Sensō-ji Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of its most significant. The Nakamise-dōri is a street on the approach to the temple and is filled with street vendors selling street food, talismans and souvenirs celebrating the New Year.
The Daruma doll is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. Though considered an omocha (toy), Daruma are regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragements and were available to purchase in and around the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo when we visited on New Year’s Day.
The variety and quality of food we enjoyed in Japan was incredible. Below are just a few snapshots of some of the amazing meals we ate.
There are a lot of different tonkatsu restaurants in Tokyo, some fancier than others.
Gonpachi serves modern Izakaya ‘pub food’ cuisine and is also known as the “Kill Bill Restaurant”.
Amazing sushi at Sushino Midori in Shibuya. Come early or be prepared to wait!
In Niseko we enjoyed a beautiful degustation menu at Kamimura, a former protege of the globally renown Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda.
Abu Cha 2 is Niseko Hirafu’s premier Japanese and Izakaya & Bar. The house specialty are the scallops cooked in butter over a small open flame.
We had some of the best sushi and sashimi at Hanayoshi, in nearby Niseko Cho (about 20 minutes away from Niseko Hirafu). Depending on how large your party, they have a mini bus (minimum party of 10) that can come and pick up and drop back to your hotel in Niseko. The menu was only in Japanese, however some of the staff spoke a little English and were able to help us order some incredible dishes. Reservation is a must.
Just a few examples of the beautifully packaged food available from the many Japanese Department Store Food Halls, which are definitely worth a visit!
The many vending machines found in Tokyo, where you can select hot or cold drinks, chocolates and snacks!
We stayed in a 4 bedroom serviced apartment called Subioku, located in the heart of Hirafu village. A 10 minute walk from the ski slopes, ski hire was easily organised through Rhythm Sport, conveniently located opposite. In the evenings, we had the option to cook dinner or try one of the many fantastic restaurants in Hirafu. We especially enjoyed a casual dinner at Abu-Cha-2 which can be found on the ground floor of the same building as Subioku. Other dining options included Ezo Seafoods, Hanayoshi and the Hilton Niseko Village Hotel (the free shuttle from Hirafu to Niseko takes only 20 minutes).
The entrance and dining room of our apartment
The longe room adjacent to the dining room with floor to ceiling windows of Hirafu village.
One of the four bedrooms in our apartment.
Out and about in Hirafu village.
One of the local casual dining options in Hirafu, a few minutes walk away from the apartment.
Skiing in Niseko and Grand Hirafu was an incredible experience. Having skiied in Australia, France, Canada and the US we found skiing with young children in Niseko Grand Hirafu a fantastic family experience. Compared to other ski regions, it’s the abundance of fresh, fluffy, dry powder snow plus the large and varied terrain that sets Niseko Grand Hirafu apart. The kids also enjoyed night skiing!
The Niseko ski resort has four major zones that are interconnected (for intermediates and above) via lifts and the slopes towards the top of the mountains. The An’nupuri area has great groomed runs for beginners and intermediates and access to sidecountry skiing. The Niseko Village ski area is largely a beginner and intermediate area, with a couple of black piste runs. Hirafu has something on offer for everyone, whilst Hanazono is good for tree skiing, sidecountry access, and terrain park fun.
Some of the incredible powder snow we enjoyed on our trip.
Off piste skiing, in fresh powder in Strawberry Fields (right of Hanazono no. 1 lift).
View of snow covered trees, from the Hilton Niseko Village Hotel.
Views of the summit. Niseko’s most famous gate, “Hirafu Peak Gate” (at an altitude of 1180m) located above the top of the highest lift point in Niseko, the single seated King Lift #4. Both the lift and gate can be extremely crowded on a powder morning and a line from top to bottom can often form as people make the 20 min climb to the peak. No special equipment is required, but I’d recommend a backpack fitted to carry skis as the climb can be quite a work out, when you have to climb through waist deep fresh powder snow.
Some of the food options in Hanazano. Our favourite was the crab ramen, prepared fresh by the friendly staff at the Hanazano ski station.
No trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest and busiest fish market in the world. With young children, we decided not to attend the tuna auctions at 5 a.m. but decided to go for a sushi breakfast at 7.30 a.m. We stayed at the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya and it took about 20 minutes by train. You can either take the Oedo line to Tsukiji-Shijo station, exit A1 or alternatively take the Hibiya line of the Tokyo Metro to Tsukiji station, then follow the crowd and the ‘smell’ to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you don’t mind huge crowds, then the Tsukiji Fish Market can be a lot of fun! Just the variety, range and quality of seafood on offer was fascinating to see.
There was a huge selection of seafood on display, both raw and cooked. We enjoyed some fresh tuna sashimi along with some rice bowls with cooked eel and egg, washed down with miso soup.
We came across this store in the middle of the Tsukiji market, displaying a variety of knives. The range and quality of the knives was impressive and we ended up buying 2 to use at home.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. It is a large park-like area located in the Chiyoda area of Tokyo close to Tokyo Station and contains several buildings including the main palace, the private residences of the imperial family and a museum. The palace is generally closed to the public except for the Imperial Household Agency and the East Gardens however the public is permitted to enter each New Year (January 2) and on the Emperor’s Birthday.
Views of Tokyo, from the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya. On a clear day you can see Mt Fuji in the distance.
Tokyo and Mt Fuji at night.
The famous Shibuya crossing during the day and night.
Shibuya 109 is a ‘must-see’ for those interested in the latest Japanese fashion trends. This is an image of Shibuya 109-2 which is a separate building dedicated to men’s fashion.
The electronics district, Akihabara.
Try the pulled pork bun, chicken bun and brisket bun from Eat Art Truck. Check out Facebook or Twitter for their schedule.
Lying at the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City, was the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) and is now called the Palace Museum. Tian’anmen Square is a kilometre away. As the imperial palace for nearly 500 years, the Forbidden City houses a number of rare treasures and curiosities and is a UN World Cultural Heritage site.
The Outer Court
Yellow is the dominant color in the Forbidden City as it is the symbol of the royal family. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles and decorations in the palace are painted yellow.
Behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony, in the middle of the stairway, is a marble carving of nine dragons playing with pearls – it is the largest stone carving in the Forbidden City.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihemen) is the main gate of the Outer Court and is guarded by a couple of gilded bronze lions which were aimed to show imperial dignity. The east one is male, with its front right paw put on a ball, meaning imperial power extended worldwide. The lioness (below) on the west puts its front left paw on a lion cub, indicating prosperously growing family.
The entrance to the Imperial Garden, the private garden of the imperial family.
One of the hippest and trendiest stores to visit in Florence is the LUISAVIAROMA Main Store located at Via Roma, 19/21r and is open Mondayto Saturday 10:00am-7:30pm and Sunday 11:00am-7:00pm. There is also a LUISAVIAROMA Contemporary Store located at Via Silvio Pellico, 9 which is open from Monday to Saturday 10:30am – 7:30pm and closed Sunday. LUISAVIAROMA has a strong online presence, so if you can’t get to Florence you can still enjoy the beautifully curated selection of clothing, shoes and accessories online.
Old Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella located on Via della Scala 16 in Florence is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, founded in the 1200s by Dominican friars. Most people would just walk past this gorgeous museum/working pharmacy due to its unpretentious facade on the street – you have to push past the unassuming glass doors to enter the most incredibly beautiful pharmacy. The decor is anything but ordinary and the smell is incredible. There is an incredible selection of scented soaps, facial, body and hand creams, oils, perfumes, baths salts, digestif liquors and the most famous product – their Rose Tonic.
Outlet Shopping in Florence
The two outlet malls we visited in Florence were The Mall and the Space Factory Outlet.
The Mall is about 30 minutes by car from Florence and is located at Europa 8, 50066 Leccio Reggello (FI) Italia and open from 10am to 7pm daily. The quality and range of merchandise was fantastic and we got some incredible discounts at stores like Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Lanvin, Stella McCartney, Tom Ford, Burberry, Dior, Tod’s, Valentino and Saint Laurent. I got lucky and found a beautiful Balenciaga tailored jacket for AU$200 and bought loads of things for my children at Stella McCartney. Landry picked up a suit and some shirts at Valentino and also found a pair of high-top sneakers at Lanvin.
For those who don’t have a car, you can reach The Mall by train from Santa Maria Novella to Rignano sull’Arno (35 minutes), then grab a taxi (additional 5 minutes) or you can get there by public bus. Take the Florence SITA bus from Via Santa Caterina da Siena 17, near the train station. Buses leave at 8:30, 9, 11, 12:35 Mon-Sat. and 3pm Mon-Sun.
The Space Factory Outlet is about 45-50 minutes by car from Florence and is located at Via Levanella Becorpi, S.S 69, 52025 Montevarchi and is open Monday-Friday 10:30am-7:30pm, Saturday 9:30am-7:30pm and Sunday 10:30am-6:30pm. We arrived at about 10am to be greeted by a huge queue of people who had clearly done their research and got in early. Before joining the queue, make sure to grab a ticket from the machines located at the entrance as you will need this ticket when making purchases within Space.
Once you’ve decided on something to purchase, the many sales representatives will then ask for your number and take the item away for you to pick up at the cash register. Once you’re done, just head over to the cash register and present your number so that the representative can retrieve all the items you selected. Don’t forget to bring your passport – if you buy enough you can also claim Duty Free!
Space is cavernous and there is an enormous selection of clothes, accessories (jewellery, belts, sunglasses), bags and shoes for men and women from Prada, Prada Sport, Miu Miu and Church. There is a specific area for each brand and not all of it is on ‘sale’. It’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria of buying discount Prada, so take your time as there is a huge selection to choose from. There are some items that are produced just for the outlet while others are a higher quality so make sure you’re happy with the quality you’re buying. I ended up getting a beautiful pair of Miu Miu silver glitter Mary-Jane heels at about 70% off!
To get there from Florence: By car (50 mins), take the A1 motorway toward Rome and take the exit marked Valdarno; take the 1A to Via Poggilupi/SP11, then a right to Strada Lungo l’Arno/SP59 and then a left to Strada d/Arno/SR69. Turn left onto Via Levanella Becorpi. By train (35 or 55 mins + 5 mins taxi), take the train from Santa Maria Novella or Campo di Marte to Montevarchi, then grab a taxi.
For those interested in luxury shopping, go and check out the quadrilatero della moda or the ‘quadrilateral of fashion’ a high-class shopping district in the centre of Milan where most of the luxurious stores in the world have a boutique. Streets to visit are Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia.
For those looking for something a little more unique to Milan, check out:
10 Corso Como is a must visit for those who love fashion. Located at 10 Corso Como, it is opened Friday to Tuesday 10.30am to 7pm and Wednesday and Thursday from 1pm to 7:30pm. This luxury boutique is run by gallerist Carla Sozzani, sister to Franca Sozzani the current editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia. A three level boutique, it has a wonderful cafe in an outdoor garden setting and an incredible range of clothes, accessories, shoes, books, art, make-up and home furnishings. Alaia was well represented.
TAD, is a small scale luxury department store and one of the hippest in the fashion district of Milan. Located on Via Statuto 12 M2 Moscova it is opened from Tuesday to Saturday 10.30am-1pm and 3pm-7pm.
Brandy Melville is Italian company that is now very popular in Europe and the US. There is only one size in wide array of fitted off-shoulder tees, to soft angora sweaters and stylish dresses, skirts and tops, shorts and trousers, plus bags and accessories. The prices are super reasonable and great for stylish people on a budget! I visited the boutique in Milan at Via Statuto, 16 which is open from 10:30am to 7:30pm daily.
Madina Milano is a cult Italian make up brand. Pat McGrath one of the most well known make up artists in the fashion industry is a huge fan of their stick concealer. The prices are very reasonable and a good place to visit for small gifts.
We spent our last day in Italy in Milan, where we stayed in the trendy and minimalist Hotel Straf which is located right next to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and home to some of the oldest restaurants and book stores in Milan as well as luxury boutiques like Prada.
For those interested in luxury shopping, a must visit is the quadrilatero della moda or the ‘quadrilateral of fashion’ a high-class shopping district in the centre of Milan where most of the luxurious stores in the world have a boutique. Streets to visit are Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia.
The Duomo di Milano, an easy 5-10 minute walk with easy access through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Beautiful summer evenings on Corso Como, a bustling nightlife area that overflows with people enjoying late night dinner and drinks with friends.
We enjoyed a beautiful dinner at Alla Cucina Delle Langhe.
Antica Macelleria Falorni, located on Piazza Matteotti of Greve in Chianti, claims to be the oldest butchers shop in Italy. The incredible range and variety of salumi, dried and aged meats and cheeses was incredible. A great place to pick up a few supplies for an impromptu picnic lunch in the Tuscan countryside.
The wonderful panoramic view from the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower, right next to the Duomo of Florence.
View of the Ponte Vecchio and the beautiful ceilings inside the Uffizi Gallery.
Some of the beautiful marble statues in Loggia Dei Lanzi, which is adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery.
A selection of the beautiful sweets that can be found in Florence.
We stayed at the Castelo Monastero, in Tuscany about 20 minutes drive from Siena or 1 hour and 20 minutes from Florence which made it ideal as a base for day trips to Siena, Florence and Pisa. Dining options included Contrada, a gourmet dining experience and La Cantina a more relaxed dining experience in the medieval wine cellars of Castel Monastero, with both restaurants’ menus designed by Gordon Ramsay.
We stayed at the Castelo Monastero, in Tuscany about 20 minutes drive from Siena where we enjoyed walking around taking in the sites such as the Duomo of Siena, Il Campo, and the Palazzo Pubblico and enjoying an incredible bistecca and seasonal truffle dishes at Osteria La Taverna di San Giuseppe. The highlight however was the beautiful picturesque Tuscan countryside as you can see from the photos below.
On our way to Tuscany, from Portofino we stopped by Pisa so our kids could see the great ‘leaning tower of Pisa’. Other sites to see in the city’s Piazza del Duomo is the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry and the Campo Santo (the monumental cemetery).
After a morning spent wandering the sites and museums, we discovered a great little panineria called ‘L’Ostellino‘. It’s a tiny little shop, in a small square about 10 minutes from the Tower of Pisa. There’s not a lot of sitting room, so get your order to go and enjoy a picnic in the many beautiful gardens around Pisa.
There was a lot to choose from and we ended up with their porchetta panini, platter of local salumi and cheeses and salad – plenty for a family of four!