2,000 PAGODAS AND A MISTY SUNRISE: Biking around magical Bagan

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Bagan is the highlight of any trip to Myanmar, so I had high expectations.

Getting around by bike is a good way of seeing many of the temples. You can basically just go anywhere around Old Bagan and start temple-spotting.

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The main temples are a bit busy and there are usually stalls selling handicraft around them, but most smaller temples are completely empty and you have the place to yourself. You can also just take a turn into any side road to find lots of little temples, they are literally everywhere.

You can climb up some of the temples to get stunning views of nearby pagodas – this way you get an understanding of the scale of the place.

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The most famous temples are usually larger, but in truth it doesn’t really matter where you go. The smaller temples can sometimes be more interesting simple because on an unusual detail or because you can explore by yourself.

From the most famous temples, my favourite was Ananda as it’s really unusual inside, full of Buddha statues in little carved nooks. But the most fun I’ve had was simply exploring aimlessly and stopping where it looked good – I don’t really think you can go wrong in Bagan.

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The best thing is to actually find a temple off the beaten path to climb up and enjoy the view by yourself. You just need to wander around a bit until you find one (locals will often point it out). In these you may sometimes meet locals who will always eventually try to sell you postcards or paintings – although it’s obvious that they will want you to give them some money, it’s also a good opportunity to have a chat and learn a bit about local life.

At the most popular temples you’re approached by locals but you don’t have a chance to engage much.

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Another popular activity is to watch the sunrise and sunset from the top of a pagoda.

I took a taxi (15,000MMK, a bit expensive) to watch the sunset. The pagodas can get quite busy, and especially since the 2016 earthquake, not many pagodas are available to climb, so everyone ends up in the same places.

I wanted the sunset at Bulethi temple, which has amazing views. It is a truly magical experience, seeing all the pagodas in the changing light and the countryside in different colours.

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Watching a sunrise from a pagoda is a highlight of any trip to Bagan, so I woke up at 4h30am. A big crowd gathered at Bulethi temple, but it was definitely worth it. You have plenty of time to take in the atmosphere (and take a million photos) of the light changing over the misty pagodas.

When it’s time for sunrise, hot air balloons take to the skies and give the place a fairy tale atmosphere. It’s a unique and magical place and the sunrise alone brings it all together.

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Mount Popa:

I took a shared taxi to Mount Popa, which is about 1h30 from Bagan. Mt Popa is a sacred mountain (of volcanic origin) with a pagoda at its top. Climbing the 777 steps to get there and fielding monkeys drinking from half-empty cans of Coke, you are greeted with great views over the countryside.

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This is a nice trip to do as long as you have enough time in Bagan. You can book a shared taxi for 10,000MMK which picks you up at your hotel at 9am and drops you off at 2pm.

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  • I went for dinner at Sanon, a social enterprise training local youths to work at and run restaurants. The food is really great (dinner for one including drinks and tip for 8,500-11,000MMK) and it’s a good place to go to if you’re staying in Nyaung U.
  • I had lunch at Moon, a popular vegetarian place close to Old Bagan. The food was really delicious and the place is great (lunch for one for 6,700MMK). They also have a great selection of juices.
  • Weather Spoons is a popular place with tourists (and much better than its British counterpart). It’s a good place with a varied menu and strong cocktails for £1.50 (lunch including drinks and tip for 8,000MMK).

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There are many ways to visit Bagan. I chose to book everything independently but spending a bit on comfort.

  • Go: I chose to fly in, which is definitely the fastest option. From Mandalay it was only 30min and $70 with Golden Myanmar.
  • Stay: I stayed at Royal Bagan which was a great option – I paid £17 per night for a comfy double bedroom. Nyaung U is the area where most people stay, and that’s where you’ll find most restaurants and a few handicraft shops. In the evenings it’s a good place to go for dinner and a drink.
  • Get around: Most people rent and electric bike to get around, but I got a normal bike (2,000MMK for half a day). You can cover a lot of ground just riding around and stopping at some pagodas along the way.

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Bagan is a unique place. The countryside landscape filled with thousands of pagodas in a place that otherwise would be completely unremarkable really makes for a surreal sight.

I spent 4 days in Bagan which is a good amount of time to see everything without rushing. You can get a map with the key temples, but it’s more the scale of the site than the individual temples that matters, so you might as well just wander around and stops where looks good.

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A few people I know said it was a good idea to come to Myanmar now before it’s too touristy, and I think this is good advice for Bagan. Even though my experience was always great, the large crowds for sunrise and sunset on the pagodas just don’t fit with the place.

Many pagodas were damaged in the 2016 earthquake so there aren’t that many left to climb. And with the large number of tourists, there is risk to their structure. So I think this was definitely the right time to visit!

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Mandalay is not super easy to like – walking downtown there doesn’t seem to be that much to do, and the busy roads are not in great condition. But you do find interesting things around, like the odd street market with nice food stalls.

I was unlucky with the weather in Mandalay as it was cloudy and a bit rainy (very cold for locals at 22 degrees). So I skipped Mandalay Hill as I wouldn’t get much of a view and instead explored the pagodas at the foot of the hill, including Kothodaw pagoda that has a claim to fame as being ‘the largest book in the world’.

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I don’t think Mandalay is a necessary stop in a trip to Myanmar, but as I walked around the city grew on me. The area to the east of Mandalay Palace has less traffic and so is nicer to explore on foot.

For dinner I went to the popular Mingalabar, a restaurant serving delicious food with the most insanely large portions (a small feast for one including drinks and tip for 9,500MMK).

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I stayed at Diamonds Inn, a really nice hotel ($25 per night including breakfast) that was centrally located and perfect for a break after a hot day exploring.

I went for a foot massage at Innwa and it was great. The service was excellent and it cost only 7,000MMK (about £4!).

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I didn’t have very high expectations about Yangon and I was pleasantly surprised.

Downtown Yangon is easy to navigate and you can go everywhere on foot (if you can stand the heat). It’s definitely not as busy as other cities in Southeast Asia. It’s a mix of large roads with big offices and little streets with food and vegetable stalls. You can lose yourself for a few hours covering the many different areas to see.

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Bogyoke Aung San Market is a large market selling lots of different types of handicraft, and a good place to explore even if you’re not planning to buy anything.

Shwedagon Pagoda is the main highlight of Yangon. To avoid the heat it’s best to visit at sunset, and you also get to see the lights come on when it’s dark. The place is incredible, there are lots of amazing buildings and you can easily spend a few hours taking in all the details and people-watching.

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Sule pagoda: this is not the most impressive pagoda (tickets 2,000MMK), but it’s worth a visit as it’s quite central. Next to it there’s a big park and lots of street food stalls.

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Health Blessing: at the end of my trip I decided to visit this massage spa for a foot massage (1h for 12,000MMK). The service was very good and they have many locations around Yangon.

Circular line: You can take a train around Yangon. It takes 3h for the full loop, and you see busy markets, farmland and people going about their lives. Inside the train, people selling all sorts of snacks come and go. My carriage was taken over by vegetables being taken to markets, which was an unusual sight (but there are many). This is definitely a fun thing to do in Yangon. Buy your ticket for 200MMK at platform 7 at the Central Station. It’s best to go early to avoid the heat.

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It’s easy to spend a few days in Yangon – underneath the surface, there are lots of cool places: nice restaurants and a modern feel to Myanmar living.

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  • Nourish is a vegan place catering for expats and tourists. The food is good (meal with a drink for 14,500MMK, expensive for Myanmar) and it’s a good place to go for a change. They also have a yoga studio on site.
  • Monsoon is a nice restaurant serving food from Myanmar and beyond. Friendly service and big portions (lunch for 10,500MMK).
  • Kafe in Town: this is a great spot for coffee and dessert (for 6,500MMK). It’s a brand new cafe where you can chill and lounge about for a bit.

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Athens is full of amazing places to eat and drink. Cafes are everywhere, serving great coffee and even better cakes and sweets. Here are my favourites:



Meliartos is a bakery selling all sorts of sandwiches, cakes, coffee and ice cream. There’s lots on offer at the shop downstairs and table service upstairs. I had a delicious feta filo pastry and coffee (7.50€ including tip). Then I came back for some cake (a generous slice for 3.80€).

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The most popular dessert place in Athens, Lukumades is a great place to visit. They serve the Greek equivalent of donuts, and they’re really delicious. There are many flavours (I chose the ones with honey and cinnamon – 3.20€ for 10 little donuts), and portions are huge! They are made to order and served hot, which is really nice.


Zuccherino is a nice ice cream and dessert shop in a cute square close to Ermou street. Their ice cream is really delicious and creamy, and their desserts are also yummy (unnecessarily huge portions for 3.80€).

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There are many places to try Greek yogurt in Athens, but Fresko is one of the most popular. I tried the one with honey and walnuts (3.20€ for the small size), and it was really creamy and delicious.


I ended up here because I read something about it online, but it is located in a bit of a rough area. This is a traditional pastry shop and bakery with the most amazing displays. I tried a pistachio mousse (cheap at 3.40€) which was absolutely amazing!

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  • BRETTOS: Brettos comes up in any list of Athens recommendations, and it’s a definite must. They distil their own liquor and also have a huge wine and cocktail list. Plus their colourful display of bottles is so cool! Cocktails for 8€.
  • SIX DOGS: This popular bar is Athens’ equivalent of a ruin bar. The place looks really cool and gets quite busy. Drinks for around 5€.
  • CITI ZEN: You need to go up to the fourth floor to get to Citi Zen, but when you get there, you are greeted with the most amazing views of the Acropolis (make sure to sit outside)! Drinks for 6€.

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MAMA ROUX: I found this place by chance on my last day and it was a great find. It’s a popular brunch and cocktails place serving international food, and they have plenty of veggie and vegan options (meal and drink for one, including tip for 15€).

FALAFEL HOUSE: This veggie falafel place serving wraps and salads was really good – and cheap: dishes cost 3€ to 3.50€ and portions are massive.

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AVOCADO: Located between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, Avocado is a great veggie restaurant (dinner for two including drinks and tip for 34€). The food is delicious and the menu very varied.

ZAHARI & ALATI: This little cafe serving mostly vegan food is a great find. The food is delicious and portions are generous. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 21€.

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STAY: I stayed at two Airbnbs and both were good (prices were great). This place was perfect in terms of location – the Plaka is definitely the best choice as you can explore everything on foot easily.

WHEN TO GO: I visited in November, and I got some bad weather. But other than a few days of rain, this was a good time to visit as temperatures are still 10-20 degrees and it’s low season. For travelling around it’s best to visit between March and October as transportation to Greek Islands or to tourist sites in mainland Greece is mostly seasonal.

TRANSPORTATION: You can cover pretty much all of the key areas of Athens on foot. The metro network is good but doesn’t go everywhere (single tickets 1.40€, tickets to the airport 10€).

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Athens is a lively and interesting city. The Acropolis provides a scenic backdrop to the city, but in truth Athens is not as focused on its past as other places (like Rome).

There are many different places to explore, the Plaka with its traditional streets, Meliartos with its cool cafes and bars. But Athens is not a place for doing lots – it’s a place to slow down with a cup of coffee and cake, preferably with a view of the Parthenon.

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Athens’ most famous attraction is the Acropolis. Hosting the Parthenon and other temples, it really is an impressive sight. To get there you need to go up a hill, and along the way you already get great views over Athens.

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Tickets cost only 10€ during the winter (November to March), and you also avoid most of the crowds.

There are a few different things to see at the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena, the Theatre of Dionysus and, of course, the Parthenon.

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The Parthenon itself has been going through a big renovation project over many years, so inevitably there are cranes around it. You still get a feel for the scale of it though.

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Near the Acropolis is the interesting Acropolis Museum (tickets 5€). It hosts all sort of objects from the Acropolis, from statues from the Parthenon to vases and household objects.

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It is a new museum which opened in 2009, and there are lots of explanations and videos, many of them highlighting the pillaging of key features of the Parthenon (British Museum, I’m looking at you).

It is a great place to visit right after you see the Acropolis as the two really complement each other – and you even get views of the Acropolis from the museum.

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Plaka is a pedestrianised area of Athens at the bottom of the Acropolis. It is full of pedestrianised streets with little souvenir shops and taverns, and it looks like what you’d imagine Greece to look like. Even though it’s at the heart of the city, it feels like you’re in a small town – it reminded me a bit of the Old Town in Dubrovnik.

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You can definitely spend a few hours wandering around and exploring the little streets during the day, or stopping for drinks in the evening. It’s also a great place to stay as it’s very centrally located and close to many of Athens’ attractions.

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Very close to the Plaka you can find the Temple of Olympian Zeus (ticket 3€) and Hadrian’s Arch (free of charge). These are impressive ruins which are conveniently located with the Acropolis in the background.

The most interesting thing about these is the scale. They are definitely worth a visit but you don’t need more than 20 minutes to see both.

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The ancient Agora of Athens (tickets 4€) is a large archaeological site not far from the Acropolis. The site has lots of columns, a museum and marble statues. The main highlight of this site is the temple of Hephaestus, which is the best preserved temple of its kind, and it does look really nice.

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Just a few hundred metres from the Ancient Agora is the Roman Agora (tickets 3€) which is a smaller but interesting site, with a range of ruins. It includes the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal clock tower with a really nice design

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Hadrian’s Library and the Kerameikos Cemetery are two other sites to visit in central Athens. I chose not to go into either as you can get a good view of what they offer from the outside. I also thought that the other sites in Athens didn’t offer much in way of explanation, so once you have a look at the ruins you already got all the value from the site.

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Located behind Syntagma square, the National Garden is a beautiful urban park, full of gardens, lively birds and people running around. When I visited it was autumn, so you got a beautiful effect with the leaves falling. A great place to check out for a couple of relaxing hours.

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Athens is rightly proud of its Olympic past, and you get a glimpse of that at the Panathenaic Stadium, which was built for the first modern Olympic Games. You can pay to go in (tickets 5€), but in reality you can see the whole stadium from the outside which is what most people do.

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Syntagma Square is the central square of Athens. It is close to the Plaka and it leads to Ermou street, which is full of the high street shops you see anywhere in Europe. But the area around it, Monastiraki, is also full of really cool bars and cafes, always busy with people having a drink and eating some cake.

Nearby Psyri is home to lots of traditional tavernas and cafes, busy with people and live music.

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The best view of Athens, and particularly the Acropolis, is from Mount Lycabettus. You need to climb up some steps, but the hike up is really nice with great views and – weirdly – the odd tortoise passing by. From the top you see the Parthenon, all the main ruins scattered around Athens, the Panathenaic Stadium and all the way to the sea.

It is a lovely place to visit on a sunny day!

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Filopappou Hill, or Hill of the Muses, is another great place to get a good view of Athens and the Acropolis. The hill itself is not that high, but it’s located right across from the Acropolis, so you see the ruins on one side and the sea on the other.

A good thing about this place is that it’s right next to the Acropolis Museum, so it’s easily accessible on a day of sightseeing.

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The National Archaeological Museum (tickets 5€) is a bit further from most other attractions in Greece, but it does have an impressive collection. It is home to lots of ancient statues and all the amphorae you may need.

The display itself could use a few more explanations of the context of the objects, but it’s still worth a visit.

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The Museum of Cycladic Art (ticket 7€) is famous for the figurines of white marble on display. These are interesting and they do have a nice collection, but they also have an interesting display of classic Greek household objects, with interesting explanations bringing it all to life.


The Benaki Museum (tickets usually 9€, but when I visited it was free for some reason) also has a good collection of Greek artefacts, from the antiquity to the XIX century. The museum is located in a beautiful building not far from Syntagma square and it’s worth a visit if you’re in Athens for a good amount of time.

DEEP BLUE SEAS AND SCENIC VIEWS: A week in the Peloponnese

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I wanted to go to the Peloponnese since this Lonely Planet article put it at the top of places to visit in Europe.

I chose to stay in Nafplio as it’s a beautiful town and there were other places to explore nearby.

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Nafplio is really cute and the Old Town is full of little streets and cute shops. There’s a nice pier with a promenade overlooking Bourtzi fortress in the sea, which is a lovely and scenic view.

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Overlooking Nafplio and with great views over the Old Town, Palamidi (tickets 4€) is a fortress that provides the backdrop to Nafplio. You need to climb quite a few steps to get there, but the view and the fortress ruins are definitely worth the hike.

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Following a promenade that starts at the city centre of Nafplio, the path to Karathona beach is a lovely walk and a great spot for watching the sunset. You get to spot lots of fish swimming in the clear waters, kingfisher and other birds flying around and pretty local flora. There are also lots of little beaches along the way.

This is a scenic walk of a couple of miles by the beach, with plenty of benches to stop along the way and take in the scenery.

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A 20min bus ride away from Nafplio, Tolo is a cute and scenic port town with a beautiful beach. When we visited it was mostly empty, which made it really nice for a walk.

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You can take the bus back to Nafplio but we decided to follow the walk suggested here and explore the Greek countryside instead. The walk goes through cultivated fields of olives and oranges, and you get great views of the land and the sea. Up the hill there’s a little monastery where you can sit and take in the landscape.

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Only 4km away from Nafplio and easily reached by bus (but not walking, as there are no pedestrian paths) is Tyrins, a Unesco Heritage site (tickets 2€).

It is a large site built from 2,000 BC. The site itself is pretty big and there are lots of ruins, but they are not in a state that you can understand much (some artefacts found in Tyrins can be seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens).

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Nafplio Old Town has lots of cute bars and restaurants, with plenty of choice for a break. A favourite was popular Aiolos, which serves delicious Greek food. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 25€.

Greek restaurants are famous for their hospitality, and you will often get free dessert and other bits as part of a meal.

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We stayed at this Airbnb which was well-located and a great size for two people. Magda, the host, even cooked us a delicious dish of aubergine and potatoes which was just what we needed after a day of hiking.

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Nafplio is 2h10 by bus from Athens. You can buy tickets online here. The bus leaves from Kifisou station which is a bit far from the centre of Athens. Once there, look for the ‘Argolida’ signs to find the right platforms.

The same website also has timetables and routes for all buses around Nafplio.

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I’m a big believer that your experience of a place depends not only on the place itself, but also on where you are in your life when you visit it. And I got to Tokyo right at the perfect time!

I was never particularly interested in Japan when I was growing up, but when I first started planning my sabbatical it was at the top of my list.

The night I arrived in Tokyo, as soon as I got out of Tokyo Station and started walking to my capsule hotel, I knew this was going to be a great trip. From the start of my trip I loved everything: the bright neon signs, the cute packaging, the quietness of zen gardens and the loudness of busy streets.

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Most people I know like Kyoto better than Tokyo – Kyoto has more of what we expect traditional Japan to be: it has endless amounts of incredible temples and lots of cool restaurants and bars. And although I had a great time in Kyoto, Tokyo for me just doesn’t compare. It is the most incredible city ever.

Tokyo goes forever – I spent 23 days there and I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface. Just walking around, day or night, I’d spend hours trying to soak it all in. From the sensory overload of Shinjuku to the attractiveness of Ginza to the traditional liveliness of Asakusa, Tokyo has it all, and then some.

I’m an urban soul, and I always feel recharged when I’m in a good big city – and Tokyo is the ‘citiest’ of cities.

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I don’t really believe in perfection, but Japan gets very close. Everything works incredibly well, and given how different their culture is from that of Europe, it is amazing how easy things are.

Their famous transport network really works incredibly – and despite how busy it is, you’re really struck by how clean and quiet the trains are.

There are lots of things to make your life easy: the vending machines, convenience stores, products you never knew you needed, toilets with lots of buttons, restaurants where you place your order through a machine – everything is efficient and works.

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Japan also has an interesting dualism, being maximalist and minimalist at the same time. There’s the OTT neon signs, the kawaii cartoon characters on anything from sweets to health & safety messages, the insanity of discount stores filled floor to ceiling with all the tat in the world.

Then there’s the quiet of zen gardens, the simplicity of interior design where nothing is superfluous, the streamlined processes. Japan wouldn’t be the same without both.

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Another interesting paradox is that Japanese society, despite placing a greater emphasis on the collective, actually delivers greatness at the individual level too (of course this doesn’t apply to the exploitation of their workforce).

When you buy something in Japan, no matter how small, the rituals and formality around it always made me feel great about it – things are presented to you like they matter (even if you’re just buying a bottle of water) – and you’re treated like the only customer in the world. I’m a terrible shopper but in Japan I always felt good after buying something. This attention to detail really has a great impact on the individual experience.

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The Japanese people I met along the way were always interested to know my impressions of Japan and asked if I was having a good time – which of course I was. They seemed eager to please and to ensure I had a good experience.

Japanese people are discreet, but they are also helpful – without asking I was quickly shown how to do something or where to go on a number of occasions.

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I had the most wonderful time in Japan. It’s a magical country that is a whole world in itself. After one month, I still felt in awe at the smallest things like the potholes decorated with cherry blossoms or the way things always work.

This was the trip of a lifetime, and I would love to go back, but as they say in Lost in Translation:

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

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EATING, SHOPPING, GETTING AROUND: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 2)

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Japan is famous for its reliable public transport network, and it really works very well.

Metro: In cities the metro and urban rail systems are the easiest way to get around. There are plenty of trains and signage is good. Rush hour (which seems to be from 6pm until forever) is insanely busy, but you can always get on a train as people push themselves in.

Bus: Buses are very good and easy to use when you are on board. You pay with your metro card and there are usually digital displays showing upcoming stops. The tricky thing is to find the right bus to take, as there are sometimes many stops next to each other with only Japanese signs.

Google Maps: I did pretty much all of my journeys with Google Maps, and it worked really well. You get options of different lines and cost of the trip, as well as train times (which is very useful when more than one line stops at the same platform). The only difficulty was with some buses as Google Maps wasn’t very good at showing bus stops. But overall I’d have spent a lot more time thinking of how to get to places if it weren’t for Google Maps.

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The best way to pay for your trips is to use a metro card (Pasmo or Suica) which you can get at ticket machines. Journey prices vary depending on the distance, but with a card you just top up a few thousand yen and recharge when you run out (they even have machines inside the barriers in case you run out of credit during a trip).


Tokyo has an intricate metro and train system, but it’s not too difficult to navigate. The stations are often huge (Shinjuku receives 3 million commuters every day, making it the busiest station in the world), with lots of shops and restaurants both in and outside the barriers.

Most popular areas will have a few metro stations, and the JR Yamanote line is a circular line that goes around many of the main areas of Tokyo. The city is very flat so you can also cover a lot on foot, which is a great way of discovering little streets off the beaten track.

There is no weekly or monthly pass covering all types of transportation, so topping up a metro card is the easiest option.

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Buying a JR Pass is the best option for those travelling around Japan. It is a train pass that covers all Japan Rail (JR) trains, some Shinkansen (bullet trains) and some urban trains. There are options for 7, 14 or 21 days. I bought the 21-day option at £387 because I was doing two long Shinkansen trips and that in itself already covered the cost of the pass.

I also used it in shorter trips and lots around Tokyo (it covers the Yamanote line which is very useful). It is definitely a good thing to buy if you’re doing any Shinkansen trips.

You need to buy it before you get to Japan (although at the moment they’re trialling selling it in some places there), and you exchange it once you get there. It’s very easy to use an you can find all the info here.

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Having a data plan on my phone from the moment I arrived in Japan made a huge difference for my trip. You can buy different plans on arrival at Narita Airport.

I bought the Docomo SIM for Y6500 for 30 days including 5GB, and for me that was a good option. There are many kiosks with different offers so I kind of chose randomly, but there’s a good guide here.

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Some hotels and Airbnbs give you portable WiFi devices which are also an alternative, but from my experience these aren’t always reliable so I was happy to have my own data plan as a backup.

Tokyo stations, large shops and convenience stores often have WiFi spots.

Because Japanese addresses are tricky to understand, if you’re looking for specific places such as restaurants you definitely need reliable access to the internet, so I wouldn’t risk going without to save money.

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Given how different Japan is from Europe, they really make it easy for you to do things.

Vending machines are everywhere (most selling soft drinks), as are convenience stores – locally known as combini – which are great places to find unusual snacks and drinks. They are open 24h and sell everything you may need. After a while you start to prefer specific snacks from specific shops (Lawson, 7 Eleven and Family Mart are the most common).

Coin lockers are another great Japanese ubiquity. Available in most stations, it is the simplest way to store your luggage (or shopping) while you explore the city.

All of the above can often be paid with your metro card, which is a nice and easy thing to do.

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Japan is famously expensive, but you actually don’t need to spend that much to do things once you’re there.

My main expenses were plane tickets (cheap at around £450), my rail pass (21 days for almost £400) and accommodation (between £20-£35 per night, which is not a lot but I did stay there just over one month). So I spent most before I actually got there.

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On the day to day I found things pretty cheap: a metro ride will cost less than £1.50, entrance to temples and museums is usually around Y500 and food is cheap at combini or restaurant chains. Things to buy are also usually cheaper than in the UK.

Tokyo Cheapo is a great website with lots of tips on how to save money and free things to do.

I spent a lot of my time in Tokyo just walking around and taking it all in, which doesn’t really cost anything. So I found that Japan wasn’t a particularly expensive country and you can definitely save money – but of course there are plenty of options to splurge if you want to.

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Japan is a shopping paradise, and even though I’m not one for shopping, I still visited tons of shops, bought some things (mostly pens and bath salts) and was fascinated by the insane amount of things to buy. You often walk into a shop only to discover it actually covers many floors.

There are countless articles and videos about where to buy stuff, but my favourite shops were:

  • Tokyu Hands and Loft: both had tons of all sorts of products and particularly great stationery supplies;
  • Muji and Uniqlo: even though you get these in the UK, they have different products in Japan (Muji has lots of yummy snacks) and are worth a visit.

Discount shops such as Daiso and Don Quijote are good for the prices, but they are often very busy and chaotic – not the best shopping experience.

Things are overall reasonably priced and good quality, and you can find lots of interesting things to buy.

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I knew that Japanese food wasn’t going to be veggie-friendly, so I did a lot of research in advance. The fact that Japan is also full of amazing restaurants, street food and cafes makes it harder – it’s just not a place that lets you forget about food.

Restaurants in Japan often specialise in one thing, so a sushi restaurant may really only serve sushi – which means it’s best to look for places that specialise in something which usually has veggie options.

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Self-catering was a huge help, as were Happy Cow’s recommendations. We did find quite a few great options for veggie places all over Tokyo and Kyoto, and although they weren’t particularly expensive as compared to the UK, these were not everyday options.

Some cheap restaurants do have a few veggie options: Coco Ichibanya, a popular Japanese curry house have a full vegan menu (curries for about Y700); Saizeriya, an Italian-ish family restaurant has veggie pizza and pasta for as little as Y299 and a small glass of wine for Y100; Tenya Tendon has veggie tempura (a bit greasy) for around Y500.

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Combini have plenty of veggie snacks (but not many meals), including onigiri (rice balls) which are often labelled in English and a good selection of baked goods. I also found that Muji had a great selection of yummy snacks – a bit more expensive than at combini, but also better quality.

One thing about buying snacks is that in Japan you’re not supposed to eat in public transportation or while walking – so you need to find a place where to sit and eat your food too.

Also useful was Google Translate, which gives you the option to look up images and translate them, which allowed me to check ingredient lists with a good success rate.

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But despite Japanese food not being particularly veggie-friendly, I did find they had an enormous amount of options for coffee and pastry places – from cheap cafe chains to fancy bakeries. These are great for a break and were reliably good, so I preferred to look out for dessert places.

A great find was Milk, that has a stall at Shinjuku station serving the creamiest soft-serve (for Y500). I also tried itayaki (a fish-shaped sweet pancake filled with custard or bean paste) and mochi (a sweet made of rice flour filled with different flavours – the traditional ones like red bean paste are vegan). And Harajuku is full of sweets and snack places.

So although veggies and vegans do miss out on some of the impressive array of Japanese food, doing some research makes it easier, and you definitely get to try a good range of different things.

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SOLO TRAVEL AND A CAPSULE HOTEL: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 1)

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Despite travelling a lot, I felt I needed to do lots of research before going to Japan, and I definitely think that helped. I bought an old Lonely Planet guide, and also used Japan Guide and Tokyo Cheapo a lot, as well as watching LOTS of youtube videos (I really like Abroad in Japan).

I really think the research I did helped, particularly with logistics around transportation, money and understanding how some things work. It was also good to get some inspiration, and the Monocle guide book for Tokyo has the best recommendations, many of them off the beaten track.

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Booking flights in advance is essential for getting a good deal on a trip to Japan. BA sales offer direct flights from £620 but tickets are limited and you need to be flexible with dates.

I flew with Turkish Airlines (which is often the cheapest company for long haul), and got a great price around £450 from Gatwick airport. With a stop in Istanbul, the total time of my journey was around 16h.

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There’s a lot to see in Japan but I really wanted to experience Tokyo life, so I decided not to do much travelling. I spent 23 days in Tokyo, 6 days in Kyoto and 3 days in Nara. I also did a day trip to Kamakura and Yokohama.

To me this was the right balance as I got to see lots of Tokyo – although I still feel I could spend months there and not see it all! I also had plenty of time in Nara and Kyoto, which was good as I didn’t want to rush anything.

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I’d love to go back to Japan and travel some more – Osaka, Hiroshima and Nikko would be at the top of my list – but I would also come back just to stay in Tokyo again.

Travelling around Japan is easy so if you’re planning a trip across the country you can cover a lot of ground by train.

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I spent the whole of October in Japan and that was a good time to go. Summers are supposed to be really hot and spring can get very busy because of cherry blossom season. Autumn temperatures are perfect for exploring at around 15-20 degrees, although I did get over 27 degrees in Kyoto! You also get to see the autumn tints, and particularly in Kyoto that is really nice.

Tokyo is very rainy, which is evident by the amount of umbrellas on sale everywhere and stands where to leave your umbrella when you go into a shop. I did get a particularly bad week when it rained a lot (it was typhoon season), but in general the weather was good. I’d definitely visit in October again.

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I spent one month in Japan, and most of that time I was by myself – my husband joined me for one week. I have no problem with travelling alone in general (only exceptions would be places considered unsafe for women), but Japan is actually a great place for solo travel.

Firstly, Japan is very safe, so I never needed to worry about walking alone at night or anything like that. But the best thing about Japan is there people there seem to do a lot of things alone, so it feels very normal to do things by yourself. This is most evident in restaurants and cafes which always have individual tables and no one thinks it’s weird to get a table for one.

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And everywhere you go, from shops to museums to gardens, there are lots and lots of people by themselves – so even though I’m happy to do things alone it made me really aware that doing things solo is a much bigger part of Japanese rather than European culture.

This made me more at ease, as I knew that I could go anywhere by myself and would be just one more in the crowd of people doing things by themselves.

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For the first few nights on my stay in Tokyo, I decided to book a capsule hotel. I spent four nights at Oak Cabin (£18 per night), which was cheap and centrally located.

The capsule itself was nice and cozy, and the facilities were great: there was a big lounge and kitchen area, spotless and well-equipped showers and bathroom. The downside was the noise during the night – many people arrive late or are jet-lagged, so there’s always some noise (earplugs are essential).

All in all I enjoyed the experience – it’s not very different from staying in a hostel, and it’s a good option if you’re alone in Tokyo.

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After I got back from my Kyoto trip I spent 20 nights at an Airbnb. Accommodation in Tokyo can be expensive if you’re travelling alone, but you can find good options on Airbnb.

The key thing is to decide at which area you want to stay – I wanted somewhere close to Shinjuku and the place I chose was only a short metro ride away. I found that facilities in Japan are generally of a high standard, and every place I stayed at was very well-equipped.

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QUIET PONDS AND MANICURED TREES: Exploring magical zen gardens in Tokyo

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Traditional Japanese Gardens are great places to relax in Tokyo. They’re usually not very busy and visited mostly by locals.

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I decided to visit this place as it was close to where I was staying. What a wonderful surprise!

This is a picture-perfect XIX century Japanese garden, and you can spend a couple of hours taking in the manicured landscape, watching tortoises and carp laze about and having a picnic with a view (tickets Y150). This was the first Japanese garden I visit and one of my favourites.

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I visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden (ticket Y300) at the end of my Japanese adventure, and it was one of my favourite places!

This is a massive Japanese garden full of little gems – waterfalls, red bridges, lakes, fruits trees etc. I visited on a beautiful sunny day in early November, when you could catch the red tint of autumn leaves which made it the perfect time for a visit.

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The place is pretty big, so you can spend an hour or two exploring and having a snack enjoying the view.

Japanese gardens are always amazing, but this one was probably my favourite!

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Rikugien Garden (tickets Y300) is inspired by scenes in Japanese poems. It is a large garden full of little places to explore, including a human-made hill with great views over the garden and a little waterfall.

It’s located in a quiet neighbourhood but definitely worth the trip.

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Close to Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu is a nice green area in central Tokyo (tickets Y300). The place is really big, with many ponds (filled with water from Tokyo Bay), traditional buildings and cafes.

As it covers a large area, it’s more like an urban park than a garden, and as you take in the quiet atmosphere you also see the contrasting skyscrapers nearby.

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Gyoen Garden (tickets Y200) is another place to escape the madness. It’s a quiet garden right by Shinjuku with lots of different areas, including a traditional Japanese garden. It’s the perfect place to recharge with a picnic.

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Tokyo doesn’t have many green areas, but its gardens really are the best!