To Eric, my first editor
In third grade, a girl from my school died in a car accident.
I vividly remember hopping on the yellow bus with a few dozen other kids to go to her service without knowing what to expect. We probably were just vaguely excited about skipping class.
After seeing the face of a sleeping doll with pigtails in her open casket, the mood was decidedly different. On the way back, we were quiet and silent—profoundly changed by the funerary field trip.
Traveling to the other side of the city or the world on a sad or happy occasion can be a transformational experience: the physical commuting triggers an inner journey that continues unfolding for the rest of our lives.
In “The Philosophy of Travel, ” George Santayana wrote,” “Locomotion—the privilege of animals—is perhaps the key to intelligence.” Seeing the world with an open heart and mind, as kids usually do, is critical to transcend propaganda.
Visit the locations of our history books to learn what they don’t teach you in school. Being in “the room where it happened,” whether Charleston‘s Old Slave Mart Museum or Lisbon‘s Monument of the Discoveries, shatters stereotypes.
Like going to Mexico City and realizing its world-class museums and cosmopolitan rooftop bars have nothing to do with the dodgy picture delivered by American media, or traveling to Bourdeaux and finding the friendliest locals appreciative of your efforts to communicate in broken French.
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate,” wrote Pico Iyer in “Why We Travel.”
After visiting the Faroe Islands, online trolls scolded me. “Congratulations on supporting animal cruelty,” they said, referring to the ancient practice of whaling. But going beyond bloody YouTube videos and into the heart of the foggy Northern European archipelago was illuminating. It taught me their hunting is non-commercial, humane and environmentally sustainable.
Touring Seville‘s Bullring Real Maestranza Museum was uneasy until we discovered the chapel where matadors pray before facing the magnificent beast with reverence. Learning more about the solemn ritual shifted my perception. And, though I probably still wouldn’t attend a bullfight, I found myself capable of respecting a different cultural practice.
“The world never quits growing on us. It’s just as vast as ever, and it reinvents itself every day,” Bill Bryson aptly wrote in “The Best American Travel 2000.” And, though rewarding, the experience can be an unsettling one.
The images of the falling Wall from my teenage years colored my first visit to Berlin in 2007. I was delighted with a sense of optimism and possibility, different from my post-social media/COVID trip to the German city (photo featured), shaped by the historical and geographical proximity to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
The French election of a lifetime, between President Emmanuel Macron and rightwing hardliner Marine Le Pen, was also momentous. Fresh off the Trump years, an American in Paris was an ominous walking-and-talking warning. So much was a stake for France, the European Union and the world. We dodged a bullet, for now.
The most important lessons? Progress is not a straight line. And, as John Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charlie: In Search of America,” “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
At a trying time for millions of Americans’ rights, including women and LGBTQ+ families, celebrating the old USA’s birthday in Provincetown, the birthplace of American freedom, still committed to liberty after more than four centuries, was reaffirming.
I wish cultural warriors had a peak at so much love between people from all walks of life. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain in “The Innocents Abroad.”
Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic and, as Maya Angelou said, “travel cannot prevent bigotry.” But even the legendary poet and civil-rights activist believed there could be hope. “[…] by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends,” she concluded.
Bicycles are to Danes what cars are to Americans.
But, while in the United States, automobiles signify status, in Denmark, bikes mean equality.
And that’s when Scandinavians feel freest.
Though Denmark introduced bicycles in the 1880s, it wasn’t until the 1920s-30s that they became widespread.
Danes from all walks of life began to ride shoulder to shoulder for commuting and recreation, and a national identity based on human-powered mobility was born.
The phenomenon coincided with the arrival of the Northern European social contract of a tax-funded, robust safety net.
Although in the 1950s, Danes flirted with automobiles like the rest of the industrialized world, a pivotal event—the 1970s Oil Embargo—provided a wake-up call.
The Danes had the vision to dust off their beloved two-wheelers and end their dependency on gas for good.
Today, you will see lawmakers on their way to parliament, families grocery shopping, and couples going on dinner dates on this healthy and convenient mode of transportation.
Nine in ten people own a bike in Denmark. And they ride .9 miles on average every day.
As a result, they request 1.1 million fewer sick days, help reduce CO2 emissions by 20 thousand tons a year, and save $1.16 million on health benefits per .6 miles traveled.
It’s a productive partnership between the citizens and their government. In 2022 alone, the Danish Ministry of Transportation invested $458 million in “cycle superhighways.”
With fewer stops, safer intersections, and resting areas equipped with air pumps, these cycle routes connect residential and commercial districts to public transportation networks.
Along with other incentives, like taxation on motor vehicles, these measures will help Denmark reach its goal of 50 percent of the population commuting on bicycles by the decade’s end.
No wonder Danes and Bikes is a life-long love affair.
Preschoolers attend “kiddy biking schools,” where they learn road safety from an early age. Similarly, the government funds programs for new immigrants and refugees so they can learn how to properly navigate the country’s more than 7 thousand miles of cycle routes.
The Danes even ride in the afterlife.
Funeral homes use cargo bikes to transport the deceased to their last resting place in a “final ride,” with mourners often following on their bikes.
It’s the most environmentally friendly burial procession.
All of which make bicycles part of the Scandinavian landscape as much as the understated, functional, and pastel-colored architecture or the elegant, green urban spaces.
Bikes are everywhere: tangled by the dozens in massive lots across town and parked (not locked) outside offices, schools, stores, restaurants, bars, and even churches.
But, mainly, they’re on the road.
For someone used to the chaos of American city cyclists—who generally ride against traffic, on sidewalks, and disregard traffic lights—witnessing the sheer number of compliant Danish bikers perfectly choreographed around proper regulation is fascinating.
As a driver, pedestrian, or fellow cyclist, disrupt this order at your own peril.
While among the world’s most polite people, Danes will lose their cool, to say the least, if you cut them or otherwise step on their path when you’re not supposed to.
They’ll probably even deport you from their country. And rightfully so!
All this social order doesn’t mean Scandinavians are dull or uptight—quite the opposite.
At Copenhagen Pride, a late-August city-wide, week-long celebration, Danes of all stripes dismount to join the street festivals, have a pint (or two) of beer, and dance with friends and strangers alike.
And you don’t even have to know how to speak Danish to partake.
Thanks to their top-notch educational system and exposure to American culture (in Denmark, movies and TV shows are subtitled, not dubbed), Danes speak Standard American English better than your average American.
Even when they haven’t set foot in the United States.
Like Oliver, the 20-something Copenhagen server who dreams about coming to New York City one day.
He learned British grammar in elementary school and American slang by watching reruns of “Friends.”
Growing up, Rachel was his crush, and Joey his role model (he also wants to be an actor).
He also thought Ross and Phoebe were the coolest.
Yes, Oliver, but imagine how much cooler they would’ve been had they ridden bicycles all over Manhattan.
Do the touristy things, they attract tourists for a reason@jamestwall
“Don’t look down,” a terrified American mom said as the tin can shot up to the sky.
It was the cue for all the rest of us sardines to do just the opposite and watch the city below quickly shrink to a live-action LEGO scale.
Right on schedule, the Eiffel Tower wrapped us in her unmistakable golden gown and sparkly jewels.
She then placed us on her crown to witness the magnificent evening she was about to take on.
An Italian little girl exclaimed, “Mamma Mia!” A Chinese family scrambled to FaceTime the view. A group of Muslim teenagers giggled and took selfies.
The modern-day Babel fell under the spell of Paris in June.
We’d arrived that morning for 48 unapologetically touristy hours in the City of Light.
When we climbed to the Iron Lady’s top, we’d already taken the obligatory Notre Dame selfie, marveled at the perfectly-manicured Tuileries Garden, and window-shopped at Place Vendome.
We also experienced Sainte Chapelle, the 13th-century stained glass collection site, which withstood the Revolution and World Wars I and II.
This entire city is an ode to survival through beauty.
Like Arc de Triomphe, the imposing monument that dominates the elegant Champs Elysées and where veterans carrying red, white, and blue flags pay their daily respects to the Unknown Soldier.
The following morning we visited the Louvre Museum, another excellent example of this spirit.
In 1939, anticipating the fall of France to Nazi Germany, the home of “La Gioconda” scrambled for three days to uninstall, ship, and evacuate its precious collection to private chateaus in the provinces.
Though we dreaded lining up outside at 8:30 AM while nursing a massive hangover, being among the first entering the museum made us feel like we had the entire place to ourselves.
Because of its commitment to aesthetics, Paris is probably the only place in the world that can get away with turning an old train station into a museum.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of those places where the beauty of the building rivals that of the artworks it houses, even when they include the world’s most extensive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces.
Finished in time for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the “Gare d’Orsay” was considered old-fashioned and unsuitable for modern trains.
After being downgraded for suburban services, and a stint as a mail center, filming location, and potential hotel, the Réseau Express Régional (RER) built a new station underneath.
In the late 1970s, France’s Ministry for Cultural Affairs listed the station as a Historic Monument, which saved it from demolition.
New York City’s old Penn Station left the chat.
With time running out, we headed for Palais Garnier, another place where people go to admire its grand facade, staircase, foyers, and pavilions as much as they go to enjoy the canonical ballets and operas it features.
The world’s most famous opera house owes its celebrity to an 1896 chandelier-related fatal incident, which inspired the iconic scene in Gaston Leroux’s 1910 “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The rest is history.
Like a Private Eye in London
Eurostar pulled in St. Pancras International a little before midnight.
If the French are all about joie de vivre, the English run on stoicism and beer.
Ask the Postal Museum, which reenacts how the Royal Mail kept intelligence flowing through relentless bombing to emerge victorious after WWII.
Like a private eye, you might head next to Tower Bridge. Its glass bottom makes you feel like you could jump and land on one of the boats crossing the River Thames below.
Two miles away, The Eye keeps watching.
You hop on it and ponder your action plan while suspended in a transparent capsule at 443 feet with aerial views of Parliament Square.
Your upcoming move may be to the Tower of London, where one of the Beefeaters might be an undercover agent.
Perhaps your answer lies beyond London, in the Queen’s tomb at Windsor Castle‘s St. George’s Chapel, or among Stonehenge‘s prehistoric stones.
You may need to dig a little deeper into the historic town of Bath or among the nondescript, Medieval stone houses of the nearby village of Lacock.
Keep calm and carry on.
Florida’s population grew almost 15 percent during the last decade—doubling the overall US population growth rate.
Miami, the state’s second most-populous city, is home to approximately half a million souls, including snowbirds, Latin American immigrants, and digital nomads.
All drawn by the irresistible combination of excellent weather, multiculturalism, and the lack of a personal income tax.
Gentrification has bridged South Beach with the mainland to form the sprawling city of “Greater Miami and the Beaches.”
On holiday weekends, the town brims with simultaneous events like Art Wynwood, the Miami Boat Show, concerts, fashion shows, and street festivals.
Driving back from Calle Ocho during the last President’s Weekend, I marveled at an unrecognizable skyline more reminiscent of Dubai than the place that welcomed me twenty years ago.
Back then, there were still remnants of the golden age that culminated with the assassination of Gianni Versace.
The mission was to become Urbe’s first foreign correspondent.
The increasingly popular Village Voice-inspired Caracas publication was annoying the new government of Comandante Hugo Chavez with a mix of irreverence and—especially—American pop culture.
We were looking to expand beyond borders, just as the “World Wide Web” began upending our trade by birthing what we know today as the online content industry.
As I executed my first assignments, I watched with trepidation how my country’s government amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits.
The writing was on the wall. I embraced my new American life.
Around the time I rented my first studio apartment, a friend gave me his old TV set. The first broadcast images were of skyscrapers collapsing after being hit by passenger jets.
Though early 2000s South Beach still echoed its former glamorous self—drag queens hung out with bodybuilders on Ocean and 12th, scantily-clad rollerbladers handed out flyers on Lincoln Road, and celebrities roamed Española Way—change was in the air.
Season after season, many of the Art Deco District hotels that lodged the rich and famous in the 1920s, soldiers right before WWII, and supermodels in the 1990s crumbled to Mother Nature and the indifference of real estate developers.
The MTV reality show starlet replaced the movie star. Rowdy spring breakers, online influencers, and crypto bros followed.
In Alton Road, a party-kid-turned-middle-aged-dad reminisced about Junior Vasquez’s and Tracy Young’s “dope” music sets of yesteryear at Level and Crobar. The party was officially over.
I became an exile yet again. I was sad to leave good friends and a promising career in hospitality behind. But I had to nurse a chronic tropical hangover and return to my roots as a writer—this time in English.
Three years later, I came back as a visitor. I was ecstatic about the warm weather after a ferocious New York City winter. I shed my coat while skipping like a madman upon landing. The Cuban ladies who sold cafecito in the airport terminal must’ve thought I was loco.
I’d witnessed the city struggle to regain footing on every subsequent trip since. Including during the pandemic, when the local authorities’ laxity might’ve attracted some of the ensuing holiday lawlessness we see in the news today.
But things are finally falling into place once again. Miami seems to be maturing into a world capital where development is ubiquitous and Russian and Arab languages join English and Spanish in the streets.
Old and new friends from around the world met at the heart of Little Havana this winter.
Gays, moms, Cuban refugees—and everyone in between!—danced away and sang along in the street to Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” and Will Smith’s “Miami.”
Then, the sun beautifully set in this perfectly-unperfect Southern Florida piece of the American Dream.
My puffy green jacket was the least stylish garment I could wear this weekend.
At least it kept me warm during Paris’ windy and damp February—isn’t la mode supposed to be all about functionality?
Besides, we came for the food.
We almost didn’t make our Friday evening reservation, though.
Eurostar pulled in Gare Du Nord just in time for the rush hour traffic exacerbated by the global fashionistas commuting to the shows we weren’t going to attend.
But after hopping on the metro, we witnessed a spontaneous, trendy display.
Parisians from all walks of life, from traditional North African to urban fabulous to mime chic, served style on the moving runaway.
So much so that we almost missed our stop at Le Marais, where we promptly checked in Hotel Duo, changed into boring but Michelin star-appropriate button shirts, and headed out to Restaurant Pages.
Chef Teshi’s spot seemed too bright initially, but I soon realized the lighting worked perfectly with the immaculately white walls, smartly dressed staff, and delicately executed French/Japanese cuisine.
A frosty city greeted us the following day. Chinese lanterns commemorating the Lunar New Year lined Rue Chapon on our way to a new favorite: Parcelles.
The child of a bubbly French couple, the restaurant/store was established right before the pandemic and thrived by keeping Parisians fed and boozed via delivery.
Smily servers approach your table, happy to translate the menu and make food and wine recommendations from their inventory and beyond—something only those extremely confident about their offering can do.
Brunch warmed our hearts and fueled us with calories for a chilly stroll.
We saw Instagram models posing next to the Louvre Pyramid and tourists taking selfies against the Yayoi Kusama installation at the Louis Vuitton Champs-Élysées store.
As temperatures continued to decrease that evening, we corroborated that no one makes comfort food like the French.
A warm staff, top-notch wine, and succulent roasted lamb shoulder with seasonal vegetable casserole welcomed us to an old favorite: Le Villaret.
On Sunday noon, we enjoyed a walk through the neighborhood.
The advanced stage of Notre Dame’s restoration was reassuring, as was spotting the Hôtel de Ville decked out with the Olympic Rings in anticipation of the Paris 2024 Summer Games.
Next, we were off to the 15th arrondissement, home to Le Cagouille, our last culinary stop before catching the Eurostar back to London.
One of the world’s freshest fish and seafood restaurants, with superb wine pairings, is also the best spot to watch the locals enjoy Sunday brunch with their friends and families.
Seeing kids on the neighboring tables tackling coloring books instead of iPads made our day.
Back in Gare du Nord, we realized beautiful creatures had invaded the place.
Supermodels of all genders and races looked even more stunning, fresh off couture, waiting for the train like the other mortals.
They rubbed off us with some of the glitz and glamour of this ever-magical and romantic City of Light.
At 23:35, we retrieved the bubbles, a couple of red solo cups and rushed for the beach.
The local kids were already sitting on the sand, lit by their parked car’s beam lights, looking like a 1980s MTV video.
Live music from the nearby clubs disrupted an almost spiritual vibe: the beachgoers looked into the sky with anticipation—like someone who waits for the passing of a comet.
We realized we’d forgotten the grapes. I felt liberated. The last couple of years taught us how naive end-of-year wishes could be.
Still, I felt cautious joy when the countdown began: 3, 2…1! All the fireworks in the world shot into the sky, and suddenly it was daytime on Palmilla Bay.
We’d arrived four days earlier, after a gelid New York City Christmas. The JFK-San Jose del Cabo flight took us from -10F to 80F in just over six hours, and it felt like a miracle.
Feeling the sand between our toes, sipping that glorious first margarita, hiking to the Big Cross: Cabo’s always been about holiday traditions for over a decade.
And, during that time, we’ve also seen the town change.
Lola, who came thirty years ago, has witnessed an even more profound transformation. Back then, there were only two shacky hotels and a landing strip. Lola loved it so much that she never returned to her native Yucatan.
To those who came before her, she was that annoying newcomer. A decade ago, it was her turn to frown upon us. It goes on and on.
Lola worries about reckless drivers along The Corridor, the same road where the many resorts built in recent years have progressively blocked the sea view.
We loved admiring the water back when we drove to and from San Jose’s Art Thursdays to check out works from local artists and sip free gallery wine.
Those days you still could see Steven Spielberg speeding down the road in a golf cart, Enrique Iglesias donning a poncho in 80-degree weather, and Leonardo DiCaprio denying he was Leonardo DiCaprio in Agua Bar.
That was well before COVID, which feels like a lifetime ago. Once American politics spilled onto the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, it was not rare to spot drunken, sunburnt tourists decrying “plandemic” and “stolen election.”
There goes the neighborhood.
Luckily, Cabo’s natural beauty remains as mesmerizing as the first time Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed past El Arco and spotted whales and dolphins in the open ocean.
I felt the same exhilaration on New Year’s Day as that first boat ride from about eight years ago. This time, we anchored in Chileno Bay and jumped into the crystal-clear waters for a swim.
The captain tossed us snorkeling goggles, so we could see the colorful fish blissfully swimming amongst us. On the way back, the crew made us fajitas, which we wolfed down with some deliciously cold Pacificos.
A massive seal, unbothered by the many vessels, including a couple of titanic cruise ships, goofily swam by as we approached the marina.
We reached the hotel in time to experience the first sunset of the year. The timeless yellow and orange hues colored the Sea of Cortez like thousands of years hadn’t passed, and the Spanish conquistador—the first annoying newcomer of them all—didn’t dare to rename it.
“Immigrants have been coming here for over a thousand years,” said our guide, Debbie. The self-professed “London girl” also warned us that we’d all be foreigners in Kent, England, our destination 44 miles southeast of London.
We started in the historic Leeds Castle, owned by monarchs and lords from the 13th through the 19th centuries and purchased and restored by American heiress Lady Olive Baillie in the 1920s.
After she died in 1974, Lady Baillie left the property to a foundation created to preserve it for posterity. The building, grounds and personal effects are evidence of a time when American industrialists and cash-strapped European nobility were a match made in heaven.
Up next, Debbie and our lovely coach’s driver, Joan, took us to the historic White Cliffs of Dover. The white chalk natural monuments are as much a homecoming sight for those sailing back to England today as once they were for “Dunkirk” survivors amid WWII.
For the third and final leg of our day trip, we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Canterbury. Syrian, Thai and Mexican food trucks—and even a Bolivian guy selling Andes-themed Christmas sweaters—lined the street market leading up to the medieval Canterbury Cathedral Gate.
The breathtaking Canterbury Cathedral, also known as “England in Stone,” has witnessed the country’s history for centuries. Magna Carta negotiations, royal weddings and funerals, WWII bombings and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket are some of the momentous events that happened within its walls.
Back in London, holiday angels flew over locals and visitors from all walks of life at the tune of Christmas carols and Middle Eastern music played by stores and the ubiquitous pedicabs from Oxford Street to Spitalfields Market.
The deliciously-looking Brazilian Bolinhos de Bacalhau, Napolitan pizzettas and other international delicatessen tempted me as I walked through the market and towards Brick Lane, the district famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi curry houses.
London will treat you to the world’s flavors on one corner and its grand heritage on the next. Holborn Bars, a Victorian red terracotta building in Camden, stands on the site of a former Inn where Charles Dickens lived and worked.
Built by the Knights Templar, Temple Church is another national treasure. The official house worship of the Inner and Middle Temples, two of London’s four ancient legal colleges, holds the tombs of prominent jurists, knights and priceless works of art like the Blitz-surviving 12th-century Victorian tiles.
The railings of another historic church, Holy Sepulchre London, preserve London’s First Drinking Fountain. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association built it in 1859 to end the cholera outbreaks that had plagued the city until then.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of those underrated London treasures. The former Lincoln Inn Fields, home of the famous Neo-classical architect, remains untouched since the Victorian days, and it’s renowned for its sepulchral chamber with the Egyptian sarcophagus.
While Central London’s Christmas decorations are a must, it’s worth taking the trek to Christmas at Kew, where talented artists combined the botanical beauty with neon lights and holiday music to achieve spectacular, immersive experiences like The Palm House and The Cathedral.
Last but not least, visiting Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter was genuinely magical, as was witnessing how the phenomenon based on J. K. Rowling’s famous books keeps bringing together people of all nationalities, races and generations.
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I finally saw Mazinger Z‘s birthplace.
For my day trip to Kyoto, I booked right-hand side tickets on the 6:00 AM bullet train (my first ride ever!) and hoped for a clear morning to see Mount Fuji—Japan’s highest mountain and unmistakable cultural icon.
I realized my expectations of a quaint village were wildly off when, two hours later, we arrived at the massive and futurist-looking Kyoto Station. Tokyo’s signature combination of traditional and modern extends into Kyoto and beyond.
A case in point is the Kyoto Tower, which welcomes visitors across from the busy transportation hub. Erected for the 1964 Olympics, the steel structure topped by a needle-shaped spire faced initial opposition for looking too modern for the old imperial capital.
It eventually became a symbol in its own right, as much as the ancient Nijo Castle. The palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s until the Meiji Restoration, is one of the city’s various UNESCO World Heritages Sites where history comes alive.
In the palace’s exquisite tatami rooms, purposely-built squeaky (“singing”) floors alerted of ninjas trying to break in. Kano School paintings of soothing landscapes or scary creatures welcomed or intimidated friends or foes, respectively.
Outside, a beautiful traditional Japanese garden—where Prince Charles and Princess Diana partook in a tea ceremony once—completes this national treasure.
Another medieval jewel: Kinkaku-ji, or The Golden Pavilion, sits at the center of a Chinese-influenced Zen temple housing the sacred relics of the Buddha himself. Its reflection in the contiguous lake on a bright autumn day, such as the one I was lucky to experience, evokes paradise on earth as, indeed, is intended by design.
Contemplating the Togetsukyo Bridge in the Arashiyama district, one understands why Emperor Kameyaba dubbed it “Moon Crossing Bridge” while he navigated the Katsura River at night. Just as breathtaking in the middle of this bright fall day, it gleamed against the magnificent hills in the background.
The bridge leads to Arashiyama’s main street, packed with trendy restaurants, clothing stores and ice cream parlors to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Bamboo Forest. The giant timber bamboo pathway filters the sun’s rays into a green, otherwordly realm. It is quite a religious experience.
Geisha district Gion is another idyllic part of town with a broad canal, narrow streets and charming quarters where maiko and geiko live, shop and entertain as their sister ancestors did centuries ago. I was lucky to spot one of them. She was a vision. That moment alone was worth the whole trip.
The Higashiyama District regaled me with another vision just as striking: the Yasaka Pagoda. The five-story tower is the last remaining structure of the 6th-century Hōkan-ji Temple. It’s survived fires, earthquakes and wars to become one of Japan’s many icons of beauty and resilience.
Back in New York, I saw an Instagram video of Japanese fans cleaning up the stadium after one of the FIFA World Cup games. I remember learning about tidiness as a powerful Zen technique to achieve fulfillment. And, like that, many of the beautiful things I saw during my ten dream-like days in Japan made absolute sense.
There’s not a dull moment in Tokyo.
I’ve spent six days in the Japanese capital and have already experienced sensory overload, a lunar eclipse and an earthquake.
But none of these things stop Tokyoites, who are intensely punctual, clean and orderly.
No one jaywalks, and everyone wears a face mask while looking sharp (no sweats, leggings or any of that “business casual” nonsense).
The city has thirteen metro lines: nine Tokyo Metro and four Toei Subway ones, along with the JR East and Yamanote lines—each with multiple interconnected, numbered, Romanized and color-coded stations.
It is rush hour all day long, even on the weekends. Everything blinks and beeps everywhere: perennial PA announcements, ubiquitous video screens of all sizes, arcade game-type music and even artificially-generated bird-chirping.
This city is intense. And this is coming from a New Yorker.
Thank god for urban oases like Gotokuji Temple, the birthplace of the famous “Lucky Cat.”
Legend has it daimyo li Naotaka was hunting on the temple grounds when the abbot’s pet cat beckoned him inside, saving him from getting struck by lightning.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another peaceful retreat for stressed office workers and overwhelmed tourists in the middle of the busy Shibuya and Shinjuku districts.
The shogun bequeathed it to Lord Naitō in the Edo period. The latter used it as a family residence until the Meiji Restoration, when it underwent various phases, including as a botanical and an imperial garden.
The current layout dates from the turn of the 20th century. As one sits on the tranquil and beautifully-manicured lawns, it’s hard to imagine the obliteration the site sustained due to Allied air raid bombings during WW2.
Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 1879 by Emperor Meiji in Chiyoda City, memorializes many WW2 victims and those from previous conflicts.
The grand First and Second gates, Tearooms and Divine Pond Garden lead to the Main Hall, which features the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum, honoring the over 2 million men, women and children who died for the country.
The Memorial Fountain “Statue of a Mother Offering Water” was the most moving. The Kiwanis Club of Tokyo, a volunteer organization founded in Detroit, MI, dedicated it to many of the war dead who “longed for their mothers and pure water at the last moment.”
Every corner of this city is historical, including open-air markets like Ameyoko. The shopping street next to Ueno Station in Taito City is a haven for fresh and prepared food, clothing and technology.
In the aftermath of WW2, it was the site of a black market that sold surplus US army goods, including candy, at a time when sugar was scarce. Among the current businesses, a store that sells military gear stands out.
The shopping district is bustling the week after Christmas when locals flock to take advantage of New Year’s sales, which offer many staples used in traditional Japanese end-of-year gatherings.
Kappabashi Street—or Kitchen Town—between Ueno and Asakusa is another famous urban market that caters to the restaurant business.
Stores selling sushi knives, ramen bowls and ultra-realistic versions of plastic dishes restaurants use for displays line the street.
A couple of shops specialize in chopsticks alone. They have multiple designs, which, upon sale, they wrap up beautifully. It’s hard to imagine such establishments in the US, where Amazon has substituted even the more general brick-and-mortar stores.
No Tokyo visit would be complete without riding the Leigi Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat.
The anime legend, who collaborated with Daft Punk in several music videos for their 2001 album “Discovery,” created a real-life vessel out of his mythical space operas, like “Space Battleship Yamato” and “Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage.”
It’s a water bus fit to cruise Tokyo Bay and admire its futuristic landmarks, including the Tokyo Skytree and the Rainbow Bridge.Ameyoko Market, Ameyoko Shopping Street, Asia, Cat Shrine, Cat Temple, Destinations, Gotokuji Temple, Himiko Cruise, Japan, JR East, JR Yamanote, Kappabashi Street, Kitchen Town, Memorials, Museums, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Sights, Sightseeing, Toei Subway, Tokyo, Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Metro, Water Taxi, Yasukuni Jinja, Yasukuni Shrine
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-gū Shrine, 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.
I saw Sailor Moon handing out flyers in Akihabara.
I’ve been in Tokyo for 48 hours, and the line between reality and fiction still seems blurry.
To say this megalopolis of ancient temples and technological might is another world would be an understatement.
Almost immediately after the 14-hour flight from Newark, I hopped on the subway to reach the world-famous Shibuya Crossing.
The world’s busiest intersection greeted me with a choreography that made the crossing look empty one minute and inundated with what looked like millions of people the next.
The next day, the colorful stores and characters of youth Mecca Harajuku made me feel like a guest character in a live-action anime. I understood why Gwen Stefani was obsessed with it back in 2004.
Harajuku offers more than just fashionable boutiques. A short stroll away, the magnificent Myōenji Temple and its adjacent graveyard (or hakaba) stand against the backdrop of a modern residential building, where a baby cried incessantly: a perfect metaphor for the circle of life.
The Onden Shrine is another religious jewel in the neighborhood, blessing romantic relationships for 400 years and counting. I loved the komainu or lion-dog statues and the ubiquitous hanging pieces of origami-ed paper (ofuda) left as offerings.
Experiencing Tokyo’s Pedestrian Paradises was another priceless treat. On the weekends, the city closes car traffic on main avenues in several districts. Cycling and jogging are prohibited so the walkers can enjoy themselves as peacefully as possible. My first pedestrian paradise was in Ginza, where I got to strut between its many clothing stores.
Ginza is also the home of Kabuki-za Theater, the main theater in Tokyo for kabuki. Initially built in 1889, the building has undergone several reconstructions due to fires, Allied bombings during WWII and concerns over earthquakes.
The Wako Tower is another unmissable attraction in the area. Founded in 1881, the upscale department store sells watches, jewelry, porcelains, chocolates and handbags—among other high-end products. Reconstructed after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, it was one of the few remaining intact buildings after WWII.
Akihabara was my second Pedestrian Paradise. Also known as Electric Town, this nerd’s (otaku) paradise with densely-packed, brightly lit and Casio keyboard-type music-playing buildings offers duty-free sales to tourists trickling in after the extended COVID lockdown.
Back to the digs in Chidoya-ku, I ran into the imposing Tokyo Daijingu. This work of art from the 1860s is where I first witnessed people worshipping. After removing my hat and discreetly handling my flashless phone camera from a prudent distance, I snapped this photo.
As per my hotel’s recommendation, I ended my day at a conveyor belt restaurant on the fourth floor of a busy neighborhood building. The only human contact was a bus person who bowed before clearing your spot on the plexiglass-protected counter after you rose to pay the check in a parking lot-style kiosk.
I was never more grateful for my immigrant parents’ advice as a young kid: “wherever you go, do as the locals.” The lack of English instructions made me mimic my fellow patrons, unsuccessfully trying to blend in and navigate this “Jetsons”-type eatery. It was me against the sushi.
I was exhausted. It was time to return to my room, where I passed out, only for the second wave of jet lag to wake me up three hours later—hence, this post.