Podcast 28 – My Rhine River Cruise – a week of history, wine and music

In this Travel Podcast Episode 28, you’ll hear about the Rhine River cruise that I took in May with my husband Guy with Lüftner Cruises.  I talk about the pretty riverside towns we visited on our cruise from Basel to Cologne, about the food, the wine and above all the history of this fascinating river. You’ll find out what the experience of cruising down the Rhine is like, so you can decide whether you might enjoy this style of travel, where you can see four countries in a week and but sleep in comfort and only unpack once.

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The Amadeus Princess at Cochem with Lueftner Crusies Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Amadeus Princess at Cochem with Lueftner Crusies

Day 1 – Basel

We flew to Basel from London to meet our river cruise ship, and were very much looking forward to our first cruise. There was a time a few years ago when I thought of cruising as something that my parents would do, but as I’ve got older the idea of only unpacking once, being very comfortable and yet seeing lots of interesting places in Europe has started to appeal.

On finding the ship, we left our bags on board as it was too early to check in, and made the short walk back to the centre, to have a look around Basel. As it was a public holiday we found the town very quiet and it was a shame that the shops and confectioners were shut as I saw plenty to tempt me in the windows. In the main square was the medieval town hall with a red painted facade and clock and we had a look in the courtyard that was full of classical frescoes on the themes of Law and  Justice.

We walked up the hill through the alleyways into the old quarter around the Cathedral square where we had a coffee and slice of cake in the cafe beside the Museum der Kulturen. From the adjoining courtyard we could see the amazing sculptural roof with hanging gardens dangling down, which made an interesting architectural contrast to the older half timbered buildings surrounding it. We walked on to the Cathedral and looked around the cloisters where the bare, open stonework was softened by an attractive wild flower garden in the centre. As it was nearly time to check in on board, we walked back along the river bank, passing swimming platforms with changing rooms beside the river, where it is popular to swim in the Rhine in summer.

Back at the Amadeus Princess, we checked in to our cabin, which was compact but with plenty of good storage space and floor to ceiling windows which could slide right back to create the effect of our own balcony. We had a safety briefing with information about the ship and itinerary and then got ready for the Captain’s welcome reception, with a champagne cocktail before dinner in the Panorama Restaurant. Read more about our day in Basel

Kultur Museum and Town hall in Basel, Switzerland Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Museum der Kulturen and Right: Town hall in Basel, Switzerland

Day 2 – Strasbourg

The boat travelled overnight from Basel to Strasbourg and our morning started with a guided tour of the city, where the coach toured around some of the different neighbourhoods with a commentary from the guide. Strasbourg is on the border of France and Germany, and while it is now part of France, over the centuries it has changed hands from French to German and back again. This is one of the reasons that the people of Strasbourg are so pro-peace and why the European Parliament and European Court of Human Rights are situated here, while the Conseil de l’Europe enables member countries to work out their differences through discussion, to maintain peace in Europe. We passed a statue in one of the squares called “Mother Alsace”, of a mother mourning over her two dead sons killed in action, commemorating the times in the past when Strasbourg was changing hands from France to Germany and members of one family might be fighting in different armies on opposing sides; father against son or brother against brother.

In the historic centre we saw the pretty square with half timbered houses around the Cathedral which was very beautiful with stained glass windows that had recently been cleaned and a colourful organ halfway up in the roof. Our tour included a boat tour through the area called Petite France along the canals and rivers that encircle the city centre. There was an audio commentary that you could set to whatever language you liked, with plenty of interesting annecdotes about all the old buildings and places that we passed. After the boat tour the coach took us back to the ship where we enjoyed our 3 course lunch.

The Cathedral Square in Strasbourg Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Cathedral Square in Strasbourg

Day 2 – The Alsace Wine Route

Not far from the Rhine are the Vosges Mountains which run parallel to the river from north to south. In the foothills of these mountains are all the vineyards where the Alsace wine is produced, with a route that runs through the small villages and towns known as the Alsace Wine Route. We took a tour of Domaine Hering, a family run property in the village of Barr where we had a walk through their cellars to see the large stainless steel wine vats and the old oak barrels where the wine are aged. In their wine tasting room, overlooking the garden, we enjoyed a wine tasting of Pinot Gris, the dry Reisling and Guwurstraminer which is fruity and floral, tasting them side by side to compare flavours. On the return journey after the wine tasting we stopped at the small town of Obernai which is a pretty town on the wine route that grew wealthy on the wine trade. Read Guy’s account of our wine tasting on the Alsace Wine Route

Wine tasting on the Alsace Wine Route Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Wine tasting on the Alsace Wine Route

Day 3 – Speyer

Overnight the Amadeus Princess had moved on to Speyer and we woke up with a perfect view of the beer garden. The town was just a five minute walk from the river and after breakfast we set off for a walking tour with our guide. Our first stop was the medieval Jewish Baths or Mikveh that were in use up to the 16th century, but were covered over with rubble when the town was destroyed and only restored in the 1960s. We walked down the stone steps into the baths which were used for ritual purification, and combined water from heaven with water from the earth, being open to the sky to allow the rainwater in.

Next stop on the tour was the Lutheran church of the Holy Trinity, with a beautiful painted ceiling, gilded altar and decorative carved angels. We were told it was unusual for a Lutheran church to be so richly decorated and we could see why it was a popular spot for weddings (there was an organist practicing the wedding music that you can hear in the podcast).

Our final visit was to the huge cathedral, with stark sandstone pillars and a crypt housing the stone coffins of the kings and emperors of Germany from the 12th century. The coffins were housed in niches in the walls and I wondered how they had managed to slide them in as they must have weighed several tons. In front of the cathedral was a large stone bowl three metres across and whenever there is a new bishop of Speyer, the tradition is that he has to fill the bowl with wine for the people of Speyer. Read more about our tour of Speyer

The Romanesque Cathedral in Speyer, Germany Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Romanesque Cathedral in Speyer, Germany

Day 3 – Heidelberg

During lunch, the ship travelled on to Mannheim, but for our afternoon excursion, we took the excursion arranged by Lüftner Cruises to the picturesque town of Heidelberg, which is well known for its old university and medical school. Heidelberg was one of the few German towns not to be bombed by the Allies during the Second World War and the story goes that General Linden had enjoyed a popular operetta of the 20s and 30s called The Student Prince that was set in Heidelberg, and was so taken by the romantic aspect of the city, that he made sure that it was not bombed.  Just as well, as after the war the Americans made Heidelberg their headquarters in Europe.

The coach took us first up to see the castle on the hill that gives the town its romantic aspect and although the castle is ruined, there were many beautiful courtyards, terraces and carved stone facades with statues and pillars. We went down into the cellar that housed some enormous wine casks, one so big that you could only reach the top by climbing up a staircase. After an hour looking around the castle, we drove down to the lower part of the town, which was pedestrianised with plenty of pleasant squares, cafes and beer gardens. On the way we passed several imposing old houses with flags flying which the guide explained are owned by different student fraternities. These are like members only clubs where the male students gather to drink plenty of beer and sometimes (if it is a fighting fraternity) practice their sword fighting in private.

We walked along the River Neckar where a university regatta was taking place and onto the arched stone bridge where you could see marks where the river had risen to in times of flood over the centuries. We also enjoyed the shop selling nothing but Christmas decorations and cuckoo clocks where we brought a small wooden Christmas decoration to take home as a souvenir.

Heidelberg, Germany Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: The Bridge Right: View from the castle in Heidelberg, Germany

Day 4 – Rudesheim

Overnight, the ship travelled to Rudesheim, and that morning a small tourist train took us from the ship to the Rudesheim Music Museum, an old manor house with a collection of mechanical musical instruments with everything from a fairground organ to a tiny music box. The museum can only be visited during one of their guided tours and the museum guide took us from room to room, explaining about each mechanical instrument and then setting one playing. Watch the video of the musical instruments at the Music Museum

Before we knew it, we were all humming and singing along to nostalgic tunes like “It’s a small world” and “Que Sera Sera”. In one room was a mechanical piano and it was if some ghostly invisible pianist was playing to us, while in another the guide passed around with a charming music box with a tiny tweeting bird. I noticed that the reproduction of the music box in solid silver was on sale in the gift shop for a mere €2000, so any thoughts I had of taking that home were shattered.

Finally we walked down the narrow street of the Drosselgasse which was lined with inns and wine shops where you could try and buy different local wines. In a very pleasant tavern we tried the local speciality, a Rudesheim coffee, made of flamed Asbach brandy topped with hot coffee and whipped cream, with a sprinkling of chocolate. It was both delicious and warming and put us in excellent spirits as we walked back to the Amadeus Princess, in time for the sailing at midday. Watch the video of how to make a Rudesheimer coffee

Music Museum and Rudesheim coffee at Rudesheim Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: The Music museum Right: Rudesheim coffee in Rudesheim, Germany

Day 4 – The Middle Rhine

Up to that point the landscape of the Rhine had been quite flat, but now we were moving through a part of the Rhine known for its romantic beauty, with vineyards and castles set high on rocky cliffs above the river. These castles were built in the Middle Ages by local princes who wanted to dominate the river and grew rich from the taxes on the trade along the river. Over the centuries, the castles fell into ruins, but many were rebuilt in the 18th century in romantic style with turrets and gothic arched windows. Over two hours we sailed through the Middle Rhine valley, passing a high cliff called the Loreley where the Rhine narrows to a small channel where many ships have got into difficulty. There is a story of a beautiful mermaid who sits on the rock, combing her hair, and distracting the sailors onto the rocks – somehow it’s always the woman’s fault!

Cruising through the Middle Rhine Valley Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Cruising through the Middle Rhine Valley

 Day 4 – Koblenz

In the afternoon we reached Koblenz at the confluence of the Rivers Mosel and Rhine and walked along the quay where the flags of the German states were flying. Most of the town was destroyed during World War Two by Allied bombing and the bridges that used to be along this stretch of the river were also destroyed at the end of the war by the retreating Germans.

We walked past the Museum of Modern art with some interesting sculptures in the couryard and through the beautiful gardens beside the church filled with colourful spring flowers. The symbol of Koblenz is a fountain of a spitting boy with a jet  of water which spurts out of his mouth every few minutes to soak the unwary who might be standing in front of it. Our tour ended at 6pm under the town hall clock where there was a face that rolled its eyes and then stuck its tongue out 6 times in time to the chimes of the bell. Back on the ship we enjoyed another delicious dinner, this time with a pirate theme with all the staff dressed up as pirates with stripy shirts and bandanas. Read more about our tour of Koblenz

Koblenz in Germany Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: The Quayside at Koblenz Right: The Amadeus Princess

My chat with Nancy, one of the other cruise guests

I recorded a chat with Nancy, an American guest from Texas who was enjoying the cruise with her husband. She had experienced a couple of other cruises with Lüftner Cruises; the Tulip Time Cruise in April from Amsterdam to see the bulb fields and gardens of the Netherlands as well as interesting historical tours in Belgium and Ghent; and the Christmas Markets cruise from Vienna which Nancy found was perfect to put you in the Christmas mood. Although Nancy and her husband had travelled widely in Europe on land based tours, she found that the cruise enabled you to see a lot in a short space of time and had the advantage of providing a comfortable base so you didn’t have to frequently pack and unpack when moving hotels every few nights. Read more about life on the Amadeus Princess Cruise ship with video

Nancy enjoys walking and found the walking pace on the European cruises to be relatively easy, with tours that were planned to take into consideration that “we’re not all mountain climbers”. She chose the Rhine cruise because most of the places visited on this trip were new to her and she had especially enjoyed Basel, Ruddesheim and the beautifully preserved castle at Cochem. Nancy told me how she loves to shoot videos when on the tours which she reviews when she gets home. She started this habit because she loved the sound of the church bells in Europe and wanted to capture the sounds to take home with her. On this type of cruise she found that when you see so much, in such a short space of time, it was difficult to take everything in, so the video enabled her to capture as much as possible from the trip and made history come alive for her.

Cochem in Germany Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Castle at Cochem Right: Cycling along the river Mosel at Cochem

Day 5 – Cochem

From Cochem, the Amadeus Princess took us on a detour away from the Rhine on the Mosel river to Cochem. Our morning tour with Lüftner Cruises took us up to the castle on the hill which was built in the Middle Ages but had fallen into ruins until it was restored in the 19th century, when it was fashionable for wealthy businessmen to buy these castles and rebuild them in romantic style. In the 1860s the castle was bought by a wealthy German industrialist, Jacob Louis Ravanez who spent a small fortune renovating and redecorating it. Ravanez used the castle as a summer residence for his family, adding all the modern conveniences of electricity and running water. We found the castle surprisingly intimite inside, decorated with hunting trophies with walls richly painted in neo-gothic style and fabulous views from the balconies over the river valley and town.

Further down the hill we walked down some of the stone staircases that wind through the old town. The town centre is pedestrianised through most of the day with plenty of pleasant cafes beside the river to relax. The guide pointed out some of the shops and businesses by the river which are set up to be cleared quickly if the river floods. They monitor the water level upstream at the town of Trier and if it reaches a certain point they know they will be flooded in the next twelve hours. This gives them the opportunity to remove all the goods from the shops and once the water recedes they can clean up and get back to business.

We stopped at one of the wine shops for a wine tasting of the local Mosel wines. The best wines are grown on the south facing slopes with a layer of slate chippings covering the soil under the vines, which absorbes the heat of the sun during the day and then radiates it out at night to help ripen the grapes. The Riesling grape thrives in this area in damp, humid conditions and tends to be harvested quite late in September or October as it needs a long growing season. We also tried a peach liqueur made from a special variety with thick skin and red flesh that grows in the vineyards. The fruit is used in deserts but also to make the delicious aperitif when the peach liqueur is mixed with sparkling Mosel wine.

As there were no excursions planned for the afternoon, so we borrowed bikes which are provided by Lüftner Cruises for guests to use and cycled along the towpath with views of the town and the castle. Later after dinner we enjoyed a cruise cabaret with different sketches and entertainments that the staff laid on for the guests. In the evening the ship sailed back to Koblenz and then overnight to Cologne, where we would be disembarking.

Cologne in Germany Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Chocolate Museum in Cologne Right: Cologne Cathedral

Day 6 – Cologne

We spent the final day of our trip in Cologne where we had to leave the cruise due to work committments, although the cruise would continue to Amsterdam. We left our cases in the automatic lockers at the train station and had a look at Cologne Cathedral, one of the major landmarks of the city, as it remained standing while the rest of the city was flattened by bombing. We found beautiful side chapels and religious artworks, but was I surprised that we couldn’t find an audio-guide, only a small leaflet the explain about the things to see in the Cathedral. We missed having the wonderful guides that we had experienced on our other cruise excursions and realised how much we had learned from their stories and annecdotes.

For lunch we found ourself in a square called Heumarkt and settled on a restaurant called XII Apostles which had an attractive painted ceiling, although we later realised that the food was Italian rather than German. After lunch we decided to spend our last couple of hours at the Chocolate Museum by the Rhine and even if we didn’t know the way, we could probably have guessed by the number of teenagers heading in that direction. The rooms on the ground floor told the story of how cacao is grown around the world and there was a mini-rainforest glasshouse to walk through.

Upstairs there were machines behind glass like a glimpse into a chocolate factory, where you could follow the process and see the chocolate being melted, then made into squares and finally wrapped. There was also an enormous chocolate fountain where you could have a taste of chocolate on a wafer and we ended our visit in the cafe overlooking the Rhine with a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of chocolate cake. The fantastic gift shop had every type and flavour of chocolate so it was the ideal place to pick up some souvenirs for our kids as we were heading for home. As we walked out we saw some cycle taxis and decided to treat ourselves to a ride along the river and back to the station where we picked up our bags and took the very efficient train service to the airport.

Our Rhine River cruise with Lüftner Cruises was very enjoyable and if you love history, are interested in food and wine and want to see a lot of different things on your holiday, but do so in comfort, then this kind of cruise will be ideal for you. We found it a great combination of stimulation with the fascinating history of the river and the region, and relaxation of having a floating hotel to return to each day which made the experience very stress-free. I will definitely be looking at what other river cruises in Europe I might enjoy in the future.

About Lüftner Cruises

Lueftner2My thanks to Lüftner Cruises who hosted our Rhine River Cruise – Lüftner Cruises specialise in European river cruises on the Rhine, Danube, Rhône and other destinations in Europe, with personal service and Austrian hospitality. You can also follow them on their Facebook Page. We travelled on the Amadeus Princess on a 7 day Classical Rhine Cruise which travelled from Basel to Amsterdam, although we disembarked at Cologne.

Music on the Podcast

Opening Music – Venus as a girl my Andy McGee on Musicalley.com
Piano Music – played on board by one of the guests
Organ Music – the organist in the Lutheran Church of the Trinity at Speyer was practicing for a wedding
Drinking song from Heidelberg that our guide played us on the coach
Mechanical instrument  playing “It’s a small world” at the Rudesheim Music Museum
Que Sera Sera Gramophone played at the Ruddesheim Music Museum
Music Museum – mechanical piano playing at Rudesheim Music Museum
Music box in the Rudesheim music museum
Piano music – played on board by one of the guests

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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27 – Cool-hunting in Tokyo – food, fashion and street-style with La Carmina – Podcast

In Travel Podcast Episode 27, I talk to La Carmina; fashion blogger, TV host and expert in Japanese street style, about Tokyo. We find out where to shop if you’d like to dress in Gothic style or as an antique doll from the forest. Hear about the Tokyo theme restaurants that will give you a night out you’ll never forget and some of the more extreme body modifications like snake tongues and bagel heads, as well as hanging out in Cat Cafes and finding things that you can enjoy in Tokyo with the family. Even if you’ve never thought of Japan as a place to visit, you’ll be fascinated by all the cool and quirky things that La Carmina recommends in Tokyo.

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La Carmina with her Scottish fold cat, Basil Farrow Photo: LaCarmina.com

La Carmina with her Scottish fold cat, Basil Farrow

An Introduction to La Carmina

La Carmina lives in Vancouver in Canada, although her family is originally from Hong Kong. As a child, she travelled widely in Asia with her family and started to fall in love with Japanese street style, the cute Hello Kitty culture, the punk and Gothic styles and Harajuku. Her experimentation with crazy fashion continued when she went to college in New York and she started blogging to share her photos and fashion style. Since then she has written books and worked on TV shows about Japanese street culture. You can follow her on her blog at La Carmina.

So what makes Tokyo unique and special?

There’s something for every type of traveller in Tokyo. Whether you love fashion and nightlife or whether you want to go for adventure or relax with the family, Tokyo has it all. The food is wonderful and the people are so nice. Of course it can be a bit of a culture shock – the movie Lost in Translation sums it up. It’s hustle and bustle, neon lights, and people don’t necessarily speak English so it can be a challenging place. But if you give Tokyo a try, it can be an eye opener and shock you out of your comfort zone.

La Carmina in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

La Carmina in Tokyo

Which areas should we explore in Tokyo?

Ideally you’ll want to stay a minimum of 5-7 days to explore some of the main Tokyo neighbourhoods as well as take some day trips. La Carmina recommends that people stay in Shinjuku, because it’s the hub for the famous subway system and the bullet train. Shinjuku is also an area where there are a lot of great restaurants and nightlife, and only one stop away on the subway is Harajuku, famous for the Harajuku girls who pose in their Gothic and Lolita fashions. Also nearby is Shibuya, where you’ll find shopping, the trendy Gal culture – it’s shopping central.

Getting around in Tokyo

The subway is the best way to get around unless you can afford the taxis, which are very expensive. If you’re not careful a 20 minute taxi ride could blow your entire budget for the week! On the other hand the subway works very well, the trains come very frequently and are always on time. However you need to remember that the subways stop running between 1am and 5 am so if you are going out late, make sure you have a ride back or you plan to stay out all night, otherwise you could get stuck.

Harajuku girls in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

Harajuku girls in Tokyo

Tips on Japanese etiquette

Everyone knows that the Japanese are very polite and always bowing, so when in Tokyo you should try not to be too loud. On the subway it’s considered rude to speak on your mobile phone – you can text message but otherwise you should only be whispering. The subway is not the place for you to be chattering loudly with your friends. Then there’s food etiquette, for instance you should not put your chopsticks into the bowl of rice so they stick up vertically, as this is a symbol of death and you don’t want to be thinking of death as you eat.

How do you describe your fashion style?

My look is influenced by so many Japanese street styles. There are so many different tribes and fashion sub-groups that have a particular fashion outlook. For example there are the J-Rocker or Visual Kei group, then there are the Goths, the Punks, and also groups that only exist in Japan like the Mori girls who look like antique dolls that live in the forest like Hansel and Gretel. It’s fascinating to walk through Harajuku and see the stores that carry these designs and see the teenagers all dressed up. I personally like to mix up all these styles, but I don’t associate with any particular one group or style as I find them all fascinating. I like to find my own personal style and I don’t like having rules for ways to dress. Sometimes these fashion sub groups are very strict about wearing things a certain way and that’s not for me.

Harajuku and street fashions in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

Harajuku and street fashions in Tokyo

Harajuku – the place to see and be seen

I love Harajuku, it’s a great place to go, even if you’re not into fashion. It’s a wonderful place to people watch, to just sit in a cafe and check out the scene. I’d recommend taking the train to Harajuku station and go down Takeshita-dori, which is a narrow street with a colourful arch over it. Down there you’ll find all these bizarre, quirky, wonderful stores, that sell toy accessories, colourful bracelets, crazy stockings. Walk through there and browse around. There’s also the famous Jingu Bashi bridge in Harajuku, where young people come in their flamboyant costumes and styles to pose for photos. It isn’t as popular a hangout as it used to be but you’ll still see people there, especially on Sundays. You can’t go wrong if you stop in Harajuku and walk around – you’ll see crazy fashions and you’ll find something funny to buy.

Shibuya for crazy clothes shopping

Shibuya is also a wonderful place to go, especially if you’re into Gyaru or Gal fashion. For this style, the girls might have bleached blonde hair and wear shorts and boots; it’s a trendy celebrity style and a lot of them have big doll-like eye-lashes. The main hub for these shops is a place called Shibuya 109 which is a craziest department store you’ll ever set foot in. Once you walk inside, there are tons of little shops, each blasting techno music, it’s a total assault on the senses. These cute Japanese shop girls are yelling at you to come into their store and try on the clothes. You wander around and see everything from hip hop to trendy to doll-like fashions. You’ll find Shibuya 109 by the big red sign when you step out of the Shibuya subway station.

Cute Lolita fashions in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

Cute Lolita fashions in Tokyo

Designer fashion or vintage in Tokyo

If you’re more into the high end fashions, then go to Omotesandō, which is also in Harajuku, just a few blocks away from the station. Ginza is also famous for being the ritzy part of Tokyo, you can find some beautiful fashions there from all over the world and I’ve seen some gorgeous kimonos on sale there. If you’re into bohemian, vintage and young hippy fashion, there’s a neighbourhood called Shimokitazawa, that not many first time visitors know about. It has a really laid back atmosphere, and feels a bit like college town with lots of cafes, tons of vintage stores and you can get some pretty good deals.

Cute inexpensive souvenirs

All my friends are happy when I bring back souvenirs from the 100 Yen stores, which are like dollar stores in the USA. However, where dollar stores can have a reputation for being full of junk, the 100 yen stores are full of colourful, unique gismos. You can get everything from cute stationary to bizarre cleaning products such as sponges shaped like teddy bears. When you buy something in these stores to give to a friend, they think, Wow! only in Japan. The most famous 100 Yen store is called Daiso and there’s a big one in Harajuku, where you’ll find an amazing selection of things you’ll love.

Japanese foods to try when out and about in Tokyo

A lot of travellers know about the typical Japanese food like Sushi and Ramen which you can find everywhere. For a unique experience try the vending machines, where if you want to buy a bowl of Ramen or hot noodles, you would  punch in your order then get a ticket which you give to the cook to make your order. With Sushi you can go from the most high end $100 a meal to conveyor belt sushi, and although it’s inexpensive, you’re in Tokyo so you know the quality will be amazing.

Food in Tokyo's theme restaurant Photo: LaCarmina.com

Food in Tokyo’s theme restaurants

Quick bites on a budget

If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat on a budget, try the convenience stores. In the West nobody would dare to eat there but in Japan you can find delicious foods in the 7-Eleven stores. For instance, they serve rice balls with intriguing fillings such as plum or fish eggs and although you only spend $1-2 on these they can be a delicious and filling meal. They don’t have any place to eat inside, but are full of little take-out boxes for rice balls and tofu platters. There are convenience stores on every block in major neighbourhoods, so stop by and grab something that will make a cheap and delicious meal.

Theme restaurants in Tokyo

The Theme restaurants in Tokyo are an  immersive experience – it’s as if you are entering a theatre world and you are part of the play. Take the Monster Theme Restaurant which I went to quite a few times. As soon as you walk inside you are surrounded by jail cells, the waitress is wearing a skimpy nurse uniform and she handcuffs you, then she leads you to your table which is inside a jail cell and locks you up. Then when your waiter comes and you order a drink it might come in the form of a syringe or a bedpan and while you’re eating, the monsters would run around, the lights would go off and the monsters would pop into your jail cell and scare you. It’s completely over the top and you are a part of the experience.

To be honest the food is not the main draw, although it has got better as theme restaurants continue to pop up, creating more competition, so the restaurants started to put more emphasis on the quality of the food. The main thing that distinguishes the food is how quirky it is and how well it fits the theme. For example there’s something called Russian Roulette Takuyaki which are octopus balls. You would be served 6 octopus balls but one would be filled with Wasabi which is green horseradish paste, which if you bite into it your head would explode. Everyone would take one octopus ball but the victim would be the one running to the bathroom, sweating all over.

Food in Tokyo's theme restaurants Photo: LaCarmina.com

Food in Tokyo’s theme restaurants

Sounds scary, but where can I eat with my family?

There are all sorts of theme restaurants and not all are frightening. Some have a fairytale theme, for instance, there are Princess cafes where the guys would treat you like a princess, they put a crown on your head and bend to your every whim. There are Cat cafes and Dog cafes that pet lovers would love. In a Cat cafe you will have a dozen little kitty cats running around and you can play with them; you can hang out and drink your coffee and eat your cake with cats all around you. In Japan there’s very little space in apartments for people to have pets, or they work too long hours, so a Cat cafe is a great way for them to have a pet for a few hours. On the other hand the dog cafe is where you bring your dog, and you can eat at the same table as your dog and dress them up, and even eat the same food as they prepare food that is edible for canines and humans.

Which Theme restaurant do you suggest for teenagers?

Teenagers might love the Ninja restaurant – you walk through secret passageways as if you were in a hidden Japanese cave, and the Ninjas are doing acrobatics and magic tricks at your table. They might serve you a desert shaped like a frog, or an appetiser where the fire travels down a string until it hits the appetiser which bursts into flames. Theme restaurants are also very popular with groups of friends and co-workers in Japan, as it gives them a chance to hang out and also something to talk about.

For a group night out my favourite restaurant is Kagaya, and it’s impossible to describe if you don’t want to ruin the surprise, let’s just say that when you walk in it seems like a homey little restaurant/bar and the owner seems perfectly normal until he pops into a closet and comes hopping out, dressed in a frog costume, it’s a bit of a surreal performance art. It’s completely unpredictable, there are gags everywhere. He’ll serve you beer and then the beer starts shaking so you can’t drink your beer – that’s just one of the 50 surprises that will happen all evening.

Food in Tokyo's theme restaurant Photo: LaCarmina.com

Food in Tokyo’s theme restaurants

How about bars and nightlife in Tokyo?

A lot of tourists go to Roppongi and although I can’t especially recommend it, it’s the Disneyland version of Tokyo. If you want to hang out with other foreigners then Roppongi is the place where people let loose, but the locals don’t really go there. It reminds me of a Las Vegas environment.

Another fun area is called Golden Gai in Shinjuku, it’s a series of little streets packed with tiny bars, where you might only fit three people inside and each one may have something unique about it. One has a punk theme, another a Gothic theme and some offer Karaoke, so that could be an interesting place to bar-hop. If you want to try drinking something that’s uniquely Japanese, try the Sake or the Soju which are the rice wines. I personally love cocktails that use a Yusu flavour, it’s a Japanese citrus which is a cross between an orange and a lemon, it has a distinctive taste and it’s very hard to get outside Japan, so be sure to check if they have any drinks that have a Yusu flavour on the drinks menu.

Where should I go clubbing in Tokyo?

For clubbing it depends what kind of music you like, and the sub group you associate with – there’s an amazing music scene in Tokyo. They bring in DJs from around the world so whether you’re into techno or into hip hop there will be a fascinating scene for you. I personally love the Gothic and alternative parties which are centred in Shinjuku, and my two favourites are called Midnight Mess and Tokyo Decadance. At the parties they play everything from classic Gothic to Industrial to Synth pop and everyone dresses up in these flamboyant, elegant Gothic costumes, they are some of the best parties I’ve been to ever, On the extreme side there are fetish and experimental nightlife events as well, especially one called Department H, inside you’ll see people in head to toe handmade costumes and body-moders who do extreme modifications like snake tongues and temporary piercings all over their body or even bagel heads.

Sorry, did you say Snake tongues and Bagel heads?

Yes, a snake tongue is when you split your tongue in half, so that it now has two points instead of one, and the two points can flip back and forth or dart in and out like a snake. There are other temporary forms of body modification, for instance I’ve seen some people who get their mouth sewn shut; it’s a half fetish, half body modification thing.There are  also suspensions, where people have metal hooks inserted into their backs, and then they are suspended above the ground and they can swing back and forth. Extreme as they are, these effects are temporary. In a society like Japan people can’t go around in the streets with permanent body modifications and there’s a great stigma against tattoos in particular, as they are associated with the criminal culture, that’s why temporary modifications can be pretty popular at these events.

The bagel heads are created where you place a needle under the skin of your forehead and drip saline solution into the skin, so that your forehead bulges out into a bubble shape, then you press your thumb into the centre of the bubble so that it creates a doughnut or bagel like shape, which lasts for around one day. (Although La Carmina hasn’t had a bagel head done herself, her company worked on four TV shows about bagel heads) If you get a bagel head done in Japan, although it looks extreme, they use sterile solution and are very experienced and qualified.

Dressing up for a night out in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

Dressing up for a scary night out in Tokyo

So where do I get my party outfit?

I think people in Tokyo are very creative with their outfits. I have friends who go into 100 Yen stores and create costumes out of surprising materials there; they might use a plant or a broom, or fake flowers to create an incredible costume. There are plenty of costume stores especially in the district called Akihabara, where all the geeks go, as it’s a centre of electronics, video games and comic books. However, even though you see these crazy costumes in photos, not everyone dresses up, for instance some people if they go to a Gothic party would just wear all black.

Out for the night in Tokyo Photo: LaCarmina.com

Out for the night in Tokyo

Any other places I could take the family for a unique Tokyo experience?

One area that is fun for all ages, but especially families and kids is Odaiba, it’s the Tokyo port on the east side, right by the ocean and not that many first time visitors know about it. It’s a great little half day trip where you take the subway there, and there are a number of different attractions. There are a few museums and as is typical in Japan, there’s a theme everything. For instance there is a cat petting zoo, similar to a cat cafe except that you only go there to play and pet cats. There’s a gigantic video game centre with every video game you could think of, there are giant robot panda bears that you can put a coin in and ride on the back of the Panda bear, there’s a Rainbow bridge and a Little Hong Kong, It’s an indoor recreation of Hong Kong, you walk inside and you see neon signs and Chinese restaurants and even sound effects like the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong – everything but the smells!

Where to find La Carmina

My thanks to La Carmina for sharing her tips on all the cool and quirky things to see and do in Tokyo. You can find more about every aspect of Tokyo culture on La Carmina’s blog and on Twitter @LaCarmina on the La Carmina Facebook Page and watch some cool travel and fashion videos on the La Carmina Youtube Channel

La Carmina’s Books

For more information about the Tokyo Theme Restaurants, you can read La Carmina’s book on Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo and Cute Yummy Time with 70 recipes for the cutest food you’ll ever eat.

Photo: All photos are copyright of La Carmina

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home

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26 – My charity visit to India – podcast

In Podcast 26 I spend a week in India, visiting a charity project that I support through my church here in Bristol. From Hyderabad we travelled to Kurnool with our contact Father Pratap Reddy and visited some of the villages where he is supporting the education of the poorest children and developing community projects to help the people there. You’ll hear about our visits to schools, hostels and rural villages seeing for ourselves how donations from overseas were being used and making a big difference to people’s lives.

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View from the Charminar monument, Hyderabad, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

View from the Charminar monument, Hyderabad, India

Day 1 – Shopping and sightseeing in Hyderabad

In Hyderabad we stayed at the lovely Mercure Abids Hotel that was booked through AsiaRooms.com in a neighbourhood that has plenty of small local shops, selling clothes and jewellery. We took a tuk tuk across the river to the Charminar district which is one of the older districts of Hyderabad where we climbed up the famous Charminar monument, to get a view over the city. I soon realised that not many European tourists visit Hyderabad, when two different Indians visiting the monument asked to have their photos taken with me as if I was a rare and exotic creature that they only see very rarely.

With my friends Marilyn & Robert I walked down the road past all the shops selling jewellery and brightly coloured bangles, and we found ourselves near the Chowmahalla Palace built in the 18th century for the Nizams or rulers of Hyderabad to entertain their guests. The white palace buildings were set around two large courtyards with lawns and fountains, and we walked through some of the rooms, including the throne room with enormous sparkling chandeliers that were designed to impress. You can read more in my article about Shopping and Sightseeing in Hyderabad.

Shopping and sightseeing in Charminar, Hyderabad, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Shopping and sightseeing in Charminar, Hyderabad, India

After lunch back at the hotel, we were picked up by our contact, Fr Pratap Reddy who drove us the three hours south to Kurnool. The landscape was a dry, arid scrub-land with not much to see other than a few fields and rice paddies being cultivated wherever there was a source of water for irrigation. Every so often there might be a field of chilli plants speckled with red, or cotton bushes and mango trees in flower. It seemed to be harvest time and we saw many carts heavily loaded with hay, including one that had tipped over and was blocking half of the 2 lane highway. As we got closer to Kurnool, Father Pratap pointed out the river that had flooded in 2009 and overflowing its banks after unexpectedly high rainfall and causing a disaster when water and mud flowed into the major town destroying shops and businesses.

Day 2 – Meeting sponsor children in Nandikotkur

We stayed for the next 3 days at a hotel in Kurnool and from there Father Pratap took us to see various community projects that he had started. On our first morning at the Parish House at Nandikotkur, we met some of the children whose education was being sponsored by families in the UK. I had met Fr Pratap over 15 years ago through my church when he was visiting the UK making appeals for help in his parish and as he had been back to the UK a number of times, I set up a small charity to channel the fundraising efforts. Together with my friends Marilyn and Robert who are also involved in the charity, we were there to see how the money raised had been used.

The sponsorship is normally used to pay for books, uniforms and other school expenses for the children from poorer families whose parents may find it difficult even to pay the small amount for schooling. By the time we arrived at the parish house, there were already some children there with their parents, who had travelled for 3 or 4 hours to meet us, which we really appreciated. Some had come from Father Pratap’s old parish of P. Yaleru and others who were attending school nearby came to meet us in their school lunch break, as they were in the middle of exams. I was thrilled to meet my sponsored child Neelima,who had come with her brother and father some distance to meet me. You can read my article about meeting my Indian sponsor child here.

We quickly developed an approach to meeting these groups of sponsor children, who might only speak a few words of English and of course our Telugu was pretty limited! Sitting in a circle, I would pass around an album of photos of my family, telling them who everyone was and what they were doing, to give a sense of connection from my family to their family.We also gave them some postcards of Bristol, pointing out the key landmarks of our city, such as the Clifton suspension bridge, the balloons floating over Bristol, and the ships in the harbour. We’d brought with is some small gifts such as toiletries or stationary and we also took loads of photos as each child to give to their sponsors in the UK who love to see different photos of their sponsor child growing up.

With Father Pratap Reddy at Nandikotkur Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

With Father Pratap Reddy at Nandikotkur

After lunch we went to have tea with the nuns who live on the school campus, as each of the Catholic schools would typically have a house with 4 or 5 nuns who work as teachers and run the school. It was fascinating to talk to them about their lives, as many are in their 20s and 30s and come from all over India, moving around every few years. Both the priests and nuns learn to speak good English which they need to communicate in different parts of India, as different languages may be spoken in each state. English medium schools, where most of the lessons are taught in English are becoming increasingly popular, because speaking English increases your job prospects and means that you can get business jobs in different parts of India.

We walked around one of the smaller, rural villages which was part of Father Paratap’s parish. One of the main things they wanted to discuss with him was how they could get more bore wells, as there is little standing water and so the wells are required in order to irrigate the crops. The rains only come for one month of the year, allowing crops to be grown for a short season, but if well water is available the growing season is extended and the farmers can increase their income. The problem is that these deep tube wells are very expensive to drill, each one costing over £1000 and even then the supply of water is limited to how much can be pumped up when the power supply is available, in the morning and evening.

That evening we attended a presentation with the children from the school boarding hostels – 75 girls and 40 boys. They stay in the hostels beside the school in term-time, with their parents visiting them at weekends, since their villages are too far for them to travel to school daily. We were treated to speeches of welcome and the children performed dance routines for us, the boys in high energy Bollywood style, the girls with some graceful traditional dances. At the the end of each dance they pulled us up out of our seats in order to make us dance with them, causing much laughter at our efforts to copy them.

Meeting sponsor children at Nantikotkur, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Meeting sponsor children at Nantikotkur, India

Day 3 – A return visit to the village of P.Yaleru

Eight years earlier we had visited Father Pratap in his parish of P. Yaleru and now it was time to make a return visit. We drove the three hours from Kurnool to Anantapur on an excellent two lane highway with only the occasional heart-stopping moment when we met an ox cart driving towards us in the wrong direction in one of those “Only in India” moments.  We stopped at the town of Anantapur to buy sweets for the children and then continued to Holy Spirit school at Atmakur, where we were expected for lunch with the nuns. Father Pratap told us how this English Medium school had been started some years ago with only 100 children and proved so popular that it had now expanded to teach 700 pupils.

We had innocently turned up thinking it was to be a passing visit, but after lunch we were invited to a whole school assembly, which featured a major song and dance presentation. We sat on the stage at the front while the children came up to perform a series of dance routines, while teachers held their mobile phones to the microphone to amplify the Indian pop music. Next came speeches in which we were thanked for giving up our valuable time to visit the school and I was then handed the microphone to ad lib a similar speech in which I congratulated the children on their wonderful dancing. We toured all the classrooms to distribute the sweets that we had brought, although of course we had completely underestimated the number of children, having only enough sweets for half the school and had to leave a donation so the rest of the school could have their sweets later!

Children at Holy Spirit school at Atmakur, Andhra Pradesh Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Children at Holy Spirit school at Atmakur, Andhra Pradesh

Driving on to the village of P. Yaleru we noticed that the rutted dirt track that we had travelled along previously had been replaced by a new road. The dome of the new church that had been completed just before our last visit rose above the treeline as we approached, with a tiered design which looked a bit like a wedding cake. The current parish priest, Father Joseph, welcomed us and showed us some of the new projects such as a water pumping and filtration station to give clean water drinking water for the village. The land around the new church had been a building site on our last visit, but now a wall had been built and gardens planted with coconut palms which generated income for the parish.

Behind the church was a water tower which ensured a continuous water supply, as the power to pump the water from the bore well is only available at certain times during the day. As we walked around the village, we could see how many of the old style mud and stone houses with thatched roofs had been replaced by new style concrete houses which although small are cleaner and more modern. A typical family house might have one room with high shelves around the walls to store cooking pots and other possessions, and sometimes a second smaller room which was used as a kitchen and store-room. Finally we walked around the plantation of 1200 mango trees which was now 5 years old and providing some income to support the parish and the education of the children.  The bore well had been drilled to provide drip irrigation for the trees and Father Pratap told us how he had to drill seven times for the well before they finally struck water which was a great relief, as many people thought he was crazy to keep trying. Little by little all these projects had brought improvements to the families of P.Yaleru.

Touring the village of P. Yaleru, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Touring the village of P. Yaleru, India

Day 4 – Visiting the stone polishing factory

On the next day, Father Pratap took us to visit a stone polishing factory which he had started in a previous parish.  As we drove closer, the landscape became more rocky and we could see the waste stone from the quarries littering the hillside. In the town we drove past many businesses with the stone stacked up at the front, ready to use as flooring for houses. We pulled up at the factory and were met by a deputation who greeted us with garlands and led us into the factory. A group was drumming and singing and we sat down to hear a speech by one of the community leaders, which was translated for us, in which he told us how the project had changed their lives. We learned that it had been a major undertaking to raise a loan for the land, get the necessary permissions and deal with all the beauracracy, but that now their incomes have been much improved because of this project.

Stone polishing factory in Andhra Pradesh, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Visiting the Stone polishing factory in Andhra Pradesh, India

The factory is a co-operative for the benefit of a number of families and at the start there was just one building and a few polishing machines, but over the years this has multiplied. There are individual owners for each stone polishing or cutting machine, and the owner then employs others to operate the machines, sharing the profits 60% to the machine owner and 40% to the workers. It was heavy, physical work with the stone being trimmed by a circular blade and then polished with a rotating metal plate which the operator moved around with their body. I was a bit worried to see the operators with very little protective equipment and hoped that they would not be so distracted by our taking their photos that a finger would be sliced off or a toe crushed underfoot.

Returning to the parish house, I had asked Father Pratap if he could arrange for me to stay with a local family on my last night. However, I was feeling a bit apprehensive after visiting villages where whole families would live in a single room house, with little in the way of bathroom facilities, and wondered what my night would be like. However, Father Pratap had obviously anticipated this and placed me with a family who were better off than many of his parishioners and offered me my own room with an adjoining bathroom, although I later realised they had probably given me their own bedroom. I spent the evening chatting to them and their grandson, who spoke some English, and looking at family photos of their two daughters, one of whom was a teacher in Kurnool, the other who was in the USA with her husband.

Stone polishing factory in Andhra Pradesh Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Visiting the Stone polishing factory in Andhra Pradesh

My interview with Father Pratap Reddy

You’ll hear my interview with Father Pratap Reddy who told me more about the lives of the families that he supports in his parish. He has nine village outstations within 15 km of the parish house, with many families who work as agricultural labourers or in stone quarries, earning less than £1 a day. On this kind of income they have barely enough to eat, and for any other expenses they might have to take a loan and commit themselves to working for the lender until the loan is paid off. The goverment schools in the villages are “not up to the mark”, so the Catholic church runs schools and also boarding hostels where the children stay. The parents can’t afford to send their children to school by bus and by staying in the hostels the parish covers their living expenses which prevents the children going out to work with the parents rather than being in school.

Girl's boarding hostel in Nandikotkotur, India Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

With girls from the boarding hostel in Nandikotkotur, India

Reflections on our visit

On my return to Hyderabad I reflected on the three intense days we’d had; we met children, families, we were danced to, drummed to, sung to, it was an amazing experience. If you are travelling in a place like India and come across any projects that need your support, I urge you to get involved and make a personal connection. You may start out by thinking that you are the one doing the giving, but by the end you will feel that you have received an incredible amount from the experience and that was certainly my feeling during my visit to India.

More stories from my trip to India

Shopping and Sightseeing in Hyderabad – staying at Mercure Abids Hotel – video
Meeting my Indian Sponsor child – Neelima and her family
Meeting my Indian Sponsor child on a previous visit

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This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

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