Japanese culture is rooted in politeness, loyalty, justice, modesty, refined manners and respect for the elderly.
Do yourself a favor and research before visiting.
If not, asking the hotel staff or your tourist guide about basic etiquette is useful.
When everything else fails: read the room.
For example, when entering Meiji Shrine, walk along the sidelines, never through the middle, which is the gods’ path.
The Japanese people dedicated the shrine to their 122nd emperor, Meiji, a progressive leader who modernized the country through a “Japanese Spirit and Western Knowledge” philosophy.
Leading by example, he encouraged the Japanese to wear Western clothes and haircuts and to broaden their food and drink consumption. French wine lovers, especially those who favor Burgundy, will marvel at the display of barrels after the Harajuku entrance.
Across the vast and lush gravel gods’ path, another display signifies the intersection between Estas and West through spirits. Barrels of sake, the only drink the Japanese enjoyed before introducing wines, whiskeys and beers, provide another Instagrammable photo op.
Nowhere is Emperor Meiji’s legacy more evident than from the Tokyo Skytree. The 2+ thousand-feet broadcasting structure’s observation deck affords a dizzying 360-degree view of the 40 million people megalopolis (think New York City’s One Vanderbilt times five).
Nearby, Sensō-ji stands as the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. A gigantic complex with halls, gates, a five-storied pagoda and a shopping street, the site holds religious festivals attracting as many as 30 million local and foreign visitors a year.
Tokyo feeds both body and soul. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best places for the former. Opened in the 1930s, it encompasses wholesale and retail shops, restaurant supply stores and street-style eateries, like the one where I had the freshest (and most giant!) oyster of my life.
After sampling the delicatessen of Japanese cuisine, a stroll to Ueno Park, established in 1873, is in order. Tokyo’s oldest public park exemplifies the Westernization of the early Meiji period. Think London’s Hyde Park with museums, temples and shrines.
The park is home to the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, among other cultural institutions. It also houses the magnificent Ueno Tōshō-gūShrine, established in 1627, next to the Sacred Tree that predates it by 200 years.
Ueno Daibutsu is another religious gem on the park grounds. The remaining head of an ancient Buddha statue, salvaged after earthquakes, fires, and wars, is a symbol of Japanese resilience and a popular spot for students to pray before exams.
North of Ueno Park, in Taitō City, you’ll find the upscale and bohemian neighborhood of Yanaka, which would give Venice Beach, CA vibes if Venice had ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
The WW2 Allied bombing spared Yanaka, which shows in the well-preserved quaint homes. Wandering among its lovely neighborhoods, enjoying coffee and shopping for traditional Japanese souvenirs and stationery is a real treat.
The tomb of The Last Shogun in the Yanaka Cemetery is the cherry on top of this historic area. The last warrior to rule Japan surrendered Edo Castle helping to restore imperial power. In 1902, Emperor Meiji granted him the title of duke, which he bore until he died in 1913. The mausoleum is a nostalgic reminder of the end of an era in Japan.
A city of 1.6 million, which annually receives over 27 million visitors efficiently, is a global example of sustainable tourism.
Twenty years ago, when I rode the first wave of the Venezuelan diaspora to the United States, my friend Rosalía went to Barcelona.
I visited her for the first time in 2010, and aside from being delighted with the “All About My Mother” tour she’d personally designed for me, I was awed by her office: a government building that sat on carefully preserved and proudly displayed ancient Roman ruins!
Five years later, I went back, this time with my partner. We attended Rosalía’s wedding: a romantic affair where Venezuelan and Catalonian cultures amalgamated under the beautiful summer sky.
Seven years and a global pandemic later, I’d visit for the third time, stoked not only to see my good old friends but also to witness the interior of the Sagrada Familia for the first time.
Antoni Gaudí’s magnificent masterpiece began in the late 1800s and is still unfinished. Despite being partially destructed during the Spanish Civil War, it has become synonymous with Barcelona’s skyline.
The completion of the Gothic jewel, funded solely through private donations, has also been delayed because the technology couldn’t keep up with Gaudí’s ahead-of-time vision.
When the legendary architect died in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete. And thanks partly to advances in computer design, about 70% of the church is currently up.
Though the goal was to complete the project by 2026 to commemorate the centennial of Gaudí’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic likely hampered it even further.
Nothing is straight, plain or boring in this unorthodox building: various geometrical forms intertwine to produce abstract shapes that, combined with the bright Mediterranean light that streams through the colorful stained glass, create myriad optical illusions.
There’s something for everyone in the eclectic temple. From a facade featuring Asian cherubs, Masons and a faceless Veronica (who appears to be wearing a headscarf) to a rich interior resembling Mother Nature, the church reflects the artists from all walks of life included in the project.
Gaudí lives on in Barcelona’s fantastical architecture. Park Güell is another fine example. Located in the mountain range of Collserola, the park’s spectacular views match the ginger house-like pavilions, colonnaded pathways and serpentine seating. It all resembles the Grimm Brothers’ universe.
Casa Batlló is another of Gaudí’s masterpieces. Initially built in 1877 as a classical building, industrialist Josep Batlló bought it in 1903 and commissioned its redesign.
The locals call it Casa dels Ossos (House of Bones) because of its skeletal structure. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, it’s also a museum and cultural center.
Gaudí even designed Paseo de Gracia’s unmistakable street lights. Is there anything this man couldn’t do?
Barcelona’s juxtaposition of artistic and cultural expressions reaches its zenith in the Old City, home of the Picasso, Moco and World Cultures museums.
Picasso Museum, housed in five adjoining medieval palaces, opened to the public in 1963 with initial donations from the artist’s lifelong friend Jaume Sabartés and Pablo himself.
It contains over 4 thousand of his works, including “The Dwarf Dancer,” “Blanquita Suárez,” “Las Meninas” and “Science and Charity,” which he painted at age 15!
The Moco Museum, located in the historic Palau Cervelló-Giudice, shows works by Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, KAWS, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. As its mission states, it attracts “broader and younger audiences.”
The Museum of World Cultures focuses on ethnographic art from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania, including Yoruba, Indian and Mayan sculptures, ceremonial artifacts and bodily ornaments.
Nearby, the market-turned-cultural center, El Born, sits on la Ribera district archaeological ruins, destroyed in the 18th century after the defeat of Catalonia in the War of Succession.
El Born Centre explains and helps understand the history behind the separatist sentiment among Catalonians, as does the Eternal Flame Memorial behind the Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar.
Alfons Viaplana created it in 2001 to pay tribute to the 10 thousand Catalonians killed or wounded during the Siege of Barcelona in 1713–14. It stands above a cemetery where many of them were buried.
And speaking of Santa Maria Del Mar, the construction of the historic 14th-century basilica—which sits on the site once occupied by a Roman amphitheater—was funded by local sailors, harbor workers, artisans, fishers and merchants.
It tells the story of Arnau Estanyol, a fugitive serf who becomes one of the cathedral’s stone workers. The book was adapted in 2018 as a TV series by Antena 3. Soon after, Netflix distributed it worldwide.
Centuries later, the church still overlooks one of Barcelona’s busiest squares frequented by locals and tourists on their way to and from La Barceloneta beach.
You will also find pedicab drivers and international street performers, like the acrobatics DUO AXN. One afternoon, they commanded attention and entertained the square as we enjoyed one of Barcelona’s best wine lists at La Vinya del Senyor.
The following day, I was one of those beachgoers. I popped into an adorable Barceloneta store where a cute Indian-Spanish lady sold me flip-flops, a beach towel, and even a cold beer to quench my thirst in the 100+°F heat. I was all set!
Barcelona is an artistic city, and its beach couldn’t be the exception. Frank Gehry’s “Peix d’Or” and Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta” (also known as “The Wounded Star” or simply “The Cubes”) are among the public artworks.
As someone who became temporarily paralyzed due to a significant health event last year, I was delighted to find a section of the beach dedicated to the disabled. Tell me your city is progressive without telling me.
Barceloneta (and, for that matter, Barcelona) wasn’t always the urban oasis that now attracts over 27 million visitors per year.
The 1992 Summer Olympics and the popularization of the world’s favorite soccer club—FC Barcelona—helped transform the ancient Roman city into the bonafide global destination that it’s today.
Luckily, for the locals like my friend Rosalía, the government is committed to sustainability. It has established a model that prioritizes relations between visitors and locals through the clever redistribution of spaces and resources. The result? The enjoyment of tourists and the financial reward of the brave and welcoming Catalans.
The beautiful and sizeable Cornish granite oval stream surrounds a lush grassy field. It is accessible to and popular with children as the designers intended to pay tribute to Lady D.
Water flows from the highest point of the fountain in two directions, cascading, swirling and bubbling before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom, representing two sides of Diana’s life: “happiness and turmoil.”
London is all about its parks. That’s why defying the public transportation strike, I decided to go beyond the central part of the city and headed out to Parliament Hill Fields.
All it takes it’s a 45-minute double-decker bus ride to feel like one’s in the country side.
The stunning grassy public space, one of the highest points in London, from where the Houses of Parliament are visible on a clear day, embraces ancient woodlands, playgrounds and a training track.
The site is also home to a remnant of Victorian times: the iconic Hampstead Heath Ponds—London’s early water supply, and sex-segregated swimming ponds, which opened in the late 1890s and continue to serve the community today.
Ever the WW2 nerd, I needed to get my fix by visiting the Churchill War Rooms, the historic underground complex that housed the British government’s command center during the Second World War from August 1939-45.
Highlights: The Map Room, where British Army, Royal Navy and Air Force officers produced daily intelligence for the King, Prime Minister and the military Chiefs of Staff. And The Cabinet Room, from where Churchill famously declared: “This is the room from which I’ll direct the war.”
Another crucial rooms were the Transatlantic Telephone Room, from where Churchill spoke securely with US President Roosevelt. And Churchill’s office bedroom included portable BBC broadcasting equipment from where the prime minister made four wartime broadcasts.
we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved.
One of my favorite things about London is that it’s the next best thing to a time machine. And so, from the mid-20th century, I transported myself back to the 1000s by visiting Westminster Abbey.
The place of coronation, marriage and burial for monarchs, and where prime ministers, poets, writers and military leaders are buried or memorialized, also houses the historic King Edward’s Coronation Chair, the Chapter House and the stunningly beautiful Medieval Wall Paintings.
From a young fisherman having a vision of St. Peter to Benedictines worshipping on the current site to monarchs establishing it as a Royal Church, Westminster Abbey has a rich history.
My favorite part is the Poets’ Corner, inaugurated in 1400 with the burial of The Father of English Poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1740, William Shakespeare was commemorated with a memorial that reads “buried at Stratford-on-Avon.”
Other famous artists buried or memorialized at the Abbey include Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Lewis Caroll, Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot.
This town’s breadth and depth of culture encompass not only a multitude of eras but also genres, as demonstrated by The Cartoon Museum—a hidden gem in the Fitzrovia neighborhood of Central London.
With a political satire-oriented permanent collection exhibiting original works from the 1700s on, I was in heaven. Some of the most important historical events, including “recent ones” as WW2, the Watergate scandal and Brexit, have been brilliantly immortalized by the most legendary British cartoonists.
The museum runs events and has books on the history of cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels available for research upon appointment.
It also holds temporary exhibitions, one of which, “Love Stories,” includes previously untold LGBTQ+ narratives commemorating Pride Month. I’m in love. It’s my new favorite London museum.
The Wallace Collection is another hidden gem in the heart of Marylebone. The former townhouse of the Seymour family, Marquesses of Hertford, it’s named after Sir Richard Wallace, who—along with his descendants—built the extensive collection in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The collection features Old Master paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velásquez and many more, as well as pictures, miniatures, decorative arts, arms and armor and furniture.
Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow bequeathed it to the nation. The collection opened to permanent public view in 1900, and admission remains free.
I contemplate an imminent return to my country and wonder whether, after leaving the United States, I would be coming back to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” dystopian Republic of Gilead.
And, once again, these somber thoughts contrasted with my bright surroundings: a picture-perfect day at Regents’ Parks’ Queen Mary’s Garden.
The gardens, contiguous to the Japanese Garden Island with its waterfall, a couple of bridges and statues, it’s famous for their 12,000 roses and are beautifully arranged circularly.
I saw the BT Tower perfectly framed by the flowers. The icon, which serves as orientation in the city, gave me some perspective about the situation that looms across the pond: my fellow Americans, do not keep calm and carry on!
A glorious ancient past sprinkled with an explosion of colors, sounds and flavors.
Mexico is awesome.
One of the six cradles of civilization, its ancient culture and vast territory went from conquerors to conquered to a tumultuous independent period marked by foreign invasions and subsequent internal political upheaval.
As the world’s second and fourth country in ecosystems and biodiversity, it boasts over 200 thousand different species of flora and fauna. It’s also the world’s 13th largest country and the 10th most populous.
Its culture is vibrant and complex, strongly identified with its pre-Hispanic past and the period of colonial rule. More contemporary influences from places as far as Asia and the Middle East make Mexico a kaleidoscope of stories, colors, sounds and flavors with a global appeal.
On top of that, it’s the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the hemisphere.
My familiarity with Mexico started at 3 with “El Chavo del Ocho” (“The Kid from number Eight”), my, Spain’s and the whole continent’s (including Portuguese-speaking Brazil) favorite TV show.
Like the rest of Latin America, I grew up with Mexican pop stars, variety shows and telenovelas. On Mother’s Day, Mariachi bands were a fixture. Mexican accent and expressions were as familiar as Venezuelan or Colombian ones. When I visited Mexico for the first time, I felt right at home.
However, for North Americans used to Cinco de Mayo stereotypes, a first visit to the megalopolis of Mexico City could be such a cultural shock.
The world’s sixth-largest metropolitan area and the second-most densely populated in the Western Hemisphere, its political, economic and cultural activity could make London and New York feel small. Vibrantly entertaining, English, Chinese, Arab, Russian and many other languages are heard in its world-class museums, restaurants and nightclubs.
Founded by indigenous people, Mexico City is the oldest capital in the Americas. The ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan is just about 25 miles to the northeast. Site of many of the most architecturally-significant pyramids, it’s here where you can see the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun.
The Riviera Maya is probably the only place where you can enjoy warm, crystal clear waters and turn to spot an ancient ruin behind you. The eastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula is formerly known as “The Cancun-Tulum Corridor,” and it includes the cities of Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos.
Famous for its all-inclusive resorts, charming boutique hotels and water sports, I recommend checking out the cenotes (natural sinkholes used as water suppliers by the ancient Mayans) and the archeological sites of Coba.
Aside from their achievements in astronomy, what’s most impressive about the Mayans is that they built temples, palaces, pyramids and observatories without metal tools.
The desert meets the sea at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula in an area known as Los Cabos, which includes the twin towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.
Though the region was underdeveloped until relatively recently, it has a rich history dating to colonial times. Hernan Cortez named the sea after him (Sea of Cortez) in the mid-1500s. Moreover, its remoteness lent it to being a pirate hideout, most notably for the English explorer Sir Francis Drake.
Pioneered by Las Ventanas al Paraiso and The One and Only Palmilla, Los Cabos is home to the world’s best hotels, including Viceroy Los Cabos and its flagship restaurant Nido (nest), with aesthetics inspired by the 1951 John Steinbeck’s book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”
Steinbeck and his expedition companion, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, must’ve been as inspired as contemporary visitors by the famous Cabo sunsets.
The spectacle is one of the highlights of this part of the world, and many hotels and restaurants offer coveted tables from which to enjoy them.
Perhaps, it was one of the sunsets which prompted one of my favorite quotes from the book, dealing—both literally and figuratively—with journeys:
It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing; to be loved without satiety