Shrines and Temples in countryside Tokamachi

Isn’t it true, nothing screams “I’ve been to Japan!” than posting a picture of yourself with a shrine or temple in the background, right?

If you happen to visit Japan, don’t miss to include visiting temples and shrines in your itinerary and don’t hesitate because no matter what your religion is, it’s no big deal to visit shrines and temples. The Japanese ‘pray’ at temples and shrines largely out of tradition rather than religion so they won’t mind foreigners inside these premises at all.

To the unfamiliar, shrines and temples can be quite hard to distinguish. The easiest way to tell is often from the Japanese name. The word for shrine is jinja and for temples it is o-tera, and the kanji will be suffixed to the name of the shrine or temple. Temples and shrines are definitely popular sights in Japan. Basically, temples refer to Buddhism and shrines to Shintoism.

There are so many temples and shrines scattered all over Japan with Sensoji Temple in Asakusa (Tokyo), Kiyomizudera (Kyoto) or the Todaiji (Nara) among the most popular.

(A great article explaining the differences between shrines and temples.)

(No, I think I’ll pass…)

These shrines and temples are undeniably attractive. However, if you visit the usual and the popular shrines and temples suggested by big travel agencies and Tripadvisor, you’ll most likely find hundreds of tourists in the same place as you. And they’d be on your left and right, behind you and in front of you when you take photos!

It’s no secret: more and more people are putting Japan high up in their travel bucket lists now more than ever. Statistics show that close to 30 million people visited the country in 2017. And the numbers continue to rise. Kyoto is crowded these days. It takes a lot of planning and effort to have shrines/temples and gardens to yourself.

I’ve been to the major shrines and temples in Japan and they were all beautiful and unique in their own way. But I hate that they are too crowded. I prefer the temples away from the big cities, tucked in the middle of a forest, shrines of small villages.

For sure, highly developed areas may be the top picks of most foreign travelers, but Japan’s rural regions are just as lovely and highly recommended for those who want to take a break from the busy city life. I’ve picked up a few from our new hometown.

1. Jinguji

This ancient temple is said to have been founded during the Heian period (A.D. 794-1185. T)he temple gate and hall dedicated to Kannon, both built during the late-Edo period, and three Buddha statues made during the Fujiwara period are all designated cultural assets of Niigata prefecture.

What I love about visiting shrines and temples is that it’s always a few degrees cooler than any place in town. It’s a great respite in the summer and Jinguji is not an exception!

I’ve been wanting to visit Jinguji since we arrived here in January, however, snow was at least 2 meters high around it! Now that everything is clear, I’m glad I went back to take photos of it. Don’t you think it’s mesmerizing?

2. Chosenji

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find information regarding this temple in the internet. My daughter was the one who told me about this place since it’s near the city’s biggest track and field stadium where her school trains and holds competitions. I may need to ask the monk who is in charge of this temple to know more.

I’ve copied and pasted the kanji characters in Google search but even in Japanese language, there were only very few search results that were relevant enough.

Chosenji is only about 10 minutes by car/taxi from the main station. It’s a little too far to walk, especially when it’s so hot in the summer or when the roads are dangerous in winter. I recommend visiting if you have your own car or else hire a taxi from the station.

3. Mitamafudoson Shrine

This is by far, my favorite among the shrines and temple I’ve visited. The entrance is not that eye catching, however, don’t be deceived. Walk through the shrine gate “torii” – if you love nature, serenity, culture and old traditional buildings, this one hits all the marks.


As soon as passed the shrine gate, we could hear the sound of water. Rushing water. Turbulent sound of water. And then I saw this waterfalls at the side of the shrine!

This is the part where I share a bit of myself. I get really emotional (and OA) seeing things like this. I just stood there, taking it all in. I mean, as if all these green wasn’t enough, there’s a freaking waterfall in the middle of it all! Having lived in the desert (Dubai) for 11 years, things like this make me hyperventilate!

It was getting cold, which was a very happy respite from the recent heat wave that’s going on in Japan this summer. It made me want to build a house right beside this. Can you imagine hearing the sound of water every minute of your waking life?

There’s a spring water that’s said to make you live longer if you drink from it. If you’re reading this and plan to go soon, bring a water bottle! Or else, there’s a nearby shop that give out empty plastic bottles for free so people can get water from here and bring it home or drink it while they hike. The water is free flowing anyway, so why not not share it, right? Very nice.

We climbed up a flight of stairs to see the second temple. Look at ALL. THAT. MOSS.

Just like the other temples and shrines that we’ve visited here, there isn’t much information about Mitama Fudoson in the internet.

These are just a scratch on the surface with regards to the number of shrines and temples in Tokamachi or Echigo-Tsumari region.

There are big ones and then there are many, many random small ones, too. Some can be found randomly in weird places even, like on top of mountains, in the middle of forests, etc.


The best, best thing about visiting these shrines and temples in our hometown? We had them to ourselves!

Mostly, or in our case, we were the only ones there. There wasn’t a single soul even if we were there on a weekend. Why? Because these places aren’t worth visiting? Surely, you don’t think so, right?

The reason why there are no tourists is that many people who visit Japan go to the popular places first. The shrines and temples in Kyoto, Nara or Nikko. Those are worth your travel dollars, yes, but when you’re done with those places, I hope you find the time to leave the well-worn tourist tracks and see a quieter Japan. And take pictures where there are no five hundred sixty two tourists behind you!


I’m available for a few dates from mid-September onwards, till the winter snow starts to accompany travelers who want to experience the beauty and serenity of Japanese shrines and temples for yourself. (And see the lovely countryside along the way). Drop me an email if that’s something you would like to do!

Sand dunes, in Japan?


Oh, in case you’re new here and/or not following me on social media, especially on Instagram, we’ve moved to Japan. It’s been a month since I started sleep talking in Nihongo again. And if you ask me how we’re all doing, thank you, we’re all doing fine (except that – my daughter claims that I have started snoring frequently something that I didn’t do in Dubai…)

We were in Tottori prefecture for ten days last January.

When we decided to leave Dubai and settle in Japan, my husband’s birth place and the place where I spent 10 years before we moved to Dubai in January 2007, we brainstormed where to live and work within Japan. Can we handle densely populated Tokyo where life happens in fast forward or would we be happy in the countryside? The range of choices for place to settle was varied and then there was Tottori prefecture.

Tottori. WHERE THE HECK IS THAT? I bet not many of you have heard of such place.

Tottori is located in the southern part of Japan, along the coast of Sea of Japan. The nearest international airport is Kansai International Airport in Osaka. From Osaka, it’s about 2 hours by bus or car.


Everyone gives me a blank stare when I say we plan to move to Tottori and quickly ask, why? First let me say – people, there’s more to Japan than just Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto. 🙂

There was a job opportunity for me at Tottori and the city government had a program called “Ijuu taiken” (trial residence) where you can rent a fully furnished house for a maximum of 30 days (based on the availability) for only 1,200 yen per day, including water, electricity and on winter, kerosene for the heaters. That’s merely US$11 or about AED40 per day for a full house furnished with the basic things to function.

house in tottori coll

furnished house

I think it’s a really great program because after all, you’ll never know how you’ll feel about the place and how it is to live there if you don’t try to live there. In those thirty days, the city government provides support with connecting you to employment agencies so you can find work in Tottori and eventually settle there. Why do they do all these?

Tottori prefecture is the least populated prefecture in Japan and they need more people.

To know more about trial residence in Tottori, please check out this link (only in Japanese language though): Trial residence in Tottori


Aside from the possibility of work for me, there is plenty of nature in Tottori. There was a lake just beside the house we stayed. I love that the kids are closer to nature, which was one of the reasons we left Dubai. The house provided for us was located outside of the city proper. It was such a stark contrast from the big city of Dubai. There are no skyscrapers nor bright lights and we loved it.

snow in tottori

lake in tottori 2


ben nature 1
ben nature 2

It was also near to the famous landmark in Tottori, the Tottori sand dunes. We can walk up to the lift station and cross to the sand dunes. Benjamin was so thrilled of all of these new experiences! (Pristine joined a local school so she wasn’t in most of our pictures except if it’s a weekend)


Unfortunately, the possibility of residing and settling in Tottori did not work well with us – this is something you can’t know till you actually live in a place. I am glad and thankful about the trial residence program, it helped us decide things better but mostly, we can’t avail of the national health insurance if we don’t have a permanent place to live and then of course, we can’t commit to rent an apartment if we didn’t have jobs…the job would come eventually but that would take a bit of time, minimum of a month maybe to settle? With kids in tow, we cannot risk not being covered by the national health insurance, especially snow season has started. What if they slip? Or catch a cold or something worse?

Also, I know this sounds strange but I feel something was missing in Tottori. It was a beautiful place and the house we stayed temporarily was near to the sea (my happy place) and there was a lake too. But walking around, I can’t imagine myself living there for a long time.

grace by the sea

lake in tottori

maki and b by the sea

And…then there’s the famous and only sand dunes in Japan!

To be honest, I wanted our move to Tottori to work for a bit of a selfish reason: there a desert there or specifically, sand dunes. The largest in area in all of Japan.

Imagine if we lived here, I then wouldn’t have to change the name of my blog!

ben at the desert


Since we were already there, we wanted to check out the Tottori Sand Dunes and without a car, we’re lucky the house we temporarily lived was near to it.

sand dunes 1

sand dunes 4

It snowed the day before so there’s a layer of snow above the sand, to the delight of the tourists (including my kids).

sand dunes 2

There was a huge and steep hill that Benjamin and Pristine really wanted to climb. It must be the main attraction in the sand dunes area as all of the people did climb. So I had to, if I didn’t like to! However, the view at the top was well worth the sweat! (Please tell me I’m not the only one sweating in winter!)

sand dunes 3

sea of japan glimpse 4

sea of japan glimpse 5

This is the Sea of Japan. The body of water on the other side of Japan, in the Kanto region (Tokyo, etc) is the Pacific Ocean. Places along the coast of the Sea of Japan are know to have really heavy snow fall during winter and Tottori isn’t an exemption.

We left Tottori heading to Niigata prefecture, my husband’s hometown. It was a long travel by bus (!). Tottori to Osaka was 2 hours and then we got on night bus leaving Osaka at 8 pm and arriving in Niigata at 6am the next day!

I would love to visit Tottori again, when it’s warmer season and discover so many off the beaten tracks there. There’s definitely many things to discover. I found this on YouTube:

Our time in Tottori was memorable because it was like a relief from the chaotic move from Dubai to Japan. Now, we are settled in our new ‘home’, with my husband’s folks. I’ll write more about our new life here but do check out my account on Instagram as I post updates there more frequently!

Swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu

manila airport 1

This year, I took the kids again to the Philippines so they can spend the rest of their summer vacation (2 months!) after our 10 days vacation in Japan. We started to let them stay with my parents starting from last year because they’re better off there than being cooped up indoors in Dubai during the hottest time of the year.

benja airplane

approaching cdo 2
approaching cdo 1

My home town is an hour and a half airplane ride south of the capital Manila. Like I always, do, the kids always look forward to see the beautiful sight outside as the plane approaches Mindanao island.

I was to stay for only ten days before I needed to go back to Dubai so I wanted to take the kids for a small adventure: we go to Cebu island by sea transportation and see the whale sharks in Oslob!


The town of Oslob is located 120 kilometers south of Cebu City, in Cebu island, central Philippines. It is said that the residents of this coastal town started seeing whale sharks around 2012.

I have a long time friend who lives in Cebu so it was a perfect way to meet her again and for our kids to finally meet. This is my friend, through time and distance and weight fluctuations, we never lost touch and have been friends since we were 13!

with divina


Oslob can be reached via domestic flights to Cebu or Dumaguete (from Manila) and then from Cebu City, which was our base, Oslob is at least three hours by car.

TIP: Leave Cebu City as early as possible to avoid the rush of tourists at Oslob. Aim to leave at 4am so you can reach just before 8am.

We left past 5 am and reached Oslob before 9 am and it was already full of tourists and the moment we finished everything from payment to the brief seminar about the do’s and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks (DON’T GET TOO NEAR, MAINTAIN AT LEAST 4 FEET DISTANCE FROM THE WHALE SHARKS + NO SUNSCREEN LOTIONS), the sun was already high up and getting hot.

From the internet: Dumaguete/Sibulan port is closer to Oslob than Cebu City. It only takes a 30 minute boat ride from Sibulan port and then a Ceres bus ride or motorcycle ride to get to the whale shark watching area in Tan-awan town in Oslob.


ship in port
The kids and I got to Cebu City from Cagayan de Oro by sea transport – with a passenger ship leaving at 11 am and arriving Cebu City at nearly 8pm. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands so commercial ships are still a popular mode of transportation when crossing one island to another. I used to travel this way in the 90s, since there no budget airline that existed that time and airplane fares were really expensive.

Usually, trips from Cagayan de Oro to Cebu leave at night at 8pm and arrive in Cebu at just before sunrise. But I wanted the kids to see the sea and the islands we pass by as the ship cruises through so I picked a day trip.

aboard ship 1

This was on the deck of the ship, many people were outside just soaking in the warm sun and inhaling the lovely sea breeze.

aboard ship 2

aboard ship 3

More than the kids, I had so much fun on this boat ride because it brought back so many wonderful memories – like the time I went to Manila (it take 30 hours!) to take the scholarship examination for Japan. I remember looking out into the sea, alone in the deck early in the morning with these thoughts running through my mind, “Lord, your will be done. If you think I need to be in Japan, then be it. I’ll accept it with all my heart…in fact, let me go there, Lord!” 🙂


After a couple of days in Cebu, we set out to Oslob with my friend’s family. They have four kids and plus two of mine, their big car was full. I’m so happy her kids got along really well with my kids. Long car rides don’t matter much if you’re having fun.

After we paid the fees and finished listening to the briefing, we waited for more than one hour for our turn to get on the small, wooden boat. The boat left the shore and after just a few minutes, we were already in the deep end and finally near the whale sharks!

swimming with whale shark

Life vests are provided and mandatory while on the boat but you should remove it so you can dive with ease. Presenting: the overly enthusiastic kids who immediately removed their life vests without batting an eyelash and got in the water!


Pristine had been waiting for this moment for a long time! These photos were taken by our diver/guide using the action camera we rented (PHP500 and they transfer the files to your mobile afterwards).

swimming with whale sharks

swimming with whale shark

swimming with whale sharks

I am so proud of her!! I am so thankful the school she attended from Year 1 to 7 had a swimming pool because that’s where she learned how to swim and to be confident in the water.

Benjamin, though was in the water too, wasn’t able to swim underneath – I didn’t take off his arm floaters (there were no life vests small enough for him that was available). I felt he was too young to be submerged in the water long enough so the guide can take a photo of him. However, he was still able to see the whale sharks up close.

These pics were taken when they come up to feed.


whale shark in Oslob

whale shark in Oslob

Meanwhile, you can see that at this point, only the adults are left in the boat! LOL. Me, my friend Divina and her husband are all non-swimmers. It was nearly noon and getting really, really hot. I was so, so tempted to get in the water just to cool off!

swimming with whale shark

swimming with whale shark

I wasn’t able to bear the heat, I jumped in!! There was something wrong with the way I put on my life vest, it was trying to get into my head and I hated it but at least my body is cooler now.

Confession time. I am scared of the deep blue sea. Mostly, maybe because I don’t know how to tread when the water is too deep (shame). And next, I am scared of what lies beneath. I am cringing just by writing this post. Our diver/guide told me so many times that our limited time (30 minutes!) was running out and that I had to take off the life vest now so he can push me underwater and take a picture of me with the whale shark in the background. For, you know, BRAGGING RIGHTS.

Some pics of Pristine swimming around with my friend’s kids. These bunch earned some serious bragging rights at this young age.

After so much hard thinking about this very important life or death decision, I decided not to take off my life jacket because trust me, I know I’m going to sink faster than the Titanic to the bottom of the sea. The diver/guide who was with us assured me he will not allow me to drown and would save me, if ever but no, no, no!! My kids still need their mother so I was just there, floating and sighing, hearing my daughter shouting YOLO, mama! YOLO!! (YOLO = You Only Live Once)

Do I regret not removing my life jacket? Kind of. Don’t get me wrong, maybe 95% of me still say I did the right thing of choosing safe than sorry but 5% is whispering, what if.

The what if that I’m going to live with for the rest of my life.

That said, I am happy my kids are braver than me or rather, are able swimmers than me. Pristine had been wanting to do this since she was 8. And Benjamin, well, maybe next time when he is older.

swimming with whale shark

The whale sharks are beautiful and peaceful creatures and is an awe to watch and our experience watching them up close is definitely unforgettable.


1. Go early. Whale shark watching starts at 6 am to 12 noon only. Cut off is 1130 am. The earlier you are, the less crowd plus the water is clearer early in the morning.

2. Though the “whale watching fee” includes gear (snorkeling), it’s best to bring your own goggles.

3. Wear long sleeve rash guard/UV clothing as it gets really hot before you notice it. Sunburns are no fun! Also, sunscreen lotions are strictly NOT allowed so protect your skin.

4. The “whale watching” time is just 30-minutes  so if you can, jump as soon as your boatmen signal or you will waste/miss the chance.

5. The charge for whale shark swimming is PHP1,000 ($23) for a half hour session. Fess can be paid in cash only before the tour at Barangay Tan-awan Beach, Oslob so prepare cash.


Swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob was an incredible experience. You might have read somewhere though, that some environmentalist groups are against this activity due to injuries to the whale sharks by boat propellers but this is outdated info as the boats that were used were all trimarans with no motor/engine, only oars. Another controversial thing is the guides feed the sharks; the animals expect this now so it affects their usual routine and behavior. The feeding sessions make the whale sharks overly dependent on the handouts. But, the boom of this tourism activity is helping the local economy. The whale sharks contribute tremendously to Oslob’s income, helping to create much needed infrastructure, jobs, and opportunities for growth with neighboring municipalities. Nearly 300 staff work at the feeding site, under local government management, to safeguard the sea creatures.

It’s a difficult balance.

But, personally, I find that the government is working hard to protect these creatures as much as they can by strictly regulating the time when to feed and see the whales and conduct clear briefing on the do’s and don’ts. I’ll leave the decision to you whether you’d go for this or not.

I would say go but be a responsible tourist and follow the rules.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber: a Medieval gem you can visit now

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Photo credit

I love places that makes me feel I am in one of the pages of a fairy tale book. I love old German inner cities that I have only seen through books, magazines or travel blogs and Rothenburg ob der Tauber could be my favorite. The architecture is very well preserved, you can’t help but ask yourself whether time has stood still.

Rothenburg is named in part after its location on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is translated in English as:”Red fortress above the Tauber”.


Rothenburg ob der Tauber is situated in Bavaria, halfway between Frankfurt and Munich.


bayern ticketWe were based in Munich, coming from a direct 6 hour flight from Dubai. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is three and a half train ride away from Munich. It’s not near but heck, we were already there so better take this opportunity to visit!

The German railway offers several regional tickets to travel around the country on a budget. We got the Bayern ticket, this ticket is valid for as many journeys as you want in Bavarian region during its period of validity, regardless of the connection indicated. Children/grandchildren (any number) aged 14 and under can travel with you when you buy for one or two people. Discounts are available for up to four people travelling with you, paying only an additional 6 Euros per person. For example, 2 adults would pay only 31 Euros total.

I only paid 25 Euros, my kids aged 13 and 5 travelled for free.

From Mon-Fri, the Bayern ticket is valid from 09:00 to 03:00 of the following day; on Sat, Sun and public holidays, it is valid from midnight to 03:00 of the following day.

TIP: Check timetables and connections using the German public transport app, DB Navigator (Android, iOS).

We left Munich early and arrived three and a half hours later to Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s small train station around 11:30 am. To get to the charming medieval Old Town, we need to walk for about 10 minutes before arriving at this walled village, with thick walls at the entrance. We crossed the wall and this was our first glimpse of Rothenburg.

rothenburg 9

Now, this is not a theme park with cute houses built for entertainment. These are normal houses where normal people live. Most of the houses had been here for hundreds of years yet when you see these buildings, it seems that it has been untouched by time.

We headed to the Rothenburg Tourism office at Markplatz to take brochures and guides on how to navigate this small town.

rothenburg 2

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is only a day trip in our itinerary. After all, our main destination was Austria but we happen to just have chosen Munich as our landing airport and Rothenburg just happens to be in the same region as Munich and the picture perfect town is worth the long train ride.

rothenburg 1
p an b at rothenburg


We were in Germany on the last week of August when most of Europe is still enjoying the last days of summer. However, the day we were in Rothenburg (August 26), it seems that we have brought the Dubai heat with us. The mid day temps were high, it was actually so hot! Still, it was beautiful and fascinating to wander around. From the half timbered houses, to the uneven cobbled stone streets, to the ancient walls that surround this city, there is so much to explore.

I can imagine how beautiful this town will be during winter especially on Christmas time.

So in short, I believe this place is beautiful any time of the year!

us in rothenburg 2
us in rothenburg 1

rothenburg 6

The views around the town are tremendous, from the main square, to the towers to the alleys. We were only there a day, but would have loved another!!


Upon the suggestion of the Rothenburg ob der Tauber tourism office, I gathered all the courage to climb up the 65 meter city tower. I have climbed towers and love the views from the top. This tower though is perhaps the most interesting and most treacherous so far! The kids seem to be enthusiastic about it, in fact, I didn’t want to but they insisted! We entered a wide spiral staircase in the Rathaus, just off of the main square. Soon the stairs start to get narrower and steeper. By the time we arrived at the last stairs it’s shocking to see that it is less like stairs and more like a ladder. The inclination is almost 90 degrees!

city tower 3

city tower 2
city tower 1

The viewing platform at the top can only hold only a few visitors at a time. Benjamin was delighted to be at the top but Pristine was scared. She actually froze and cried. Me? I don’t like heights but I had to take pictures.

rothenburg 7

THE PLONLEIN (“Little Square”)

One of the most famous postcard images from Rothenburg ob der Tauber is definitely the Plonlein. A narrow half-timbered building with a small fountain in front, it is framed by the Kobolzeller tower and the higher Siebers Tower, with lovingly restored townhouses to the right and left, creating a charmingly picturesque effect.

plonlein 1

The Plonlein Rothenburg ob der Tauber

You can say that people who come to Rothenburg come here to take pictures at this very spot. It’s the place that I had specifically searched out because I have seen so many photographs of it and wanted to capture one of my own.

By the way, can you imagine Belle from Beauty and the Beast coming out from one of these houses and belting out the song Provincial Life?


rothenburg 5

We were at Rothenburg for a day trip from Munich and calculating the total of seven hours train journey to and fro, we were at Rothenburg for only four hours tops. It was enough to see the major streets and sights (the ploinlein!) but if I had to do it all over again, I would choose from the list of charming hotels or inns at Rothenburg and I would gladly spend a night or two so I could explore it more/travel slower.

Rothenburg Tourism suggests Hotel Rappen, a hotel located right before you enter the gates to the town. We had lunch at the restaurant’s beer garden and can’t forget the delicious bratwurts, spinach & cheese pancake and of course, German beer that we had!

Now, I have this uncurable addiction of scrolling through booking sites to see prospective hotels and I’d probably choose Romantik Hotel Markusturm or Hotel Reichs Kuchenmeister next time. I see there will definitely be a next time!

rothenburg 8

We loved, loved, loved our time at Rothenburg ob der Tauber – old, classic, historic, clean, quaint, just lovely. I loved feeling like I had been transported to another time and place, so different than my life back home.

It is definitely worth a stop if you’re in Bavaria region because nowhere else will you find such a wealth of original buildings dating from the Middle Ages. We just roamed around the cobblestone streets, visited the Christmas store (it’s surreal to see vast collections of Christmas decorations in August), checked the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments (!), climbed the city tower, and peeked through windows of souvenir shops.

torture museum 1
torture museum 2
I saw my favorite chocolate shop!

lindt store

Though it could get touristy at peak times during the day when the tour busses arrive, it’s just so lovely to wander around and walk around the wall and the main square is picture perfect. There are lots of lovely little shops, bakeries and restaurants and the atmosphere of this place is just wonderful.

I am glad we went, thankful both my kids weren’t bothered with the long train ride. As for me, I am so happy to be able to fulfil one of my travel dreams with them at my side.

Lastly, there are several “Rothenburgs” in Germany. Make sure you are going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber as it seems that people really do sometimes drive or ride the train to other, nondescript Rothenburgs by accident.

Do you like charming little towns? Which one is your favorite?

The Sound of Music tour in Salzburg

sound of music tour

I have visited the Austrian city of Salzburg in 2015 and since it was a very short visit (I only spent 24 hours in Salzburg), I know I had to go back, with the kids one day. Salzburg – I can’t say this word without the songs and hymns of the movie The Sound of Music playing in my mind. Though you must know that there’s more to Salzburg than the classic movie that was set there in the 1960’s (yes, that sounds ancient but I like ancient movies) the whole reason of visiting Salzburg with the kids for me was mainly, The Sound of Music tour.


salzburg station

If I remember correctly, I chanced upon the movie when I was a teenager and instantly fell in love with it. I mean, who won’t? It’s a clean, entertaining movie that has no boring moments. Plus, hello pretty Austria as the location!

When my kids turned 2 years old, I took out a heirloom from my precious trove of trinkets – the Sound of Music DVD that I had for more so many years and played it for them to watch. Pristine was ready when she was two and she watched through the whole movie with the same enthusiasm from start to finish. Benjamin wasn’t ready at two, and he watched it when he was 3 and a half years old.

Yes – the first movie that my children ever watched was this musical. It is two hours and 54 minutes long.

It has since been played at my house at regular times again and again and again. We never get tired of it.

When our trip to Austria was finalized, there was no way we couldn’t squeeze this tour in our itinerary!

We were based in Innsbruck while we were in Austria and Salzburg is a good hour and a half train ride away. We left Innsbruck in the morning and arrived at our accommodation in Salzburg just before lunch time, checked in at Motel One Mirabell and headed towards the meeting place at Mirabell Gardens (it’s a 10 minute walk).

It was raining in Salzburg that time. Summer I guess was slowly fading away. It was difficult for my 5 year old son to understand the concept of wet weather, especially those rains that last for hours and hours on end. After all, he was born in the UAE and had been living here all his life, where the sun shines on the average of 330 days out of 365.

FIRST STOP: Leopoldskron


The bus was full with Sound of Music fans from all over the world. Despite the bad weather (the rain didn’t look like it was stopping) everyone was keen to see where the movie was shot. Our first stop was just a few minutes outside Salzburg’s Old Town – Leopoldskron. This was the world-famous former family seat of one of the prince-archbishops as well as an original shooting location from the movie “The Sound of Music” as the von Trapp family residence.

You can actually stay at Leopoldskron Palace and feel like you’re in a movie because this place has been converted into a hotel, thus the main reason tour groups weren’t allowed in the premises so we only get to see this across this lake.

THAT 16 going on 17 GAZEBO


We didn’t spend much time looking at Leopoldskron from afar and we got on the bus again to Hellbrunn Palace. We passed by that yellow building called Schloss Frohnberg that was used for th exterior shots of the Trapp villa. This was where Maria first entered the gate singing I have confidence as she reports to the family to serve as a nanny.

The path outside, which Maria skips down when she first arrives, is pedestrian only so we weren’t allowed to visit, but we did drive past it on the main road. I can only imagine walking through the lines of trees there or riding a bike!

One of the highlights of this tour (for me and my daughter!) was to see the white gazebo where Rolf and Liesl dance and sing Sixteen going on Seventeen. Originally, the gazebo was at the Leopoldskron grounds but it had to be moved to Hellbrunn Palace ground for better safekeeping.

gazebo 1
gazebo 3

GAH. It was so beautiful I could cry. I actually shed a tear or two, especially when I read the tribute to the late actress Charmian Carr who passed away in 2016. She played Liesl, the older of the seven von Trapp children in the movie.

gazebo 2

Unfortunately tourists are not allowed inside because of safety concerns – the tour guide said a middle aged woman has broken her hip trying to imitate the dancing and skipping around the benches inside so they had to lock this gazebo. I don’t know how true!


salzkammergut 1

Now, we were off for a longer journey to the lakes and mountains region. Austria’s Salzkammergut area (Lake District), with a total of 76 lakes, is one of the most impressive regions in the heart of Austria.

We only passed by the abbey where the nuns and the real Maria von Trapp lived. I am not sure why were didn’t stop there. The Sound of Music movie soundtrack was played to keep us entertained during the long ride and people sang along. It felt so wonderful to be able to take a trip down memory lane to the movie, while listening and singing to the well loved songs and looking outside at the beautiful country side.


salzkammergut 2
gloomy 2

We headed up into the mountains surrounding Salzburg, giving us a gorgeous view over the entire city, and drove upwards through the Austrian countryside, past the most beautiful lakeside villages against that mountainous backdrop. It had been raining non-stop but the views were still beautiful.

The Wedding Chapel

We arrive at Mondsee, a cute little town with colorful restaurants and shops and probably the most popular spot – St. Michael’s Church, where the wedding scene was filmed. Buses were prohibited from driving into the town so we had to get down and transfer to this chug train like vehicle, to the joy of my son.

mondsee church 5

Here, we were given 30 minutes (?) to see around and shop or try the recommended apfel strudel from the nearby cafe.

mondsee church 1

mondsee church 3

The kids and I opted out the cafe business and went straight to church. Just like me, they have this fascination with churches in Europe, because…we don’t see these in the UAE, of course!

mondsee church 2

Do-re-mi time

mirabell 2

We were taken back to Salzburg and dropped near Mirabell Gardens. We were hungry after the 4 hour tour that lasted from 2pm to 6pm. We had early dinner first and even if it was still drizzling, I couldn’t let the chance go by without seeing Mirabell Gardens. There is that hedge tunnel where Maria and the children run through.

mirabell 1

At Mirabell Garden there is the hedge “tunnel” that Maria and the children run through. There is the pond and fountain they dance around and also the set of steps where they sing the finale of “Do-re-mi.”

mirabell 5
mirabell 6


Panorama tours bus

Short answer, yes. Especially for Sound of Music movie fans.

For those otherwise, my answer would still be YES. It’s a beautiful way to spend half day in Salzburg and driving through the lakes district. Despite the weather not in our favor, we had a magical day. The scenery on the way out to Mondsee (where the wedding church is located) is breathtaking, and singling along to the movie’s soundtrack with fans from around the world will warm your heart. We were in a big party and our tour guide was brilliant. His narration was very informative peppered with anecdotes and jokes. Also he gave a narrative about the original book.

Panorama tours conduct the Sound of Music tour, dubbed as “the original”. The tour promises to “follow the traces of the Trapp family and take a tour through Salzburg and its surroundings and visit all of the original film settings.”

A few notes before you buy the tour (because they’re not cheap at 42 euros for adults.)

As someone who has experienced it, I’m going to share what you need to know before you go.

It’s important to understand going into this tour what you will see, and perhaps more importantly, what you won’t. Note that many of the film’s most iconic scenes like the gazebo dance scene and the graveyard were filmed in Hollywood, not in Salzburg. In addition, you won’t be able to get very close to some of the filming locations you will visit. For example, you will only see Leopoldskron which were used for the back of the family’s home from cross the lake. The abbey (I was hoping to see the square where the nuns were singing How do you solve a problem like Maria). Similarly, the gazebo cannot be entered, but you can take pictures outside of it. There were several people on my tour who weren’t aware of some of these restrictions ahead of time (me included) and may have been slightly disappointed.

With all of that said, now you know more than I did before I went with the tour so you can manage your expectations better and will have an absolutely magical time.

So, if you’re a big Sound of Music fan, this tour will become one of your favorite things. And if you have kids who love the movie, you may want to take them before they become 16 going on 17 (when they’d probably think it’s too cheesy!).

Have you seen the Sound of Music movie?

Dealing with food allergies while eating out or travelling

b with shinkansen bento

My son Benjamin (6 years old next month) is allergic to all tree nuts – almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachio, cashew, etc. We’ve had accidental ingestion in the past where he ended up in the emergency so we are very careful with his food but alas, sometimes even I fail.

The last incident was a year and a half ago when we were dining in a dimly lit restaurant and the staff served brown bread, not informing us that it was actually walnut bread. I didn’t check as well because I avoid eating bread and normally Benjamin doesn’t eat bread that much but that night, he did and boom.

We’ve survived a year and half without any allergy related incident after that, we even travelled and stayed at four different countries without any awful surprises.


Whenever we eat out, we always stick to Japanese food – mostly because that’s what we like and prefer and because Japanese dishes are not too complicated. You’ll have plain rice, miso soup with some tofu or vegetables/seaweeds and a grilled fish or meats with vegetables. Sauces mostly consist of only soy sauce, some mirin. We have a Japanese restaurant we always frequent every weekend at lunch and not once he had some sort of allergic reaction to the dishes we’ve ordered so far for him.

However, this week, we wanted to try a new Japanese restaurant.

Benjamin said he wanted to eat ramen so we ordered that and he was looking forward to it with gusto. Japanese restaurants usually serve small appetizers at the start and the waitress brought in what seemed like harmless tofu with some miso paste on top. Benjamin took a spoonful and I did too. I realized that it’s a different kind of tofu – it’s goma tofu (tofu mixed with sesame).

A few minutes later, Benjamin fell ill. He is fighting through it telling me he is just tired (from his earlier swimming lessons) and that he is also sleepy. He leaned on me with teary eyes, asked for hot tea and water. I suspected something was not right and gave him Aerius, an anti-histamine that I always carry in my bag wherever we go. Two minutes later, he laid down and started to sneeze. His bowl of ramen came but he was surprisingly disinterested, though saying earlier that he was hungry.

A few seconds later, he gagged and my daughter was quick to carry him out to the restaurant, to the nearest toilet. I followed behind them.

We didn’t reach the toilet.

He projectile vomited just a few steps away, to the shock of the manager at the reception desk at the restaurant’s entrance. At the toilet, his small body was lurching forward, throwing up all the things his body considers as poison. When the vomiting stopped, nasal congestion set in and he wasn’t able to breathe from his nose.

While comforting him, I managed to do a Google searched about sesame seed allergy. And voila – it seems that people who are allergic to tree nuts could also be allergic to seeds. Who knew. It was my first time to learn about it, and we had to find out in a very scary and messy way.

Ambulance was called just to make sure his blood pressure and oxygen levels were not dropping. Thankfully, his vitals were stable and save for the nasal congestion and watery eyes, he was fine. He was tired from all the vomiting though so we stayed a bit.


Now you may ask, with my love for taking the kids to travel with me, am I not discouraged to go out at all? Was there a time I didn’t want to travel because of Benjamin?

I admit, I get anxious whenever I take him out long enough for us to eat outside during meal times i.e., travelling to another place, including plane rides. However, I don’t want this anxiety to take over me, restricting my son of going out and seeing the beautiful world outside.

We just have to accept and deal with this health matter and do whatever we can. We do not want this ‘disability’ to overwhelm us and keep him inside all the time, after all, Benjamin LOVES travelling – he loves planes and airports and now I just found out from our recent trip, hiking in the mountains!

b in Austria

b hiking in austria 1
p and b hiking in Austria 2

His allergic reactions so far had been rashes/hives, nasal congestion and vomiting. No anaphylactic reaction so far (thank GOD!!). It’s not life threatening now and hope it stays that way. But still we take precautions whenever we are out and about.


1. Stay at accommodations with a kitchen, fridge or microwave, as much as you can.

It would be easier and safer to cook if the allergies are more complicated. When we were in Japan, we stayed in an Airbnb rather than a hotel so we make some our meals there especially breakfast. It does require some additional work, but I had piece of mind knowing my child is safe. Another bonus is that it’s very cost-effective.

2. Find a local grocery store.

After you have reached your destination, the first stop you need to make is the grocery store in order to stock up on safe foods for your child.

3. Research area restaurants.

There is nothing worse than getting to a restaurant with your hungry brood and finding out you can’t eat there.

4. When eating out especially in a new restaurant or in another country away from home, always ask what is in the menu.

5. Always order the simplest dish as possible.

No complicated sauces. When we were in Germany and Austria I just ordered sausages and french fries – I know, I know, not the healthiest options but when it comes down to food, I’d rather opt for a bit unhealthy but safe rather than healthy but unsafe or with questionable ingredients.

6. Pack safe foods.

For road trips, it’s more convenient to pack safe foods for your child with allergies rather than be wary what to give him during drive breaks. For airline meals – For people with food allergies, airline meals pose a particular risk. Many airlines will organise a special meal according to individual requirements, so mention it during booking and when they serve, check again.

7. Take note of emergency numbers at the destination and save it your phone.

8. Always pack allergy medication wherever you go.

To avoid problems at airport security, pack the medication in safe ziplocs and bring prescription, if available.

9. Don’t expect the general public to understand.

THIS. There’s so much stigma around food allergies that some people shrug it off as “disease of the rich kids” or “just an excuse for picky eaters”. Unbelievable because many people actually die of food allergies every year all over the world.

10. Despite all of the (minor) discomfort, ENJOY YOUR VACATION.

Food allergies don’t have to rule your vacation, but you do need to pay attention. With a little preparation, you and your family can enjoy your family time together in a fun and safe environment.

Ben in Niigata 1

Our travel experiences with Benjamin have been very positive so far. We understand the nature of his allergies and make careful choices based on this information. So far, Benjamin (6 years old next month) had been to Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Prague, Germany and Austria. Travelling with a child who has food allergies requires some extra planning, but the rewards of seeing him with sparkle in his eyes at each new place or new experience is well worth it.

Do you have a child/children with food allergies? How does this affect your travels?

Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum – is it worth it?

tonkotsu ramen image

One of the “must do” things to do on our trip to Japan was to EAT. And oh boy, our list was long! There’s simple eats at the convenient stores to that special soba in Niigata (my husband’s hometown), summer sweets, curry rice, gyoza and of course, RAMEN! My kids are crazy with ramen which is quite understandable because their parents bonded really well during ramen dates years ago.

While Googling to create itinerary for our short stay in Tokyo, I came across the words: Shin Yokohama RAMEN MUSEUM. For a die hard ramen afficionado, including that in the Japan itinerary is a done deal.

The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (spelled “Raumen” on the building’s facade) was founded in 1994 as the world’s first food-themed amusement park.

How to get there

The JR Yokohama line is the only way to get to Shin Yokohama station directly from Tokyo. You can also get here via Shinkansen, if you happen to be in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya or other places on the Tokaido line. The ramen museum is only a 10 minutes walk from Shin Yokohama station.

ramen museum shop

The museum spreads to three floors with the ground floor a store then basement 1 and 2. There is a small museum section with the history of ramen and such on the ground floor, plus the official museum shop. You can purchase ramen sets to go here.

A walk down a few flights transports you to 1958 Japan – the era when the first instant ramen was introduced to the Japanese market. The place is complete with cramped alleyways, old neon signs and vintage Japanese movie posters. It’s a delightful treat and a huge contrast to the modern scene outside.

ramen museum 5

ramen museum 1

ramen museum 2

ramen museum 3

Entering the museum was like entering time machine that brought us back to the Japan’s good old days in 1958. There’s a bar at the center, surrounded by ramen shops.

ramen museum 4

We met a policeman from the past, wearing old uniform popular during those days. It’s a very strange yet fascinating feeling.
policeman retro

And after appreciating the trip back in time, we went on to decide which ramen we’d like to eat!

Ramen varies by region in Japan, and there are at least 30 distinctive types hailing from various regions. There are nine ramen shops at the ramen museum from SapporoTokyo, Hakata, Kumamoto and other local areas, and each of them serves their own flavor of ramen such as soy sauce, miso, pork bone broth (tonkotsu) – my favorite.

Each restaurant has a vending machine outside. This is where you order. Deposit your yen, select your meal, grab your tickets (one for each item you order) and give them to your host. The machines are entirely in Japanese but they do have laminated menus in other languages including English.

tonkotsu ramen

kumamoto ramen shop
buying ramen

At 1,100 yen for a bowl of ramen, I thought it was expensive but also realized, you’re just not paying solely for the ramen but the ambiance while eating the ramen. Okay, you already paid 310 yen for the entrance but then again, I still feel it was worth it in the end when I see how my kids loved every nook and corner of ‘old Japan’. It got me in a very natsukashii mood.

retro street 2

retro street 4
retro street 3

retro street 1

Is it worth a visit?

Being transported to an old Japanese village brought the magic for us at the Ramen Museum. And to explore every nook and cranny was such a joy. Despite some reviews at Tripadvisor saying it’s not worth your time and you can actually have all sorts of ramen anywhere in Tokyo anyway (true) but the quirkiness of the place actually appealed to us. This place is not exactly a museum in my opinion, but more of offers a sample of ramen variety.

If you’re coming to Yokohama for the day, I would suggest combining a trip to the museum and then a sidetrip to the very real and vibrant Chinatown and Motomachi area in Yokohama.

Visiting the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka

Meeting totoro

Have you seen any Ghibli movies? You must have heard or watched some of it but never realized it’s a “Ghibli” (pronounced, “jiburi” in Japanese) – Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. The delightful animated films of Studio Ghibli are full of magic and fairytales.  They can be very simple, dark, fantastical, melancholy, ecstatic, endearing, and wondrous.  My then boyfriend (now husband) first introduced me to the Ghibli universe while we were in college and gave me a DVD of his favorite Ghibli movie, telling me, “watch it, I promise you will like it.”

I instantly became a Ghibli fan and from then, I set about absorbing every other Ghibli film I came across.

I first visited the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka in 2013 and was delighted. I know I had to go back!

The museum is relatively small and you can finish your “tour” in just a couple of hours and not miss anything. It’s more like a day theme park than a “museum” per se. We really enjoyed the interactive displays and the fun artwork as well as the sections in the museum that showcase how the artwork goes from concept to screen. The amount of work involved is tremendous. However, the important part is how magical Hayao Miyazaki has made it. It shows the development process of animation and the the thought process of Miyazaki and his team. The displays of original artwork from the films are truly stunning!

The park is really child friendly, and there are lots of nooks and crannies that children can explore.


Mitaka eki

ticket machine

There are two options to reach the museum from Mitaka station via JR East (20-30 minutes from Shinjuku station, depending on whether you get on a local or express train): on foot and by public transport (bus).

If you choose to go on foot, take the south exit of Mitaka station and turn left and walk along Tamagawa Josui. The museum can be reached in about 15 minutes.

I think the more popular option is to take the bus. The bus service is offered between the south exit of Mitaka Station and the museum. The ride takes about ten minutes. You should take either a loop bus which departs Mitaka Station, travels to the Ghibli museum and back to Mitaka station (yellow bus in the above pic) or a bus towards Myojogakuen via the Ghibli museum.

A one-way fare is 210 yen for adults and 110 yen for children. You can buy a round ticket with a ticket machine located near the bus terminal or at a bus information center; these cost 320 yen for adults and 160 yen for children.

** It is very important to come before your designated entrance time printed on the ticket. If you are late for more than 30 minutes, your tickets will be forfeited and you will not be admitted to the museum.


As much as the topmost photo looks like the main entrance, with a giant fluffy Totoro in the box, this is not the main entrance. This is the main entrance.

ghibli 1

ghibli 2

The kids are so happy to be here. I actually didn’t tell them we’d be going because I almost didn’t get the tickets, not for the reason that they’re expensive (they’re not!) but the tickets sell really fast. There’s a sale period and it is a challenge to buy the tickets from overseas, firstly, because of the time zone (Japan is 5 hours ahead).

Example, tickets for the month of June are sold from May 10 onwards only and they sell like hotcakes! I actually almost forgot it was already May 10th until a friend reminded me while I was at work! It was already May 10, 11 am in Dubai so it is already 4 pm in Japan! The sale link had been opened for 16 hours already. Result – most of the dates and times for June are already sold out, including our first preferred date and time. Thankfully, we have another day in Tokyo available but at the entrance time available is only for 4 pm, instead of the 10 am morning schedule we wanted.

Anyways, I got the tickets. The next two days when I checked again just out of curiousity, all the dates and times were sold out so if you are planning to go, do plan ahead and set your alarm!


The museum is a must visit for Ghibli fans but unfortunately, I can’t show you any photos of the inside of the museum, since it has a strict no-photos allowed policy. It’s sad as I would really like to have had a record of how it looked.  There are winding staircases, little nooks that only children can fit through, comfy wing-backed chairs and plenty of small touches here and there that make the museum a beautiful work of art.

Their reasoning for this is written in Japanese that translates,

The Ghibli Museum is a portal to a storybook world. As the main character in a story, we ask that you experience the Museum space with your own eyes and senses, instead of through a camera’s viewfinder. We ask that you make what you experienced in the Museum the special memory that you take home with you.

I have photos however, taken outside the building, in the gardens. Do you recognize this character from the movie, A Castle in the Sky?
robot 2

robot 3
robot 1

(It’s such a pity we have a very blurred picture taken by a stranger…)

There is a small cafe and ice cream shop outside of the main building. From the robot area, we went to the cafe. It was allowed to take photos there so here’s some.

p and b 2
p 1

p and b 1

The kids are overwhelmed by the abundance of nature around – the museum is located within a park, after all.

pristine 1

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ghibli 4
ghibli 7

Another area where you can take photos…this square from one of the scenes in the anime.

ghibli 8


  1. Tickets MUST be purchased in advance. >How to buy tickets outside Japan >How to buy tickets in Japan (CAUTION: I’ve read that some sites sell tickets with a ridiculous “service fee”, beware of them. It’s pretty straightforward to buy the tickets even if you’re outside of Japan – just follow the links from the main website and remember, on the 10th of the month before you go! Example, you want to go in June, buy on 10th May.)
  2. You must not come later than the designated time printed in the ticket.
  3. No cameras allowed inside.
  4. There are no English translations (but don’t worry, the pictures are still worth seeing)
  5. Bring a print out of the confirmation plus your passport in order to enter the museum.


p and b 3

Website: Ghibli Museum in Mitaka
Address:  Tokyo, Mitaka, Shimorenjaku 1-1-83 (located at the west garden of Inokashira Park)
Hours: Museum 10:00 – 18:00, Café Mugiwaraboshi 11:00 – 19:00 (last entry: 18:00)
Closed: Tuesday and may be closed for periodic maintenance work
Wi-Fi: Unavailable
Nearest Station: Mitaka Station of the JR Chuo Line
Access: 15 minute walk from the South Exit of Mitaka Station; Community bus service from the Mitaka station (charged)
Ticket Prices: Adults/university students 1000 yen, Middle/high school students 700 yen, Children aged 4 and up 100 yen *Tickets must be obtained in advance

Should I go?

Is the Ghibli Museum worth a visit? If you are a Ghibli fan, absolutely! Though I think even if you’re not specifically a Ghibli fan, the creative process of animation will amaze and entertain you. If you have children, I think this museum is a must too. Our visit to Ghibli Museum was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Tokyo.

Our trip to Japan, summer 2017

in ikebukuro 2

It’s currently summer vacation for all of the kids in the UAE.  It’s actually over a month already since most of the schools have closed for the school year 2017. Since classes will start on September 10, that’s about 12 weeks long of holidays!

Japan 2013

When I planned where to take the kids in summer and though our family budget is tight, I couldn’t let them just stay at home for 12 long weeks and wait for the weekends for me to take them outside. I work full time so yeah, I can only take them out on weekends because this mom is lazy to take out people and drive after work, except maybe for groceries.

The peak of UAE’s summer is these months of June-September so playing outside isn’t really an option. This is actually the challenge for families staying in the country during these months. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of entertainment options, indoors usually inside a mall but if given a choice, I would love the kids to be outside than in the malls.

Anyway, I managed to find fairly inexpensive airfare for the three of us from Dubai-Narita via Singapore on Singapore Airlines last March. It’s been four years since our last visit to Japan and it got me really excited!

The last time we traveled to Japan, Benjamin was less than two years old. Pristine was nine. This was them when we landed in Narita in 2013.

And this was them in the same spot in 2017!

p and b in japan again

I couldn’t remember their original pose but know that Pristine was carrying her little brother so we tried to replicate the shot. What difference four years make!

We took Singapore Airways and I don’t know, I felt our flight was really long this time. Seven hours from Dubai to Singapore, a couple of hours layover at the wonderful Changi Airport (probably my favorite airport in the whole world, after Dubai International) and again another seven hours from Singapore to Narita.

stormy narita

The kids were really great during the flight, as they’ve always been. No fuss even with the disturbing turbulence as we approached Narita. The captain announced bad weather and we’d have a bumpy ride. There were many kids on the flight and I heard a few vomiting sounds…I was scared Benjamin, who is prone to motion sickness would follow too but thankfully, he didn’t!


The first thing we did when we got out security? Go attack the first convenience store (kombini in Japanese colloquial) inside the airport! It was a small store but it already got our spirits high!

combini 2
combini 3

combini 1

Who buys 2,000/3,000 yen worth of stuff from convenience stores?! Us, obviously. We have a love affair with with Japan’s kombini. Located on every block in urban areas, the Japanese convenience store is much more than a ubiquitous repository of junk food. Konbini food, believe it or not, is actually pretty decent. They’re more than the microwavable chimichangas you’ll find in other country’s convenience stores, konbini food is delicious and always kept fresh.

It sells the ever handy cure for mild hunger: onigiri, bento, seasonal dishes and sweets, sushi and soba, manga and medicine, alcohol and many, many more you can think of!

It was late when we arrived at the station near our Airbnb so we bought food stuff in case the kids (and I!) get hungry later in the night. Nah, we were just really excited to buy the stuffs we missed!


in ikebukuro


We arrived around 10 pm after a long flight from Dubai and Singapore and I learned a valuable lesson: our morning after itinerary should have been: SLEEP ALL DAY.

Because anyway, we had our kombini food already in case we get hungry, we don’t need to go out really. The kids were heavily jet lagged or just plain tired and showed no signs of rousing from their sleep even if it was already 10 or 11 am or even 12 noon!

(It might be because our modest Airbnb was so nice and comfy – it deserves a special blog post soon!)

Our time in Japan is very limited and I didn’t want to waste it so I had to wake them up just before 1 pm. Fair enough, no? They were fully rested and ready to tackle the day.

We were in Tokyo on the last week of June and OMG, the weather was really nice!

Japan is still in that tsuyu season (rainy season just before summer). The temps were already warm enough for the locals but coming from a place with 45C temperature in Dubai, 27C in Tokyo was HEAVEN. We were walking and would stop on the side of the road to just close our eyes and feel the cool breeze whenever it comes.

Our first order of the day? LUNCH!

I have listed the restaurants to go and food to eat while in Tokyo months back before our trip. Our every meal has been planned already, well, except for the random kombini visits where we buy snacks while we are on the move. We went to Coco Ichibanya because we missed the Japanese curry!



If you think eating out in Japan is expensive (Tokyo has this notorious reputation of being expensive generally), take note that there are several food shops where you can have a great inexpensive meal. Some of our favorite go to’s are: Coco Ichibanya and also C & C Curry (located at most train stations), and on most streets in Tokyo: Sukiya, Matsuya and Yoshinoya.


When we finished our hearty lunch, the weather was really warming up. It’s supposed to be rainy season but we were lucky enough not to get wet – it was sunny and nice in Tokyo (although we were ok to get rained on or perhaps buy the transparent umbrella from the kombini!).

We could feel the early pangs of summer heat as we got out of the basement restaurant.

japan summer
japan summer 2
 Our very important itinerary for that day was a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka at 4pm. I’ll write a separate blog post about that but do any of you reading this post know about Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animes? If you haven’t, I encourage you to start watching them. You can start with Spirited Away or Totoro or even Howl’s Moving Castle.

p and b in ikebukuro

shinjuku at night 1
shinjuku at night 2

We had yakiniku dinner with friends on our first night at Shinjuku. Some of you might have seen my Instastories on Instagram and asked, “you make your own dinner at the restaurant table?”

Yes, yakiniku – from Wikipedia: yakiniku refers to a Japanese style of cooking bite-size meat and vegetables on gridirons or griddles over flame of wood charcoals carbonized by dry distillation or gas/electric grill. At yakiniku restaurants, the meat grillers are on your table and yes, you cook your own meal (which is fun). We had 90 minutes of yakiniku tabehodai (eat all you can, including rice, salads) for 1,980 yen (US$18) per person.

It’s eat all you can for 90 minutes. Can you still say Japan is expensive?


We went home late tired but very satisfied with our first full day in Japan. I am so happy to be able to roam around Tokyo with my kids, now both of them walking really well (no more baby carriers! no more strollers and diaper bags to lug around!). They are also both aware now which is really nice because I get to tell them stories of the time I was a student in Japan roaming in these familiar streets. And they actually listen AND ask questions which throws me back to memory lane time and time again. Ah, those were the days!

Never in my imagination that years after that point in my life that I’d walk around Tokyo with my own kids!

It seems that our travel to Japan is following a pattern: every 4 years. The last time we flew to Japan was 4 years ago in 2013 and before that was also 4 years ago in 2009. I hope it won’t take another 4 years before we go there again.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque 1

We had a long weekend last week for the Islamic holiday, Isra wal miraj and we chose to spend it in more laid back Abu Dhabi.

What is a visit to Abu Dhabi without checking out the grand mosque? We’ve visited so many times, taking friends and family visiting us in the UAE. I wrote 13 facts about the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque after we first visited it in 2008. We visited a few times years and years after but what makes it different this time? It will be Benjamin’s first time! I want to see his reaction.


The grand mosque, one of the few in the world open to non-Muslims is about an hour drive from Dubai.

So many things has changed since we last visited a couple of years back when a friend from Japan visited and we played tourist guides, and included Abu Dhabi and of course the never to be missed grand mosque in the itinerary (see that post for pics!). First – there’s already a cafe and an Etihad Modern Art Gallery souvenir shop. We loved hanging out at the cafe, with lots of natural light coming in and great view outside.

But one thing never changed and never will – that if you go visit this religious site with arms and legs exposed (we were in shorts and shirts), you will have to wear the abaya for women and khandura for men. Before it was just a black robe though but now, there’s brown and blue abayas for ladies with attached covering for the head, like a hood. I prefer it this way than the separate cloth for head scarf as it keeps falling off.


Some other change is that people can’t freely roam anywhere they want now. The main square is off limits to visitors when it wasn’t restricted area way back in 2008, 2010.

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Processed with VSCO with s2 preset

There’s security guy who sits at the square and wards off people trying to enter the area. Since so many people want to take pics of the beautiful view behind him, he must be in thousands of photos! He is so chill and would just do some sign language to tell people not to proceed further.

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There’s a specific cordoned route for visitors to follow. The place is more crowded on, unsurprisingly, weekends, especially on Fridays that it’s impossible to take photos without someone’s uncle or auntie in the background. Hold your children and never leave them out of your sight, it’s going to be tough finding them through the crowd!

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So what was Benjamin’s reaction after visiting the grand structure? He said, it’s beautiful and can’t take his eyes off the massive chandeliers inside the mosque. And then? He asked why we were in robes and he wasn’t!

Have you visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi? If not, maybe plan it in the near future. It’s definitely a very popular tourist spot with what else but throngs of tourists you can’t avoid but I still believe your trip will be worth it.