My Mountain Hermit Training in Japan

Read part 1 On My Way For Yamabushi Training

I survived! I am officially one of the first few non Japanese speakers in the world to have received Yamabushi mountain hermit training. It was a wonderful experience and I feel stronger, accomplished and that I have spiritually grown to another level.

The 5-day program designed by Megurun Inc. is the first of its kind. Yamabushi training has been offered to the Japanese people for hundreds of years. In fact, many people take solitary retreats in the mountains and its popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways every now and then. But these are generally 3-day programs where large groups of people undergo the training with minimal interaction with the master. They are expected to ‘just experience’ as they push their physical and emotional boundaries.

In my case, there were only 2 people in the program, which was led by Master Tak who is fluent in English and Japanese. He described the process in great detail and guided us through the journey. Tak-San was a business professional who moved to the area to seek solace. After years of practice, he is now a Master Yamabushi and trains others.

On the first day, we stayed at a modest hotel in the city of Shonai, which was crowded with local tourists who had come to worship at the three sacred mountains of Deva. Located in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Japan, the area is known as “hidden Japan” as it is relatively cut off from other cities and not many foreign visitors go there.

This day was intended to disconnect from daily life, prepare for shugo (the training) and embrace Japanese culture.

We spent most of the day at a Zen temple with a Buddhist monk. He showed us their way of life, which included proper posture for sitting on the floor in lotus position, focusing one’s attention to meditate, and sharing their humble lunch. We got to see where the resident monks eat, pray and sleep on tatami mats. We also witnessed a prayer ceremony where the monks played drums, chanted the sutras and blessed us for our journey.

Then we had a calligraphy master, Mayumi Honma, teach us how to write ‘Uketamō’ in Japanese. This phrase is very important as it is the only word we are allowed to speak during Yamabushidō. It means, “I humbly accept with an open heart” and is a readily used response to everything the master instructs us to do (as we would say OK in English).

Calligraphy is an ancient Japanese art of writing, but it is much more than that in the spiritual sense. To do it well, you have to have a lot of focus and a steady hand. You have to be silent and be in the moment. Using a brush and ink, there is no way to go back and erase mistakes. You have to start all over.

For dinner, we went to a farm-to-table family-run restaurant where we tasted local specialities, including dadachamame (indigenous edamame) grown only in this area.

The next morning we transferred our bags to Daishobo, a pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan. At one time, there were almost 300 pilgrimage lodges in the area, but now the number is reduce to less than 30. The lodges were family-run not-for-profit businesses, but the new generations don’t want the upkeep.

Daishobo is also home to Master Hashino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, who designed my program. He is in his 70’s now and worked in civil services professionally, and has been a Yamabushi for over 40 years. He still climbs mountains on a regular basis!

The lodge was basic – 2 floors with open rooms that can accommodate up to 35 people. The women stayed upstairs and the men downstairs. Meals, chanting, meditation and orientation were also held downstairs. Basically, not much privacy which is how Japanese people traditionally travel. You just find a spot on the floor to put your bedding down and sleep there.

There were male and female toilets outside the main house. We weren’t allowed to take showers during the program.

During this time, we had an impeding typhoon headed towards Shonai. Typhoons can bring a lot of rain and strong winds (similar to tornadoes). Being an unseasoned hiker, I was already nervous about the steep hikes we were going to do and started feeling more anxious. Tak-San remained calm and said he was closely monitoring the weather. We would still hike in the rain, but will change our route if we were in the eye of the typhoon. At that time, I reconsidered what I had signed up for.

Click here to read what happened next…

Review of Air Canada

Recently, I got a chance to fly on Air Canada, one of the largest airlines in North America. I took two flights making my way from Atlanta – Toronto – Tokyo and back. Fortunately, I was upgraded to business class (thanks to Air Canada’s PR!) which made the 24-hour long journey relatively easier to get through. Here is my unbiased review.

Planes

The E175 plane between ATL-YYK was very old, with 1-2 configuration, small seats even in business class, and outdated TV screen (ones where you see a mouse pointer and a rotating wheel each time you select a tab).

Between YYK-HND, the Boeing 777-300ER plane was newer and more spacious, with a total of 40 seats, spread across two cabins.

International Business Class cabins had a 1-2-1 configuration, each of the Executive Pod seats equipped with 18″ touch flat screen TV’s and flat beds. The firmness of the mattress on the chair could be adjusted using a touch screen comfort system, though I could not feel the difference. There was also a chair massage but I could barely feel it vibrating. The pillow and comforter were quite comfortable for a good night’s rest. There was also an adjustable armrest and a foldable tray table.

Air Canada provided a Canadian-brand Escents Aromatherapy amenities kit for business class passengers with just the basics – socks, toothbrush, ear plugs, lip balm.

The business class cabin had a total of three restrooms, including two between business class cabins, and one at the very front. The restrooms were standard size, and didn’t have especially nice finishes or amenities.

Timeliness

3 out of my 4 flights were delayed by at least half hour. One of the flights was related to a typhoon in Japan, others did not have an explanation.

Entertainment

Noise cancelling headphones were given to the passengers in business class cabin. The selection of movies and TV shows included French, English, Japanese and Hindi, though not as many as I have seen in some of the other airlines. I had seen most of the new releases two months ago on Delta. Also, the ‘search by category’ was rather funky, resulting in English movies when I selected Hindi language.

A selection of premium newspapers, including route-specific titles were offered before takeoff.

Each seat had a personal power supply and USB port for charging electronic devices. It’s always great to arrive at your destination with your cell phone fully charged. There was no Wi-Fi on any of the planes.

Duty-free selections could be accessed from the screen monitors as well as the inflight magazine. Most products were standard, with nothing new or exciting.

Food

The food on board was quite good on Air Canada. Drinks and salted nuts were offered soon after takeoff, though a generous pour of champagne was served in a regular glass.

Meals were served 60-90 minutes after takeoff. For lunch, I had a fresh mixed greens salad, poached tiger prawns with marinated artichokes, grilled eggplant and zucchini lasagna, cheese tray and a decadent dark chocolate fondant with hazelnut praline and cherry compote. This was the best dessert I have eaten in air!

Plentiful snacks were stocked in the galley for between meals, and water bottles were passed out at regular intervals. Since I was flying between Canada and Japan, there were Japanese menu options also including dim sum, noodle soups, congee, chicken teriyaki wrap and yakitori chicken.

The menus on Air Canada are created by celebrated Canadian Chef David Hawksworth.

Service

I have mixed feelings about the service provided by Air Canada. Only on one of the flights, the cabin attendant introduce himself before takeoff and asked for my order. At other times, nobody bothered to even bring a welcome drink before takeoff. Service during the flight was courteous and to the point. I didn’t feel like anyone went out of their way to make me feel special.

The on-ground staff was a bit more courteous and smiling.

Prior to landing, the flight attendant passed out enveloped asking for donations of left over currency for the The Air Canada Foundation, a registered charity focused on the health and well-being of children and youth. I thought this was a great idea since I hate bringing back foreign currency coins, which I eventually lose or never use again.

Lounge

I visited Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto on a Friday evening. Though parts of the airport are quite modern, the lounge looked outdated with uncomfortable brown and blue leather chairs and dirty tables. Limited food and drinks were offered to guests. At dinner time, there was only mac n cheese, nachos and salads. They did have kids play room, a loud entertainment room, and a business area. I was also able to use complimentary shower facilities where they provided a towel, but no toiletries. Also, there is no place to hang your clothes in the shower rooms so leave your jackets outside.

Air Canada is Canada’s largest airline and the largest provider of scheduled passenger services in the Canadian market, the Canada-U.S. trans-border market and in the international market to and from Canada. Air Canada is among the 20 largest airlines in the world and employs 30,000 people. Its corporate headquarters are in Montreal, and four major hubs are Toronto (YYZ), Montreal (YUL), Vancouver (YVR) and Calgary (YYC).

In my opinion, Air Canada can be best described as ‘safe, reliable and no frills’ airline that prioritizes serving the people, environment and community.

On My Way For Yamabushi Training

Here I am, headed to Japan for a 5-day Yamabushi Training program! Until a few weeks ago, I did not even know what Yamabushi was about. But an email that landed in my inbox convinced me to go check it out.

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to a traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. In other words, they are like Native Americans. They often live in the forest, hike for days, eat what they can find, all to connect with nature. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The practice is no longer limited to hermits. Many Japanese people are taking a break from their busy city lives to go to the countryside and connect with nature. Therefore, Yamabushi training programs for Japanese people has become quite popular. But very few, if any, training programs are offered to non-Japanese visitors. I will be one of the first foreign visitors to experience a 5-day program under the guidance of a 13th generation Yamabushi master. Yamabushido is based in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

I Skyped with Tak (Takeharu Kato) and Kanae Soma (owner of Megurun Inc.) in Japan, to better understand what I was signing up for. “We realized that many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but also realized that Yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which – although it has been practiced for 1,300 years has never been more relevant. Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, to rejuvenate back to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made. It has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of the modern-day person, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? I am totally in for a spiritual retreat that involves connecting with my true self, but wait, there’s more…

Soon after, I received a list of guidelines and checklist to prepare for arrival. In it was a fair warning. “Yamabushi undertake training in harsh alpine conditions including hiking through bush, over streams and waterfalls, up rocks, ladders and stone steps, which can include walking more than 10km for the basic course, or 15km for the extended course per day. In addition, your Yamabushidō experience will likely include hiking during the nighttime, meditating under ice cold waterfalls, jumping over fire, and being enclosed in a smoky room.”

Ok now I am not so sure!  I am fine with meditation, but am I ready to hike all day and night, and jump into an icy waterfall? Well, physically I am not so sure if my body that hasn’t stepped into a gym in years, could possibly handle it.

Other guidelines include not washing your face, brushing your teeth, or shaving, not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and making sure to get as much sleep as possible before arriving. The last one may be tough as I make my 24-hour journey from Atlanta to Tsuruoka, and catch up with the 13 hour time difference.

The release form also came with bunch of warnings, most sentences ending in the word “death.” Yikes!

Well, I am on my way, packed with a suitcase full of white clothes (required), hiking boots and my backpack. It will be interesting to see how my mind and body are able to handle the demands of the program and what wisdom I gain from it.

For the next few days, I will be following the three basic rules of Yamabushidō:

Number one: no talking.

Number two: no questions.

Number three: uketamō! Meaning ‘I humbly accept with an open heart.’

On that note, I am keeping an open mind about what’s to come. To be continued…

An Evening With a Maiko

If you have walked around the streets in Japan, you may have spotted a beautiful lady dressed in a kimono with white painted face and her hair pinned up in a bun. Perhaps she was a Maiko or a Geisha, an integral part of Japanese culture and society. In the western world, perception of these women has been misconstrued.

According to Aileen Adalidgeisha (aka geiko or geigi) which translates to English as “performing artist” or “artisan”, is a high-class professional and traditional female entertainer in Japan trained in various forms of art. Meanwhile, a maikowhich translates to English as “dancing child”, is an apprentice geisha. A geisha is usually hired to attend to guests (traditionally male) during banquets, meals, parties, and other occasions as she demonstrates her skills through various ways such as dancing to a tune played with the shamisen (a stringed instrument), initiating games, doing the art of conversation, and more. There are fewer than 2000 Geishas in Japan today. They were over 80,000 in the 1920s.

According to Japanese culture, any random person cannot visit a ochaya (tea house) unless they have been formally introduced through a third party and invited. There is no money exchanged in the beginning, so this ensures guarantee payment at the end of the year. However, these days private parties and tourists can arrange meeting with a geisha at a ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurant).

I met Maiko-san at a restaurant in Kyoto. We had a private room inside the restaurant, minimally decorated with tatami floors, and a low table with a window overlooking a small zen garden. After the waitress came to take the drink order and poured me a glass of plum wine, a beautiful young woman dressed in an exquisite red and white kimono walked in. Her makeup made her look like a doll with a static expression. Her hair was neatly piled up on her head. She greeted us (me and my guide) softly in Japanese. A man who entered the room with her played music on a boombox and she started dancing in slow rhythmic motions. It was mesmerizing!

Then she sat down at the head of the table. One of the duties of a maiko is to have conversations with the guests and entertain them. We were told we can ask her anything. She did not speak English, but understood practically everything I asked. Nevertheless, Nobu-san, my translator facilitated the conversation.

Maiko-San told me that she was 17 years old. She came from a small town in northwest Japan which was hit by tsunami. She chose this line of profession at 15 because she had a strong interest in Japanese culture and wanted to follow the career path of a geisha. In Kyoto, she enrolled in a teahouse where she still undergoes a vigorous program of learning music, dance, origami, personal care and more. It is intense with long hours and little time to be a teenager. She cannot go out much (especially when she is in her garb) and gets to visit her family once a year. Her master/ big sister is 80 years old and she will need to repay her through her earnings.

Training to be a geisha can be quite expensive. The master at a tea house will invest in the lodging, meals, classes, dresses and pocket money of the young girl until she graduates.

Only a fraction of girls who come to the program with her will graduate.

Then she showed us how to do origami and gifted little swans made of paper napkins.

Maiko-San told me on her days off she likes to go to Starbucks and try out their seasonal drinks. Japan is very innovative for that! When I was there this summer, they had introduced a “chocolate cake frappuccino.” We talked about all the places I visited in Japan and the foods I had tried. As we got our meal (she does not eat with guests), I would ask her to describe to me what I was eating. Though she is not allowed to own a phone, she felt quite comfortable using my iPhone to looks up Japanese foods I was unfamiliar with. I felt I was chatting with any other Japanese girl, a bit shy but curious, and matured for her age.

The experience costs $500 for 2-hours plus cost of food and drinks at the restaurant and can be booked through a travel agent.

Given the chance, would you sign up for an experience to be entertained by a maiko or geisha? Leave your comments below…

Must Have Bajan Experiences in Barbados

The term Bajan or Barbadian is referred to the people of the Caribbean island of Barbados. Bajan is also an English based creole language that is spoken on the island. It can be quite confusing to a native English speaker, as the locals have a very fast slang way of running the words together.

During my recent visit to Barbados, I discovered that one can discover the authentic cuisine and culture at all-inclusive resorts as well. Elegant Hotels is a Bajan company that employs a majority local staff, from the chefs, waiters and beach ambassadors, to the management. They pride themselves in creating experiences that expose guests to the Barbados style of living – be it engaging in a game of road tennis, tasting rum while “liming”, or taking lessons in steel pan drumming. Here are a few Bajan experiences offered by two of the resorts that are in the western and southern parts of the island.

Crystal Cove is on the platinum west coast of Barbados where the gentle waves lap at the stunning shoreline with the resort on an elevated position offering fantastic views out to sea. The all-inclusive four-star property is in a charming traditional Bajan style and has an elegantly intimate feel that makes it popular with families and parties. Crystal Cove features three freshwater lagoon swimming pools, a swim-up bar, two restaurants, complimentary watersports for all guests, two tennis courts and a free water taxi to other Elegant Hotels Group properties on the west coast.

New Elegantly Bajan initiatives at Crystal Cove include:

Oistins Night – A weekly culinary sensation, Oistins Fish Fry on a Friday night is where locals and tourists alike head to the south coast to savor some rustic dining on local seafood and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere. Crystal Cove recreates the vibes of Oistins with a range of local authentic dishes at Drifters Restaurant for some beachside dining. Dine on a feast of local fish marinated and cooked live on George’s BBQ grill. Delicacies include granny’s fish cakes with Mount Gay Rum cocktail sauce, fried flying fish with Bajan pepper sauce, grilled sweet potato, fried plantain, calypso rice and pumpkin & ginger soup. Musical entertainment is in the form of a local popular DJ mixing sounds of Oistins with everything from calypso to reggae, as local artisans at the resort display local crafts and souvenirs.

Bridgetown Heritage Tour – Barbados’ capital is often overlooked by guests and offers a genuinely fascinating array of attractions for visitors to the island. Exclusively for Crystal Cove guests, this day long tour will soak up the most beautiful architecture and historic buildings in the capital as well include visits to the Mount Gay Visitor Centre, Kensington Oval, St. Mary’s Church, Parliament Buildings, Garrison Savannah and the Prime Minister’s Office. There will even be time in the itinerary for some duty-free shopping in Bridgetown followed by lunch and a trip to one of Barbados’ most beautiful beaches, Brown’s Beach, for a spot of snorkeling and relaxation.

Heritage Night – For an evening like no other, Crystal Cove puts on a Caribbean cabaret floor show with dancers wearing carnival costumes and performing a range of dances and feats including fire eating and limbo dancing. This is accompanied by the Tuk Band and the famous Calypso King; authentic dishes from around the Caribbean and The Chattel House Bar which serve a variety of coconut cocktails.

Steel Pan Classes – One of the quintessential sounds of Barbados, this is a chance for travelers to get to grips with the steel pans and have a go at producing well known songs as well as calypso classics with some of the best professionals on the island.

Road Tennis Classes – Road tennis is the little known national sport of Barbados – unique and exclusive to the island, road tennis involves a ‘skinned’ tennis ball, a stretch of road for a court and wooden paddles to bat the ball between two players. Easy to learn and fun to play, Crystal Cove staff show guests how to master this local sport as well as set up some tournaments for a vigorous work out.

Rum Shop initiation – It is said there is a rum shop on every corner of Barbados and that liming (Bajan slang for relaxing) at a local village rum shop is an essential part of the Bajan experience. To test this theory, Crystal Cove staff coach guests on how to ‘lime’ and really learn to relax, chill and clear their minds of any stress, by teaching them rum shop games. Dominos is a national obsession in Barbados and Crystal Cove staff teaches guests how to play slam dominos like a real Bajan as well as drink some rum based forfeits. Guests can also sample local rum shop snacks including corn beef and biscuits as well as cheese cutters made with local salt bread.

Turtle Beach, on the south coast offer a host of Elegantly Bajan experiences for families, couples and parties alike. A premium all-inclusive property in the lively St Lawrence parish of Barbados, Turtle Beach is popular with families and couples who love the relaxed atmosphere, 1,500ft beach and general feeling of space and tranquility the resort offers. With two swimming pools, three restaurants and bars, two tennis courts and the infamous Captain Sam’s watersports center with free water-sports including dinghy sailing and surfing.

Bajan initiatives at Turtle Beach include:

Turtle Pioneers – Get the inside scoop from locals. Turtle Pioneers – Hermanius, Maradonna, Nigel and Captain Sam are an elite team of Barbados experts and are a powerhouse of knowledge about what to do, where to go and when to do it in Barbados.

Pastry School – Guests at Turtle Beach can take part in a weekly pastry class with award winning dessert chef Ezra Beckles. Known for his sinfully tasty treats, Ezra uses unusual ingredients including noni flour and cactus as well as traditional ingredients from Barbados including local tamarind, cherries and coconut. He takes guests through how to create local delicacies and most importantly, how to enjoy them!

Here’s Where to Start Planning Your Trip to Phuket, Thailand

Dense rainforests, pristine beaches, picturesque bays against a backdrop of limestone cliffs – the island of Phuket has remained a popular destination among foreign tourists for good reason. Phuket is one of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand. It has a unique personality with upscale villas, ancient culture, varied nature, an active nightlife and emerging dining scene.

Here’s where you need to start planning your visit to Phuket:

Unwind at a Luxury Beach Villa

If you want to avoid the herds of tourists crowding Phuket’s many resorts, consider villa rentals in Thailand. Phang Nga or Natai Beach are the best locations in Phuket for renting a villa with easy access to beaches, nightlife and dining. Feel like royalty staying at beachfront estates designed to look like elegant Thai temples, surrounded by mythical rock formations. Starting at just $1000/ night, many of the villas come with an infinity swimming pool, jetted tub, home theater, sauna and steam rooms, yoga pavilion, chef and butler. Pampering has no limits!

Feel the cool Andaman Sea breeze as you dine on freshly prepared seafood at your own private dining room or gazebo. A vacation rental in Thailand makes for an ideal honeymoon getaway. Some of the larger villas available in this area can accommodate up to 20 guests, making it ideal for weddings, corporate retreats and family reunions.

Watch a Cultural Performance 

There are a few venues in Phuket that offer a chance to see traditional dances and cultural performances, but Siam Niramit Phuket is the most authentic. Guest can walk through an entire village scene surrounded by a forest and river, which showcases traditional wooden homes, costumes and foods from different parts of Thailand.

You also have the option to purchase dinner buffet with the ticket package. While the restaurant has a lot of options, with Chinese, Thai and Western stations, the food is mediocre, served in a casual setting. There are also few handicraft stores selling souvenirs and clothes at reasonable prices.

The show itself is comparable to Cirque du Soleil or Broadway. Elaborate sets that change with every scene, high caliber dancers jeweled in rich costumes, and even elephants make their way to the stage! This will be an evening you will remember for a long time.

Stroll Down Old Phuket Town

Thalang Road is the main street in the European style old town with well-preserved colorful Sino-colonial buildings. Dotted with museums and coffee shops, plan to spend an entire day walking with a self-guided tour around the old town. Along the way, don’t miss the historic sites and mansions. Each one has a unique story behind it! Take a taxi to the summit of Kha Rang (Rang Hill) to get an overview of the city with Big Buddha, beaches and forests in the vista.

Make sure to come back in the night when some of the bars and clubs come alive. This is a good place to see the expat community living in Thailand.

Taste Specialty Local Foods

Due to the high number of visitors, Phuket is gaining a strong reputation in having very good selection of Thai and international restaurants. Casual cafes, street vendors, open air beachfront restaurants and wine bars are a few options to choose from. However, there are a few dishes you must taste while visiting Phuket.

These are roti – Thai crepes stuffed with bananas and topped with condensed milk, made to order and served hot; sweet fresh mango with sticky rice with coconut cream topping – a favorite Thai dessert; kanom jeen – rice noodles with spicy coconut crab curry; and different flavors of cashews (my favorite are Tom Yum), a product native of Phuket and available at one of the many cashew nut factories.

You can also sign up for a cooking class, or arrange one at your private rented villa.

Pray at a Buddhist Temple

There are 29 Buddhist temples on the island, so it is impossible to see them all unless you are planning to stay for a couple of weeks. If you must pick two places, go to Wat Chalong and the Big Buddha. Wat Chalong is one of the most important temples for Buddhist people because it is said to contain a splinter of Lord Buddha’s bone. As in most temples, there are richly adorned pagodas and Buddha statues throughout.

Phuket’s Big Buddha is located on top of the Nakkerd Hills and can be spotted from many places on the island. Made of white jade marble, the 45-meters tall Buddha statue sparkles in the sun, while a smaller brass Buddha statue stands next to it.

Island Hop Through the Weekend

Rent a speedboat to take you around some of the most beautiful islands and beaches around Phuket. Some of the more popular destinations for day trips include Phi Phi Islands, James Bond Island (featured in the movies “Man with the Golden Gun” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”) and . Swim, snorkel and dive as you enjoy the colorful coral reef and diverse marine life in the crystal-clear water of the Andaman Sea. Ao Phang Nga National Park is a good place to try your hands-on sea kayaking, sea caving, and canoeing.

Soak in the Views

No visit to Phuket is complete without getting a panorama view of the island or watching a picture-perfect sunset. To get a 360 view of the beaches and lush vegetation, go to Kata, Larm Singh or Panwa viewpoints. Couple of other unique places are Samet Nangshe offering stunning views of the Phang Nga Bay’s limestone islets and star studded night sky, as well as the Windmill viewpoint in south Phuket where you can see windmills that look like airplane propellers.

Another option is to sip a cocktail and catch a romantic sunset at one of the restaurants or bars.

Best Day Trips from Tokyo, Japan

Most first time travelers to Japan never leave the capital of Tokyo. While the big city offers many cool attractions, great nightlife and shopping, the real charm of Japan is in the countryside. Here are some places that are within couple of hours reach and make for great weekend getaways and day trips.

NIKKO

Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It is a charming small town near the hills designated a World Heritage Area. When you arrive, there are shops selling local ice creams and cheesecakes right by the train station. Walk about 20 minutes or take the local bus to the temples and shrines entrance.

Walk through oak and cedar forests to see the mythical Shinkyo Bridge. There are a few restaurants near the bridge that offer Japanese set menus.

See one of the largest wood tori gates in Japan and a complex of shrines at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, and the Buddhist temple next door. Toshogu is Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Plan to walk for couple of hours if you want to see everything.

Nikko National Park also offers scenic landscapes, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails. It is a spectacular place to see fall colors.

KAMAKURA
Located only an hour drive from Tokyo, Kamakura is home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple.  The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee
There are also a dozen other temples in the area, but my favorite place was the Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai. Here, you can stroll through tall bamboo forests and have a cup of tea overlooking peaceful nature. Also, check out the dove shaped peace cookies popular in the area.
Kamakura is located by the sea and has resorts and apartments overlooking sand beaches, as well as boating, sailing, swimming and surfing sites.
HAKONE
Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than one hundred kilometers from Tokyo, approximately 1.5 hours by train.
This is a great place to see Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan. Take a boat ride in Lake Ashinoko to catch the best views.
Watch volcanic activity in action on the Hakone Ropeway through Owakudani Boiling Valley. The sulphur has strong odor and can burn your eyes when it’s windy so bring protective covering. There are also a number of open air museums in Hakone. Many people prefer to stay overnight at a ryokan in the area to enjoy the natural hot springs. 

Have You Tasted These Wines From Brazil?

When I received an invitation to taste the Wines of Brazil by the Brazilian Consulate in Atlanta, I was intrigued. Though I have traveled to Brazil three times, Brazilian wines have not really appeared in my radar as a food critic. Why was that? And what role does wine play in Brazilian cuisine? I wanted to find out.

Held at the famous Brazilian steakhouse chain, Fogo de Chao, the event was a gathering of many wine producers who had traveled from Brazil to talk about their products. There were half a dozen wine tasting stations, each represented by a producer pouring a few kinds of reds and whites.

Turns out that Brazil has a long history of producing wine, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. The real action started several decades later when Italian immigrants arrived and embarked on an ambitious plan. Their plan was ambitious out of necessity, since a wave of German immigration preceded the Italian immigration and the Germans predictably settled on the best available lands. In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, this ended up meaning those lands closer to the coast.

The Italians had to march inland over the gentle slopes of red soils that reach to the Atlantic Ocean, onto the high plateaus and through the hills to found towns with names like Garibaldi and Nova Bassano. They settled into valleys named after homes left behind, like the Vale Trentino.

Brazil’s biggest representatives in the international market are sparkling wines of high quality and exceptional acidity and freshness. Produced through the Traditional or Charmat methods, they both tend to use mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

A typical meal of the Serra Gaúcha region still begins with Agnolotti en Brodo and generally includes polenta and some sort of roasted chicken or pig dish. Older people continue to speak Italian in the region. This vestigial Italian continues to be  widespread, particularly once you get out of the city and into the valleys that surround Bento Gonçalves, and it shapes the wines as much as it shapes the language.

So, what do Brazilian wines taste like? Most people would say they are young, easy drinking, table wines. Brazilian Muscats are most internationally recognizable. Light bodied and flavorful, these can be enjoyed outdoors while the men grill meat for hours and the rest of the families prepare plates of salads, fried yucca, rice and beans.

Among the red varieties, Merlot has been recognized by some experts as the one with the highest potential to represent Brazil in the international market.

The vineyard also talked about the emergence of wine tourism in Brazil. Many travelers head to neighboring Chile and Argentina for wine tasting tours and to stay at haciendas with local wineries. Brazil also offers beautiful landscapes, local cuisine and great tasting wines across the country. Here are some places to check out:

Vale dos Vinhedos

Named by the Wine Enthusiast magazine as one of the 10 best wine tourism destinations in the world, the Vale dos Vinhedos is filled with beautiful landscapes, great wine, plenty of great restaurants and places to simply relax. With around 200 thousand tourists each year, it has become a famous destination in Brazil.

Garibaldi

A city that specializes in the production of sparkling wines and features a sparkling wine tour route. Around 90 thousand yearly visitors come and check the local attractions.

Pinto Bandeira

Besides the impressive landscapes, with native woods, waterfalls, and of course vineyards, the highlight of this Pinto Bandeira is their sparkling wines. Small and intimate, this is a region where the local wineries continue to offer charming gastronomic and lodging options.

Altos Montes

Another young region where the landscape is dotted with cutting-edge wineries, celebrating modern architecture beautifully integrated with the vineyards. An advanced culinary school in the region has helped the cities of Flores da Cunha and Nova Pádua to become the twin gourmet centers of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Região das Hortênsias

Centered between the cities of Gramado and Canela, this is a region made famous by their well-preserved colonial architecture. While the region has preserved the look of the past, the local hotels and restaurants are very much up to date with a year-round promotional schedule that has been attracting tourist for years.

This Summer, Forget Tiny Houses, Stay in a Luxury Treehouse

Looking for a fun way to spend this Father’s Day weekend? Check out the newest trend in glamping – modern, high tech and sustainable treehouses. The Dove Men+Care Elements 360-square-foot treehouse equipped with a luxurious private bath, climate control, high speed Wi-Fi and a stocked refrigerator is like a “spa in the sky.”

Located at the base of Lookout Mountain near downtown Chattanooga, TN, the Elements Treehouse stands out for its state-of-the-art bathroom constructed of natural elements inspired by Dove’s Elements product range and sweeping forest views.

The treehouse is the second house for rent at a treehouse resort – Treetop Hideaways in Flintstone, GA. Founded by local entrepreneurs Andrew Alms and Enoch Elwell, Treetop Hideaways came about as an idea to allow childhood memories to flourish and for families to experience sustainable living close to the city.

The Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse is designed by architect Pete Nelson, a world-renowned treehouse architect, host of Treehouse Masters and owner of Nelson Treehouse and Supply company. It features modern architectural designs surrounded by nature, utilizing the most efficient and sustainable systems.

A wooden staircase leads you to the entryway marked by a living sage wall and Japanese Shou Sugi Ban-style charcoal wood. Welcomed by the aroma of sage, enter a cozy sitting area with furniture made of reclaimed wood, kick off your shoes and browse through the pages of ‘Cabin Porn.’

In the morning, sip on local MayFly coffee while lounging on the private deck. Feel the cool morning mist, listen to the sounds of birds chirping and the flowing stream on property.

Interior designed by Will Taylor, founder of Bright Bazaar is done in nature-inspired style, with sage bedding, charcoal-etched wall art, and sandalwood accents. Green, white and grey Earth tones create a rustic yet contemporary ambiance. Connect to Alexa to play your favorite music as you nap in the Tuft & Needle queen mattress downstairs or climb to the loft where you can see the tree canopy through the skylights from the comfort of two beds.

The focal point of the treehouse is the spa inspired Elements bathroom with charcoal wood paneling, clay sink, heated flooring, temperature controlled 5-head shower, linen robes, Dove Men+Care Elements toiletries, and a glass enclosed tree in the bathroom with skylight and see-through flooring. Here you can feel like you are showering in the forest, yet have your preferred water heat set on the digital keypad.

Grab a cold beer from the refrigerator and get some steaks or hot dogs started on the outdoor grill. The outdoor fireplace is perfect for roasting marshmallows under the stars and reminiscing about good old campfires.

Chattanooga is quickly becoming a top travel destination voted ‘Best Town in America’ by the readers of Outside magazine. Surrounded by acers of forest, Treetop Hideways is located within minutes of world-class climbing, mountain biking, trail running, caving, and more. Nearby attractions include Ruby Falls, Rock City Gardens, Tennessee Aquarium, Cloudland Canyon State Park and North Chickamauga Gorge.

The Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse is the perfect family friendly retreat to spend summer holidays in nature and comfort.

Dining at The W

Hotel restaurants typically don’t have a good perception when it comes to offering superior quality food or unique cuisines. But the W Atlanta – Midtown is an exception.

Inspired by its Georgia location, TRACE restaurant incorporates southern cuisine in the menu, using seasonal locally sourced ingredients.

The Midtown Atlanta hotel can be described as urban chic at best. Glamorously dressed people can be found getting out of their uber expensive cars into the illuminated car port. The lobby feels like a trendy lounge with live DJ, as patrons cheer their martini glasses.

TRACE is located up a flight of stairs, on the second floor of the hotel. Walking past the bar feels like you have entered a massive den/ library/ man cave. The bar is beautiful, but the stack of cookbooks by local authors displayed on the shelves catches my attention. Krista Reese, Kevin Gillespie, to name a few…

The interior of TRACE is contemporary, yet comfy. Tall glass windows line one of the walls of the room, while the exposed ceiling creates a feeling of a warehouse. Then there are colored pots and pans covering an entire wall, dark wood floors, and giant blue gray screens hanging from the ceiling. I feel like I’m in a 21st century barn!

Cocktails are the main attraction at TRACE. In addition to regional brews and global wines, hand crafts cocktails with unique names are rotated off the menu often. My favorite was Anger Management (perfect after a tough week right?) with mango vodka, agave, pineapple and orange juice. The powdered habanero around the rim of the glass is sure to give you a burn with each sip. Gotta Wear Shades (I told you the names are creative) was also quite refreshing for a bourbon drink. It had fresh blackberry/ blueberry juice, peach bitters and Ridgemont Reserve 1792.

The menu is sectioned into shared plates, salads, entrees and sides. Southern favorites such as fried gulf oysters, deviled eggs, and thrice cooked wings are nostalgic starters. The oysters are fresh are corn flour battered, served with spicy rep pepper jelly aioli. The mushroom and goat cheese toast is hearty and delicious. Grilled salmon is seared crisp on the outside and tender in the center. It feels more of a personal entree than an app plate though. Everything comes with generous portions of healthy greens sourced from GA farms.

The crab and avocado salad was my favorite. Again, a good portion of greens is topped with fresh steamed jumbo lump crab meat is perfect for seafood lovers, and the grilled avocado adds a surprise element to each bite. Gulf catch  of the day, grouper in this case, was chewy, though well seasoned with with black pepper, and sat on some very spicy cooked kale. Another twist I enjoyed was the pimiento mac and cheese. Though the pimento made the dish a bit runny, the toasted bread crumbs added a crisp nice texture.

For dessert, I tried the chocolate mousse cake, a rather rich flourless version with dark creamy mousse. The raspberry and chocolate sauces were a bit runny for my taste, but good enough to lick the plate clean!