sanctuary has so many surprises to discover.

Kuching

1. Borneo is the world’s 3rd largest island.
With a landmass of over 283,000 square miles, Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest of all Asia’s islands, but you might be surprised to learn that despite this, Borneo isn’t its own country. Rather, its territory is divided among the nearby nations of Malaysia and Indonesia and the sovereign state of Brunei, home of the wealthiest king in the world. This mutually beneficial arrangement is especially suited to protecting Borneo’s ancient treasure, from its endemic animals and indigenous people to its breathtaking landscapes.

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Behind the Scenes: crafting ‘Discover Israel’

“Of all the destinations in the world, for me, Israel occupies a place all its own. The very first tour I ever organized was in 1981 for a group of 200 Holocaust survivors (including my parents, my kids and myself) to Israel. Since then, we’ve sent many, many thousands of travelers all across the world, but I’m especially excited about our newest tour, Discover Israel. As a country, Israel has undergone dramatic changes in the years since my first trip, yet the unique history, spiritual magnitude, innovative energy and miraculous growth of this tiny spot on the map continues to earn its nickname, the miracle on the Mediterranean. You truly have to see it to believe it.” -Peggy M. Goldman, President & CEO, Friendly Planet Travel

To get an idea of what goes into creating a new tour, we sat down with Judy Poliva. Judy is our Product Development Manager, who leads the team responsible for creating our dynamic trips and packages. Check out below for her incredible insights–plus a few insider tips and suggestions!

Judy-Israel (1)

Judy visits the incredible sights of Israel with her family

Q. Introduce yourself and what you do at Friendly Planet Travel.
A. My name is Judy Poliva and I am the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. It is my true pleasure to design and create the wonderful tours that we offer to our passengers around the world – and most especially to Israel.

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#FriendlyFiles: Experiencing Jerusalem

One of our newest Sales Team members, Lucy, shares her take on the wonder and adventure that Israel has in store for those who visit. Check out her tips for how to get the most out of your bucket-list trip to this destination!

Israel is much more than a religious destination. It is a country where ancient meets modern. While some travelers visit for a pilgrimage or spiritual awareness, others trek to this small Mediterranean country for the history, architecture, and nightlife–and Israel excels in all of these aspects! My family and I moved to Talpiot, a neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, when I was very young. And even after living there for more than 14 years, I still find new ways to fall in love with it every time I return! No matter what drives you to travel to this incredible place, I can promise you will leave awestruck!

Each alleyway has an adventure! Jerusalem Old Arab Quater ©Dan/Flickr

Each alleyway has an adventure! Jerusalem Old Arab Quater ©Dan/Flickr

Get Lost.

“Getting lost” might sound like a silly thing to do in a foreign place, but sometimes those moments are the most memorable! The best place to lose yourself is in Jerusalem’s Old City. With so many narrow alleyways and packed streets, you’re sure to find something unique on every corner. On my most recent trip back, I was exploring and came across a part of the Old City I had never seen before! Despite living there for over a decade, I managed to find myself falling in love with places I’m still discovering.

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Havana Jazz Festival: Behind The Music

If you want to understand the true heartbeat of Cuba, you have to experience one of the country’s greatest passions: Jazz music. The measured tap-tap-tap of the drum, the wail of the sax, the deep undertones of the bass, the sweet sounds of sultry vocals floating on the air, and the swaying hips of dancers as they take in the scene and soak up the rhythm, all speak to the tumultuous history, the dynamic present, and the optimistic future of the Cuban people.

For the first time last year, we sent our travelers to face the music firsthand at the 33rd Annual Havana Jazz festival! And while the festival itself was a large part of the itinerary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for music lovers, this tour wasn’t just about watching professional performances on a faraway stage. True to the people-to-people programs we operate on all of our Cuba tours, our travelers had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of Cuban jazz and, along the way, meet the people making it happen along the way. Here are five unique experiences that transported our travelers behind the music on our Havana International Jazz Festival 2018 small group tour.

And if you can already feel your toes tapping, this is your chance to ‘face the music’ too. We’ve officially opened our Havana International Jazz Festival tour for 2019, meaning this could be you come January!

Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

1.  Catch a Concert at Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

Located slightly west of Havana in a borough called Marianao, the Music School of Alejandro Garcia Caturla was founded in 1968. Many talented Cuban musicians begin their studies in this small school that accepts about 250 elementary students each year. You will visit this special place and get an up-close view of how music can truly be a language for all! The tour begins as administrators and teachers share information about the registration process and requirements that need to be met for students to attend including admissions and exams. Tuition, however, is free and instruments are provided to all students to allow youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to pursue their dream of a career in music.  Visitors are then treated to a classroom visit where the kids get a chance to play a mini concert for you.

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Picture Perfect Vietnam

Close your eyes and imagine Vietnam… Do you see an endless green landscape of stepped rice terraces? Do you picture a vivid pink and orange sky and the sun dipping below turquoise waters? Or, do you envision smiling locals with conical hats offering their wares of snacks and souvenirs at bustling markets? This incredible destination offers all of that and more.

We’ve rounded up 10 of the most photo-worthy spots in this magical corner of Southeast Asia, as seen by the lenses of some of our team members, so get your camera ready for an unforgettable adventure!

1. Vietnam’s Verdant Countryside.

Left: A woman plants rice in a field in Vietnam | Right: photo by Peggy Goldman

“You’ll see seemingly endless rice paddies with whole families tending to the magic grain that feeds the nation, plus green tea plants in the highlands and lush forests in the lowlands. At times, the country seems like nothing but an emerald blanket draped over the contours of a sleeping giant.”  —Peggy, President & CEO

Most of the people in Vietnam live in a rural setting. The rice paddies, vividly green, seem to go on uninterrupted as far as the eye can see! Life is slower in the country side, without the demands and bustle of city life. Religion is very important to the country’s rural communities, who still practice their faith the way their ancestors did, sometimes at the very same ancient temple or pagoda. As you travel the winding roads, keep an eye out for farmers (and water buffaloes!) among the rows of growing rice.

Photo Tips: Getting the best shot of this beautiful aspect of Vietnam is all about composition. Try to include as much of the landscape as you can in your shots so that viewers will get a sense of the size and vastness of the rice terraces. For an extra challenge, try to focus your shot on some of the local farmers in the field, donning their iconic non la hats.

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Imperial Cities, a peaceful people… and mint tea!

Beneath the hot, North African sun ancient metropolises bloomed from the desert among the diverse landscape of jagged mountains, lush valleys, and pristine coastline. Over the centuries, political powers and empires from Europe created fluidity among the people and borders, and Morocco first entered the scene in 225 BC as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. Since then, the country has seen many changes—from the formation of its imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat) to the development of a complex culture with fascinating cuisine and focus on peace and knowledge. And together, along with the stunning diversity of landscapes that make up this incredible country, each of these elements is a beautiful thread in the intricate tapestry of present day Morocco and worth taking the time to explore when you visit!

Old Rabat Morocco by xiquinhosilva Flickr

Morocco’s history is a sharp contrast to its neighbors. While nearby countries boast a past of victory through war, much of Morocco’s history is a story of peaceful unity, a theme reflected in the Moroccan people today. According to legend, the territory became an independent country when Idris ibn Abdallah, seeking sanctuary from violence in Iraq, persuaded local tribes to break their allegiances to Baghdad. He formed the Idrisi dynasty in 788 AD and named Fez as Morocco’s first capital city. Under his leadership Morocco became the center of learning and discovery of the region. The University of Al Quaraouiyine was established in Fez in 859 AD and is still open today, outstripping Oxford University by more than two centuries!

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Top 6 Exciting Egyptian Experiences

Civilization first dawned in Egypt over five millennia ago when Narmer, first pharaoh of the First Dynasty, unified Upper and Lower Egypt. But Egypt’s history is even older, with human settlements dating back to 4,000 BC. In all that time, Egypt has grown and developed into one of the most exciting, richly cultured places in the world. Here’s just a taste of the exciting things awaiting you when you take a trip to this timeless destination!

River Nile ©Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr

1. Cruising the Nile

With over 4,000 miles of waterway coursing through 11 countries, the Nile River is considered to be the longest in the world, and Egypt its gift to Earth. Ancient Egyptians revered it as the source of all life, and with a riverfront view of the bustling ports and trading posts like Luxor, Esna and Edfu that blossomed all along its shores, you’ll see why. Stop off to visit the Valley of the Kings along the West Bank of the Nile and tour Edfu and the Temple of Horus! In addition to its ancient treasures, the Nile’s banks are home to a wide assortment of Egypt’s most iconic animals from its storied history, including hippopotamuses and the legendary Nile crocodiles. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse (from the safety of your boat!) and you’ll understand why ancient Egyptians believed them to be gods.

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The Legends of Lakes, Mountains & More in the Adriatic

Across Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, massive crystal-clear lakes are tucked beneath white-crested peaks, their banks framed by timeless evergreens and ornamented by centuries old castles and cathedrals. The lakes’ blue-green hue reflects the sun’s rays and the verdant valleys surrounding them bloom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the spring. For generations these lakes and mountains have drawn visitors in search of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. But… is something else drawing people to these geological masterpieces? Something a little less… of this world?

In fact, these fairy tale landscapes and pristine natural wonders are an integral part of a rich oral folklore tradition. Fancifully woven stories passed down over the years teach us about the spirits of the lakes and mountains and how they came to be. Before heading off to explore the wild and rugged Adriatic on one of our tours, step back in time and learn how fairies, dragons, and supernatural folk made this region truly magical!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled and the Legend of the Sunken Bell

Hidden among the Julian Alps’ jagged peaks, and just 22 miles from Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana, is Lake Bled. Visitors from around the world head to the lake’s picturesque shores to take in the gorgeous surrounding mountains and forests, and to take a trip out to little Bled Island! The legend goes that once upon a time a young widow lived in the castle on the island. Her husband had died many years prior, a victim of highway thieves who threw his body into the waters. Her sadness was so great that she gathered all of the gold and silver she had and commissioned a beautiful bell to be placed in the chapel on the island in his memory. But a great and terrible storm sank the boatmen and the bell on their way to the island. Overcome with grief, she sold all of her belongings, offered the proceeds to build a new church on the island and left Slovenia for Rome to live out her days as a nun. After her death, the Pope who had heard of her misfortunes and her good deeds sent a new bell to Bled Island in her name. He declared that anyone who believes in God and rings the bell three times will have their wishes come true. Today, the little church still stands on the island—a popular place for weddings. Be sure to ring the bell for yourself when you visit!

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#FriendlyFiles: Surprising Singapore!

Recently Danielle, a member of Friendly Planet’s Sales Team, set off on an adventure to Singapore. Our independent adventures to this amazing destination offer plenty of opportunity to explore at your own pace—so check out some of her favorite experiences before you book your own getaway to the Lion City!

Time and time again, I heard Singapore described as a “sterile city.” People who had never visited the Lion City told me to make sure I followed the rules – do not chew gum, do not jay walk, do not, do not. Instead of listening to naysayers, I like to push stereotypes aside when I travel, and to dig deep into the culture, the people, and the new adventures. I departed for my vacation with an open mind, and I came home with a fuller heart and a new-found appreciation for all of the surprises Singapore had to share!

An evening walk along Kampong Glam ©Erwin Soo/Flickr

The Many Sounds of Singapore

I believe a city can be measured by the music you hear in it, but I was surprised to learn that the music of Singapore is jazz! On any given night, music lovers can explore Kampong Glam and listen to the sultry singers inside and outside the various bars. If jazz is not your style, this hip neighborhood had everything from oldies to reggae. Kampong Glam is a destination in its own right in Singapore. The streets are lined with colorful art (and tourists lining up to get a selfie!) as well as small boutiques that are a shopper’s dream. It’s also a great place to grab a bite and watch the world go by! On one of my favorite nights in Kampong Glam, I found myself sitting outside a Turkish restaurant, people-watching and listening to the chatter of a multitude of languages around me as a soulful singer played a beautiful background soundtrack.

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