Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Japanese afternoon tea at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo

Japanese-style afternoon tea at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo

Read about the world's best hotel for design 2013, 
in the June-July 2013 issue of Travelife Magazine. 
On sale everywhere until August 15.

I recently had a very nice Japanese-style afternoon tea with my friend Alona, at the Palace Hotel.

This is a lovely old hotel that was completely torn down and rebuilt into an equally lovely new hotel, that is now a member of the Leading Hotels of the World (LHW).

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Alona, who used to live in Manila, and then in China, recently relocated to Tokyo with her husband.

We were initially supposed to meet at another hotel for afternoon tea.

However, I decided to encourage her to come over to the Palace Hotel instead, after learning that the Palace Hotel actually had a proper, full-blown Japanese-style afternoon tea.

There were a couple of macarons in the box,
but almost everything else was a Japanese delicacy
or at least a Japanese-influenced one...

We've all heard of the British afternoon tea, of course.

And that's what you can usually get in Tokyo as well, where people are very enthusiastic about things British, and basically about all things European.


But the Palace Hotel, which is a 100% Japanese-run luxury hotel that I almost dare say is Tokyo's most beautiful hotel at the moment, decided to offer a Japanese-style afternoon tea instead.

Even the scones were Japanese-style,
made with buckwheat instead of regular flour...

I thought this was very unusual, and I certainly wanted to try it.

Alona was game, so she met me at the Palace Hotel lobby at just past 4 PM.

By then I'd already comandeered the best and most comfortable table in the lobby for us, in the corner, with a great view of everything going on.

We each got one of these beautiful lacquer boxes...


The Japanese afternoon tea costs just a little bit over JYEN 4000 per person, including taxes and service charges.

For this price, you get a beautiful lacquer multi-tiered lunch box filled to the brim with all sorts of goodies, as well as all the tea you can drink from their very wide variety of English, Japanese, Chinese and herbal teas.

A lady in a kimono brings it over and she disassembles the lacquer box in front of you so that at the end of it all, everything is laid out so beautifully on the table -- almost too pretty to eat.

The boxes contained inari sushiscones made out of buckwheattiny sandwichescut-up fruits and a couple of traditional Japanese sweets.

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And, of course, you are sitting in what is currently the prettiest hotel lobby in Tokyo, with a view of greens and the Imperial Palace moat.

From some seats, you can even see the one of the gates of the Imperial Palace itself.

Talk about the ultimate Tokyo experience.

A Japanese bento box filled with sweet and savoury delights

And just to show you what a small world it is in a Travelife, just as I was leaving the Palace Hotel tonight, someone called out my name.


The remains of an afternoon tea....

It was a Mexican guy I've known for 20 years who was on his way to China the next day.

He's CEO of a big international firm. I'd just been talking about him with some common acquaintances in Hyderabad, India a few weeks ago, and then suddenly there he was before me in a hotel lobby in Tokyo -- of all places.

We promised to meet up sometime soon, somewhere in the world.

Never an ordinary day in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.



A Travelife short story from the Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel in Hyderabad, India

Read about one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, 
in the June-July 2013 issue of Travelife Magazine. 
On sale everywhere until August 15.

There we were at the Taj Falaknuma Palace, South India's most beautiful palace hotel, one night, living a never-endingly eventful Travelife.

The palace historian had kindly agreed to take us on a private tour.

This is how we ended up having the entire historic second floor of the palace to ourselves for an evening, after a mesmerizing Suufi concert in the garden, and just before a pretty amazing dinner.

It was pretty surreal, actually, to be finding ourselves in this exotic part of India, and to be sitting in the garden of one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, listening to hauntingly beautiful music performed by a dozen men in traditional garb.

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I loved everything about this palace that was also now a hotel, and that nevertheless truly felt like a palace.

What a gem it was, and so worth seeing and experiencing.

It had a beautiful parlor done up in varying shades of green, and a most impressive billiards room in mahogany and leather.


We imagined what it would be like to be playing a game of billiards with the Nizam of Hyderabad, once the richest man in the world.

Perhaps I would have wagered one of the world's largest diamonds off him. He apparently had little appreciation for this diamond anyway, since he used it mostly as a paperweight on his desk.


But the best part was the impressive wood-paneled dining room -- reportedly the world's longest, good for a formal dinner for 101 persons.

Everyone who was anyone at one point in history had dined here, enjoying the Nizam's lavish hospitality, palace historian told us.

I stood at one end and my companion stood at the other.

"Say something and let's see if it's true," he shouted from one end, as we'd been told that the accoustics were excellent.

So from the other end, I whispered, with a twinkle in my eye: "Travelife is #1."

He whispered back: "I heard that. Loud and clear..."


A Travelife kind of sweet story, set in Paris and Chartres

One of my favorite sweet stories is how the journalist Kati Marton and the diplomat Richard Holbrooke met and got together. 

It's such an innocent and Travelife sort of story that makes me smile whenever I remember it.

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Kati Marton was the ex-wife of anchorman Peter Jennings and and second wife of Holbrooke, who had worked as a key backstage conduit for several US presidents.

Richard Holbrooke passed away sometime back and his wife Kati recalled her life with him in a short but apparently highly recommended book called Paris: A Love Story


Their love story seemed terribly interesting and so very much a Travelife kind of story

Being both "citizens of the world," their official first date wasn't really dinner in some fancy bistro in Washington D.C, or a play or opera gala in Manhattan.

Instead it was a three-day trip to Chartres and the Loire Valley, plus a couple of days in Paris

Their best memory of this first date was sitting in Chartres Cathedral admiring the magnificent stained glass windows and imagining how early piligrims must've been amazed by such a sight.


They simply traveled together rather than being romantically involved, and they focused more on enjoying being together and discovering new things. 

It was really an extended and rather glamorous version of a grown-up first date -- he was in his 50s and she was in her 40s, after all, and both had careers and lives of their own.

But by the end of their five days together, she writes that they were finally holding hands while walking the streets of Paris.


I thought this was very sweet, simple and human, considering the complicated lives they led and especially for a glamorous couple who lived so much of their lives in the spotlight, among the rich, famous and powerful. 

Bill Clinton had helped them move and Pakistan's president had given Kati some advice on bereavement when Richard Holbrooke had finally passed away.

Yes, they found happiness and got married. 

Richard Holbrooke became the US Ambassador to the United Nations and together they became the "it" couple of New York. 

They were both smart, cultured and vivacious for life, and apparently they hosted the most interesting dinners. Everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Nelson Mandela accepted their dinner invitations. 

It was their golden age and how nice that they had found each other for this.

It wasn't a completely perfect life -- whose life is? -- but it came pretty close to this. 

And they lived fairly happily for 15 years together

Yes, second chances are possible and true love can happen at any age, Marton writes.

And, if I might dare to add, especially when you're in Paris, living your own version of a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Travelife short story: Heaven on earth at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Heritance Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, Sri Lanka

They'd just arrived via an arduous five-hour drive along country roads from Colombo.  But finally there they were at the famous Heritance Kandalama Hotel, just in time for sunset.

The first sight of it, with nothing but water all around, took their breath away.

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"I'm going for a swim," she said.

Within minutes, she'd changed into her bathing suit and was dipping her toes hesitantly into the pool.

It really was the perfect time for a swim.

The water was warm and the setting sun's rays cast a golden glow all over the Kandalama reservoir.

She put her feet on the ledge so that she floated effortlessly, while marveling at the sky.


"This must be what heaven feels like," she almost shouted out to her companion, who was taking sunset photos on the hill just above.

With his cameras, he'd clambered up the stone wall by the pool to get a better view of the entire Kandalama reservoir, in all its gorgeous glory.

Meanwhile, her heart was bursting with the beauty and joy of it all. It was a peace with nature that was simply impossible to describe.


But next thing she knew, he was standing right next to her, looking down at her with a smile on his face.

"No," he said. "This is what a never-ending Travelife feels like."

*    *    *    *

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Walking from Kamiyacho to Ginza, to Dover Street Market, and contemplating a 105 yen bowl of udon noodles in Tokyo

It was one of those days when too many things happened, in Tokyo, living a never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Gifted with a spare morning and a day that was neither hot nor rainy, I decided to take a walk from the Tokyo American Club in Kamiyacho to Ginza.

It's not really a terribly long distance, but I don't know anyone who walks from Kamiyacho to Ginza -- and so I was quite proud of myself.

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I wanted to walk, just to see the changes taking place in the only city I've really known for most of my adult life.

Until about four years ago, you see, this was home. And then it was time to move on.

I found 3 famous French chocolatiers in a row in Ginza.
This is the one that's been around the longest.

This Provencal chocolatier just opened recently next to it.

This is the 3rd shop in the row.
How does anyone ever choose between these 3?
I couldn't, so I ended up not going to any instead.

Since then, I've been back to Tokyo countless times, but never for long enough to contemplate such a walk like this.

What I found was a city that was curiously so much just as I had left it -- in spite of all this 21st century hype.

And at the same time, it was different.


What hadn't changed? You might be asking.

I still found neighborhood shrines and little temples nestled amidst tall glass buildings, and so many holes-in-the-walls that wafted tempting aromas as I passed.

Interestingly, a glance at the shop windows told me in a flash that prices had risen across the board in Tokyo since I had lived here.

Everything was more expensive than I had left it, even if the newspapers in Japan over the weekend were full of news about how Japanese employees are spending much less than they used to.


In 20 years, the disposable income of the average employee in Japan has halved to about 35,000 yen a month, and many people reportedly budget just over 500 yen for a meal.

Yet, in that one-hour walk between Kamiyacho and Ginza, I couldn't find a meal for 500 yen.

The average meal was about 1,250 yen, and I'm not talking about anything fancy.


Except in one place.

An udon restaurant under the tracks of Yurakucho that had a line snaking down a block. "Udon from 105 yen," read large signs at the entrance, and that comes up to about 45 pesos for a bowl.

That's the ultimate basic bowl, I suppose, with prices rising depending on if you want onions, eggs, or chicken in it.

For a minute, I was tempted to try it, just to see what a 105 yen bowl of noodles actually tasted like. I've had cheap noodles before, of course, but never for this price.

But the line was just too long, and some pretty irresistible sales awaited me in Ginza, on just another interesting morning in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Nagoya's ancient culture is a direct flight away on Delta Airlines

On the way back to Tokyo from Osaka today, I passed by Nagoya which is the fourth largest city in Japan, located north of Ise Bay on the Nobi Plains.

Nagoya's history is full of stories of shogun, samurai and modern-day corporate warriors.

There's a castle in the middle of the city that you can tell at first glance has hundreds of stories. 

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It also has beautiful attractions like legendary shrines, ancient pottery villages and old soy sauce factories, as well as impressive 21st century factories

Only 366 kilometers from Tokyo, it’s a destination that’s also truly a historical journey, so there’s much to do.

Fortunately there's a direct flight from to Nagoya on Delta Airlines from many major cities in AsiaNo need to change planes, trains or buses.

 Check out these top attractions for a true cultural experience of central Japan.


Originally the residence and military headquarters of the Tokugawa clanNagoya Castle was built around 1612, but it was badly burnt during World War II and repaired in 1959.

With two magnificent golden carp on its roof, this castle is the historical heart and symbol of Nagoya.

It’s especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season.

Meanwhile, inside the castle is a modern museum that documents the castle’s history.

Besides admiring the outside skirt of the castle you can venture into the fortress and explore yourself. There’s also an observation deck which offers an impressive and sweeping view of the city.

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This is the second most venerated Shinto shrine in Japan because it reportedly carries the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, and keeps the sacred sword, Kusanagi, which is one of the three imperial regalia treasures.

It also has over 4,400 national treasures collected over a 2,000-year history.

After a tour of the shrine, don’t forget to sample a delicious bowl of kishimen noodles, a type of flat white noodles which are a specialty of Nagoya.

This unique, world-class historical museum contains the wealth of the Tokugawa family during the Edo period of 1603-1867.

The Tokugawa family was one of the most powerful families in Japan for hundreds of years, and during this time they amassed a great fortune.

From the Tokugawa Museum

Feast your eyes on memorabilia including samurai armorswordstea utensilsnoh maskscostumesscrolls and maps.

Afterwards, stroll through Tokugawa-en, the traditional Japanese landscaped garden next to the museum which once used as a retirement area for the residing local lords.

This was also ruined during the war, but it was recently remodeled with beautiful results.


This garden was designed to introduce the company’s ceramic and porcelain products while providing recreational space in the middle of Nagoya.

There’s a craft center where visitors can observe the process of creating delicate porcelain or try to make items themselves in a workshop.

There are also displays of old Noritake pieces including vasesjars and dishes from the early 1900s.

Meanwhile, the Welcome Center’s Celabo Showroom showcases different ceramic products as well as cutting-edge technology for porcelain making.


This state-of-the-art factory and museum is a must-visit for car fans.

Within this massive complex outside Nagoya City, there’s the Toyota Kaikan Museum that showcases new models and technologies, and the Toyota Automobile Museum that exhibits Japanese, European and American automobiles from the late 1800s to the 1960s.

The Toyota Techno Museum, which is also known as Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, introduces the history of Toyota – from its beginnings as a textile machinery manufacturer to its evolvement into one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world.

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Experience the spiritual aspects of Nagoya via a daytrip to Ise Shrine, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. It actually has two shrines: the outer shrine called geku, which dates from the 5th century, and the inner shrine called naiku from the 3rd century.

The Ise Shrine is constructed in a purely Japanese architectural style with wide gravel lanes and acres of green forests that will surely bring you a day of peace.



Affirmed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1995, Takayama and Shirakawa-go are famous for the abundance of traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses – some as old as 250 years.

The roofs are vertically-thatched, imitating the hands of Buddhist monks in prayer and designed to endure heavy snowfall.


They’re not hammered by nails and many of them have a wide space for cultivating silkworms.

There are many choices for accommodation in Takayama for tourists who choose to spend the night – from modern hotels to traditional Japanese inns.