New Year Feature (Part 3) – Kurashiki Canals, Japan’s Miniature Venice

Leaving the depressing gardens, we went in search of shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), because my friend was craving it. It didn’t seem such a bad idea at all. Nothing like some steaming hot broth to warm up freezing bodies, I thought.

A light rain accompanied us en-route to the shabu shabu restaurant, as we navigated through some winding (and partially hidden) alleys in search of the hotpot paradise, aided by Google Maps.

Suddenly, the heavens decided to throw a tantrum, and it started pouring buckets!!

Just then, we spotted the shabu shabu place from across the street and dashed for it, only to be greeted by a wooden sign hanging on its door that read “定休日” (meaning “designated rest day”).

We collapsed on the bench next to the entrance of the restaurant, exhausted and convinced that our day must have been cursed from the start.

There’s nowhere to go for now, because of the rain. So while waiting it out, I browsed Tripadvisor in search of the nearest place that might interest us.

I suggested this authentic (presumably) Indian/Nepalese diner that had some pretty good reviews (Besides, naan and curry were a slice of home for us). If we couldn’t have soup, something spicy could do the trick.dsc04833_blogSo there we checked in (after about half an hour of waiting), when the torrential rains slowed to a drizzle. The restaurant’s interiors are surprisingly simple, sparse even. No ornate paintings of Hindu gods hanging on the walls or wooden sculptures of Krishna or elephants.dsc04832_blogMy friend couldn’t help ogling (yes, shamelessly ogling) at the young dashing Indian waiter who served us, so much so she decided to ask for a selfie with him after we had finished our meal. The naan and curry we had were superbly done, crispy around the edges while not losing its chewy texture. And the curry was deliciously spicy – nothing too overwhelming but enough to give you that kick.

Many Indian restaurants in Japan would give you a scale of spiciness from 0 to 10 to choose from to cater to the generally low spice tolerance of Japanese.  I went with a 5 while my friend opted for a 4.

Sufficiently (and satisfyingly) fueled, we ventured out onto the streets again.

We made our way back to Okayama Station, with the smell of rain (and curry) lingering  on our noses.

Our next stop was Kurashiki (倉敷), a mandatory visit if you are in Okayama.

Only 15 minutes from Okayama Station on the JR Sanyo Line, followed by a 10-minute walk down south from Kurashiki Station along Motomachi-dori (元町道り) or via a sheltered shopping arcade that runs parallel to it, you will be instantly transported back in time to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区).dsc04839_blogNot quite Venice-beautiful, but nonetheless picturesque, Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区) used to be an important rice distribution centre during its halcyon days.

Populated by rice storehouses, built round a network of narrow canals to facilitate transportation, these storehouses, painstakingly preserved, have been converted to museums, cafes, boutique hotels and shops selling local sweets or Japanese handicrafts.dsc04835_blogdsc04841_blogThere’s even a specialty store that sells all things sesame – you have to check it out!! We went omiyage (お土産) window-shopping, tasting the different Japanese sweets but not buying any of them. Very cheeky of us I know (and perhaps not very nice) but hey, Japanese omiyage can be very expensive!!!dsc04847_blogThere’s also the incongruously Western-looking/Romanesque Ohara Museum of Art (大原美術館), apparently Japan’s first museum of Western art, featuring works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky among others.

We decided to skip the museum, since neither of us was into art.

My friend wanted to go on a gondola ride but it seemed like New Year’s Eve was not a day for gondola business.

One tip for visitors is to come early, because we noticed that all the shops started to close for the day at around six in the evening.

So if you arrive after sundown, there’s really nothing to see or do except to stroll along the eerily quiet canals.

But if photography (or taking selfies) is your thing, Kurashiki Canals is most alluring in the soft evening glow.        LS

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊dsc04856_blog

 

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 3) – If I Had 365 Days in Yeosu…

I would try to visit each of the 373 islands sprinkled around Yeosu (여수), Korea’s beautiful southern port city. Granted, most of these islands are uninhabited and some are just pieces of rock jutting out of the East China Sea, I may already have my work cut out. But if given the chance, I would really love to spend a year here, because Yeosu’s coastal scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous.

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Island hopping wasn’t really on my agenda on my recent visit because I only had three days there. It was also my first visit there. I had previously written about my love for Busan, but Yeosu (여수) stole my heart the first day I arrived. The entire city exudes such a relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy bustle of Seoul.

IMG_20180502_151001This vibe was perhaps best personified by the guesthouse owner, who made me feel so at home when I first checked in. I had just arrived from Suncheon (순천), wet and cold because it had been raining since morning.

With nowhere to go due to the inclement weather, I hung around the reception area, and quickly struck up a conversation with the staff (which comprises the owner and her lovely mum). She spoke little English, but with my patchy Korean, we managed to get by. One of her first questions to me was how long I intended to stay in Yeosu (여수), to which I replied “3 days”.

천천히 놀려 도돼요,” she said. (which means “You can take your time to enjoy Yeosu”).

Indeed, “천천히” (slowly) became a phrase I constantly reminded myself during my stay in Yeosu.

IMG_20180502_181656The rain eventually cleared up sometime during the evening, and I decided it’s time to explore the neighbourhood. My first stop was Yi Shun-shin Promenade, whose statue stood proudly over this coastal city. IMG_20180504_185556_1A much revered Korean admiral during the Joseon dynasty, Yi was most noted for his amazing naval tactics against the invading Japanese, in which his fleet of 13 “turtle-ships” repelled a 133-strong fleet of Japanese warships. There’s even a mock-up model of Yi’s turtle-ship,  that invites visitors to step in and experience (with life-size dioramas) how life on Yi’s ship might be like in those days as they set out to battle the Japanese.IMG_20180504_144940Yi Shun-shin Promenade was a place I would return to over the next two days, not because I had nowhere else to go but because it’s a fabulous place to wind down the day, and to truly appreciate the beauty of Yeosu. The sleepy promenade comes to life in the evening, when a long strip of red-and-white striped tents (Korea’s ubiquitous pojangmacha 포장마차) line the promenade.IMG_20180502_190604However, unlike the ones you would find in Seoul, those in Yeosu (여수) are bona fide “restaurants” in their own right, and serve mainly seafood hotplate. I joined the queue at Tent no.13, apparently a hit with the locals on Instagram. That night, despite strong gusts of wind that threatened to blow away the canvas roof at some point, I enjoyed a succulent meal, and even managed to exchange small talk with a group of locals seated at the next table.

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IMG_20180504_180729Just as prominent, the twin arched bridges that framed the promenade on either side, were places I would return over the next two days. Brilliantly lit at night, the twin arches almost formed a perfect mirror image. I probably crossed the twin bridges at least half a dozen times over the rest of my stay, examining the sights of Yeosu from different vantage points, from Dolsan Island (돌산도) to Odongdo (오동도).IMG_20180504_164309There’s also no shortage of cafes, where you could grab some excellent beans and kick back at the rooftop terrace. One of these cafes, I discovered, even doubles up as a steak restaurant. Hmmm….interesting fusion!! On my last day, after my descent from Dolsan Park (돌산공원), I just stopped by a convenience shop to grab a beer so that I could just sit outside and gaze at these beautiful bridges.

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The buses here still terrified me though, as they whizzed through heavy traffic with scant regard of road humps. For example, the bus that took me to Hyangiram Temple (향일암), a Buddhist hermitage located on the opposite end of Dolsan Island (돌산도), accomplished the journey in under 40 minutes, although according to Google, the journey would have taken 1 hour 37 minutes.IMG_20180504_103710I alighted from the bus a little shaken but I was immediately welcomed by a breath-taking view of the ocean. Perched atop a cliff, Hyangiram (향일암) is an oasis of calm. You would have to negotiate a relatively steep road, lined on both sides with restaurants and locals touting the city’s famous gat (or mustard leaf) kimchi 갓김치 before you even reach the entrance to the temple. They even offer to deliver the kimchi to your residence.

Before you begin your pilgrimage to the top, why not load up on some carbs with ganjang gejang (간장게장) – raw crabs marinated in soya sauce – a local specialty. Trust me, your bowl of rice will be gone in no time with these delicious crustaceans!!IMG_20180504_103835IMG_20180504_104015Another massive flight of stairs awaits you from the entrance to the top of the Hermitage. Fortunately, a trio of “See No Evil”, “Hear No Evil”, and “Speak No Evil” Buddha miniatures are strategically placed along the steps to offer you a brief respite, and excellent photo opportunities.IMG_20180504_105012The Hermitage is made up of a cluster of smaller temples, for which getting there is half the fun. For example, you have to pass through an extremely narrow (and dark) alley, created by nature’s forces, to get to one of the temples housing the Goddess of Mercy. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by a necklace of islands shimmering in the East China Sea.

Now if only there’s a café here as well…

천천히”      LS

IMG_20180504_114710Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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More Time For R&R

DSC04429Winter used to be my favourite season when I was working as a professional teacher in Singapore. This is because in Singapore, we have no winter. More importantly, as a teacher in a public school, winter marks the start of the “travel season” as the academic calendar draws to a close by mid-November. The “luckier” ones would have already jetted off by the last week of November. However, for most teachers, CCA commitments (i.e. sports teams and club activities) and numerous meetings (end-of-year reviews, staff planning, department meetings, CCA meetings, etc. etc.) are often packed into the last two weeks of November. Since 2011, I have spent all my “winters” overseas – five of them, in Japan. DSC04506Going into my third winter in Hokkaido, (the first came in 2015 before I went on the JET programme) winter now actually marks the end of my “travel season” as the daily sub-zero temperatures here made travelling less enticing, even potentially dangerous. Of course, as a tourist in Japan, you don’t really worry about blizzards or care about the biting cold. If I’m being honest, in those days prior to living in Hokkaido, I might have secretly welcomed it. These days, I spent most weekends at home, in front of the heater. Even a trip to the local supermarket or the launderette becomes a battle of wills. On weekends like these, I like to reminisce about the places I have visited in the past year.DSC04474On this note, I will leave you with some snaps from my most recent trip to Wakkanai, and the islands of Rishiri (利尻島) and Rebun (礼文島)To say I’ve been to Rishiri and Rebun (R&R) would be stretching it since I actually only had time to scratch the area around the ferry terminal, thanks to a combination of my own ignorance/optimism and the infrequent ferry timings.

For those who love off-the-beaten-track itineraries, these two tiny islands off the coast of Wakkanai are definitely up your alley! Don’t forget to pencil in a few days on each island because even though the islands are tiny, they are not small enough to make a round trip on foot.DSC04505By the way, the snow-capped/cloud-covered peak that featured on the packaging of the ubiquitous Shiroikoibito or 白色恋人 cookies (a souvenir synonymous with Hokkaido) is actually that of Mount Rishiri.

Another noteworthy tip is to schedule your trip in summer because you will get to savour some of the freshest uni (i.e. sea urchin) and seafood that Hokkaido has to offer. In fact, it is said that R&R probably offer the most delicious uni in Japan. I learnt this the hard way of course, as I visited in October this year, only to be told that uni was not in season.I had to settle for another of their famed delicacy, the “hokke chan chan yaki” or grilled fish in miso sauce.

As for Wakkanai, I found it to be rather disappointing. I did enjoy catching the sunset at Cape Soya though, a saving grace in my humble opinion. Otherwise, I would recommend that you plan your trip with one of these two islands (or both if time permits) as your base, instead of Wakkanai.   LSDSC04438

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What’s Your Beef?

img_20161204_134224_hdrIt feels great to be able to pen a few words again and as some of you may have noticed, I have not posted anything new since my last adventure in Sounkyo in October. This is because after finally deciding to register my domain for a monthly fee from WordPress, I realised the fee doesn’t entail a free upgrade in storage space. In other words, I wasted my money on getting the domain. My account was already chock full. This, despite having combed through all my photos and deleting a good number of them. Needless to say, I was pretty annoyed with WordPress.

However, today, I received a sudden notification that WordPress had decided to spare me some extra space, so here’s a recent trip that I haven’t got the chance to publish till now.

As it turned out, winter descended on Hokkaido as soon as my trip to Sounkyo ended. It seemed like Hokkaido just decided to skip autumn all together and jump straight to winter. The cold makes travelling less enticing, and my weekends since Sounkyo had largely been spent tucking my legs under my kotatsu blanket and watching TV.

On one of these lazy weekends, I was watching a local variety show in which contestants gorged themselves to death, trying to devour as many plates of food as possible. On this particular episode, the contestants competed to see who could finish the most number of plates of steak in half an hour. And the setting? Shiraoi.img_20161204_124942_hdrFor the uninitiated (i.e. me), Shiraoi is famous for its beef, and though normally a sleepy town with pretty much nothing but a derelict Ainu village as its main tourist draw, the town’s cows have gained quite a reputation here in Hokkaido.

Shiraoi also happens to be surprisingly accessible from Tomakomai – about a little under 40 minutes by train. I decided, I had to taste some of those beef! A search on Tripadvisor told me that Amano Family Farm was the top ranked steak house to satisfy my belly carnivores. However, the catch is, without a car, this place would take at least an hour and a half’s walk from Shiraoi Station through fields of nothingness.img_20161204_132615_hdrimg_20161204_132132_hdrThe walk turned out to be not as bad as I thought, and the weather stayed ‘relatively’ warm at 5 degrees. Five degrees may not seem like much but here in Hokkaido, 5 degrees qualifies as a ‘warm’ day – considering the past week had seen temperatures hovering around the minus 10-14 degrees mark.

What about the beef? Well, I think I’ll let my pictures do the talking. Bon Apetit!   LS

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Watching The Clouds Drift By – Muroran (Part 2)

I woke up to a bright and sunny morning in my budget hotel room in Higashi-Muroran (東室蘭). The original plan was to take the train back to Tomakomai after check-out. But looking at the weather, it seemed such a massive waste to just pack up and go home. Yesterday’s exertions (and disappointments) were still fresh in my body and mind. After mulling over the options over bread and coffee at the hotel café, I decided to give Muroran another shot.dsc01826After a quick browse through Tripadvisor, I decided to check out Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬) and seek out one of Muroran’s specialty dishes – curry ramen. I must say this had to be one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. If there’s one place you ever need to try curry ramen, it’s Aji-no-Daio 味の大王. Though it’s still 11.30 a.m., the tiny restaurant was already packed with patrons. The curry is viscous thick, and the noodles are springy. Sweat was oozing from all pores down my face, but I was savouring every drop of the curry. Needless to say, I polished the bowl down to its last drags.img_20160919_115042My belly folks were humming a tune, and I hopped along to it as I made my way to Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬). Google Maps informed me that the trek to the cape would take about an hour on foot, but this time round, I decided to try my luck and just board any bus that would take me as close as possible to the cape. Last night’s misadventure told me that bus no.14 might be my best shot. And so it proved to be, though I had to ride my luck and guess the stop to alight. From my alighting point, it was just another 300 metre walk to the cape, which took less than five minutes.dsc01840dsc01841Although less celebrated than Cape Chikyu (judging by the fact that besides me, there were only three others), Cape Etomo, in my opinion, has more to offer. Not only can you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific, but also a perfect vista of the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spans the port of Muroran and its marina. I spent a good half an hour just taking in the scenery.img_20160919_142753img_20160919_143820_hdrHowever, the best find had to be Café Mutekirou, perched at the edge of a small knoll along the coast. The interior had a minimalist feel to it, with a granite wall accompanied by two humongous speakers as the dominant centrepieces. Jazz music was playing, and the entire café was drenched in sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I slurped my Americano and leaned back on my wooden deck chair, content to just watch the clouds drift by over the Hakucho Bridge. What a way to spend the long weekend!

Ç’est la vie.   LS

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Chasing Japan

IMG_3253I could still remember vividly my first trip to Tokyo. Well, why couldn’t I? After all, it was only about five years ago, to be honest. No big deal, you may think.

It was, for me.

I finally had the opportunity to see Japan for myself. A country whose modern history was defined for me in school textbooks in terms of Japanese supremacy and militarism, of ruthless ambition to conquer a large part of Southeast Asia during the Second World War, of murderers in the Nanking massacre and countless others, of brutal soldiers who raped and killed comfort women and innocent children. Of course, that was a Japan from a different time, a different rule.

DSC01868Japan today is a modern democracy, celebrated for its cuisine and culture, and revered for its natural beauty. Its economy may have stagnated for more than two decades in recent times. Yet, the Land of the Rising Sun is still recognised as one of the most influential economies in Asia, and even the world.

Eight months before my visit, the entire country was reeling from the shock and devastation caused by the Japan Tsunami on 11 March, triggered by an earthquake that measured a massive 9.0 on the Richter Scale. I remembered when the tsunami struck, I followed the news religiously every day. My heart went out to Japan and the Japanese people. News reports of disaster victims queuing patiently for relief supplies at evacuation centres showed me a side of Japan I have never seen before. It’s during times like these that reveal the mark of a people, and the class of a nation. And I could not help but salute their resilience, their respect for each other, their civic mindedness, their solidarity. Since that maiden trip to Tokyo in the fall of 2011, I’ve also visited Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto and Hokkaido in the years after.

IMG_3916I returned from that trip to Tokyo in 2011 with a new determination and conviction to take up the Japanese language again. I use the word ‘again’ because I had previously taken Japanese as a language elective module during my varsity years. I had lasted merely two semesters then because I found myself spending more time on studying and revising Japanese than the other core modules, which affected my grades. This time, however, I am determined to master it, I tell myself. And when I do, I want to return to Japan, to find a job and experience living in Japan for a couple of years. I am on the verge of realising my dream come August this year.

And I can’t wait! 🙂    LS

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Touched By An Apsara

“Apsara” refers to the ancient art of dance performances performed by women in traditional glittering silk tunics and elaborate golden headdresses in the royal courts of Angkor during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

But in modern day Siem Reap, and I suspect, in many parts of Cambodia, Apsara is probably the most overused name you can find anywhere and everywhere. There’s Apsara Hotel, Apsara Spa, Apsara Boutique Spa & Hotel, Apsara Café, Apsara Restaurant, Apsara Foundation, even an Apsara Spice Garden.

DSC00612Frankly though, your trip to Siem Reap or Cambodia will never be complete without catching an Apsara performance. Many restaurants in Siem Reap offer this traditional dance performance, although prices vary markedly, so it’s good to check with your hotel before you make a reservation. You can find a relatively affordable meal with accompanying Apsara dance for US$12 at the Koulen II Restaurant. The best part of the deal – it’s a buffet!

DSC00663After your Khmer debauchery, head for the night markets for some bargain hunting. Or indulge your own Fear Factor fantasies by taking on some traditional Khmer street food – fried spiders / scorpions / crickets / baby frogs!  LS

P.S.: I’m sorry I kind of went on a hiatus again because work has started. So now that I’ve had a chance to take a breather and jet off again, I shall remove that cryptic post of Mount Fuji titled “Majesty” (taken from my flight back from Tokyo).

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A Zen New World

These days I find myself increasingly reluctant to blog. Instead, from time to time, I like to browse through micah’s blog – she is one humorous (and kick-ass muay thai boxer and martial arts junkie) scribe – and just laugh my head off at her whimsical adventures and indulgent feastings.

I’m packing my bags again, ready to brave the cold and treacherous. Nope, I’m not going Alaska or attempting Everest. I’m returning to my favourite country – Japan! Don’t give me that look!

This time, I’m off to Hokkaido – think lots of snow, snow and more snow. I hope I won’t freeze my ass off there, so I’ve been frequenting Uniqlo lately to source for bargains. Truth be told, this is actually the first time I’m visiting Hokkaido, much to disbelieving scowls and “Not again…” jibes from my colleagues. Another first for me – skiing! God bless my bones!

Think I left off in Vienna in my previous posts, and I was wondering if I should continue from there, or excite you with images of Japan from my previous trips. I think you know the answer.DSC03591So I’m going to accost your sights with Kyoto, one of my favourite cities in Japan. Mention Kyoto and one automatically associates with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. So if temples are not your thing, don’t bother visiting Kyoto.

However, labelling Kyoto as temple-land doesn’t really do it justice. After all, this was the original capital of Japan for more than a thousand years before Tokyo took the crown in 1868.

A friend who recently visited Kyoto commented on his Facebook that he had never witnessed such a confused city. I’m not sure if “confused” was the right word to use but I believe what he probably meant was that no other city in Japan challenges your notion of time, space and normality than Kyoto.DSC03731Here, geishas toting umbrellas totter in wooden clogs on the cobblestoned streets of Gion. Shrines pop up in the most unlikely of places (for example, in the middle of Teramachi, a bustling market and shopping arcade). And just a stone’s throw away from the shopping belt, mega temples built on hilltops instantly spirit you into a zen new world.

How can you not fall in love with this city?  LS

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Hungry For More

No other city on this trip filled me with more regrets than Budapest. Regrets of the positive kind, that is. Because there were so many sights to see, so many dishes to savour, and so many pubs to bar-hop that I almost fell into a near depressive state while packing my bags on the first (and my last) night in this beautiful city.

Did I say “beautiful”? That was an understatement!

Budapest is probably one of the most magnificent but understated (and under-rated) cities in Europe. Relatively a newbie compared to its ex-communist brethren (Poland and Czech Republic), Budapest has grown exponentially in the last decade. In the streets, Michelin-starred restaurants, local artisan stores and luxury hotel chains and designer ateliers are sprouting like moss after a springtime rain. Fortunately, a relatively depressed forint means that you get more bang for your buck.

There’s one thing that the Hungarians and Japanese share in common – their love for baths. Although the number of baths here pale in comparison to its Japanese counterparts, the tradition dates back to the Romans and there’s nothing more “local” than to spend a day at one of the dozen public baths that dot the city. Of course, as you may have guessed, this tradition is more like a graying pastime in modern Budapest. If you ask me, picking up some words of wisdom or being regaled by tales from Hungary’s Iron Curtain past from some septuagenarians doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all.   LS

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