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Lake Como and Italian Riviera

luxury travel

Lake Como and Italian Riviera

Tessie Kenela

Book your vacation in Italy

May 23 – 31, 2018

We are a group of 27 heading to Lake Como to spend our first 4 nights there followed by 4 nights in the lovely Italian Riviera.

italyWe fly into Milan and embark on a panoramic tour of Milan’s main landmarks stopping at sights such as the Sforza Castle, the former dwellings of the powerful Sforza family, a beautiful fortification with many museums within its walls. We then continue on to the famous Duomo Di Milano. The cathedral is a masterpiece in architectural design and detail which took thousands of workers, a new canal system and over six centuries to complete and its construction is still continuing with routine restorations. We admire the duomo from the outside as the lines to get in can be very long in excess of an hour. We also spend a little time in the square wandering around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a magnificent shopping arcade in Milan, built in 1860, covered with a glass and iron roof. The interior of the impressive five story structure is decorated with patriotic mosaics and statues and it is full of upscale stores and various restaurants and cafes.

We then drive a couple of hours to the village of Varenna, a quaint village on the eastern shore of Lake Como, looking over the central part of the lake towards Bellagio. Varenna’s picturesque lanes and old fishermen’s houses are unpretentiously appealing, and some visitors prefer the town to its grander neighbors. Although Varenna is a tourist destination, and its pretty waterfront and tiny stone beach fill up with vacationers, it has somehow a more authentic air than the other hotel-packed villages. The main tourist activities in Varenna are relaxing by the lake, and visiting the gardens of two villas, Villa Monastero and Villa Cipressi. I have chosen a lake front hotel called Royal Victoria Hotel, a 4-star property set in a building dating back to the 19th century. This property features lush gardens, a swimming pool and a wellness center with a sauna and a steam bath, 2 restaurants and a private dock. The views of Lake Como from anywhere within the hotel are breath-taking!

From this home base, we spend the next 4 days visiting the different villages around the lake. Our first visit is to the most important town on the lake, Como. As we sail across the lake in our own private boat, we admire the beautiful villas perched on the cliff sides of all the lake side villages. Once we dock in Como, we walk through its lively streets and nice waterfront and take the funicular up to Brunate, a picturesque village 700 meters above sea level. This excursion allows us to enjoy enchanting views over Lake Como and the Alps. The next day we visit the village of Bellagio but first we stop at Villa Carlotta, this beautiful villa was built at the end of 17th century by the Milanese marquis Giorgio Clerici in a natural basin between lake and mountains, facing the dolomite Grignas and the peninsula of Bellagio. It also houses the most spectacular botanical garden of the area with over 8 hectares of lush greenery with old varieties of camellias, century old cedars and sequoias, huge planes and tropical plants, the Rock garden and the Ferns valley, the Rhododendrons wood and the Bamboos garden among many other beautiful settings.

On our last day in Lake Como, we drive over to Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy in size (the biggest is Lake Garda) but the largest of the lakes closest to the Alps. Since the 19th century, the lake has been one of the top vacation and weekend destinations for wealthy families from big cities, who built some of northern Italy’s most stunning villas on its shores. Anyone who has seen a postcard of Lake Maggiore is bound to be familiar with The Borromean Islands outline. The archipelago is one of the biggest attractions for travelers enticed by the charm of yesteryear—and Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori have plenty of charm. The archipelago is named after the Borromeo family, which acquired the islands in the 14th century and still owns two of them. The noble palaces on the islands, with their rooms filled with antique furniture, paintings and priceless porcelain, and the enchanting gardens are open to visitors and are a must on your list of things to see.

On our 5th day, we depart Varenna and make our long way over to Santa Margherita Ligure, a picture-perfect seaside resort town with a busy promenade, where elegant hotels with Liberty facades overlook yachts in this fishing-village-turned-retirement-spot. Santa Margherita is a good base for daytrips to Portofino, the picturesque San Fruttuoso monastery, the resorts of Camogli and Rapallo, Genoa and the Cinque Terre (around an hour by train, or an all-day boat excursion).

We break up the long journey mid-way at Villa Sparina Wine Estate, located in the Gavi wine region. The history of Villa Sparina goes back to the 1700s when it was part of a grand colonial complex immersed in the vineyards of Monterotondo in Piedmont, the heart of Gavi territory. In Villa Sparina, visitors can enjoy fine dining at La Gallina Restaurant where the cuisine balances creativity and southern Piedmontese culinary traditions. Villa Sparina also houses the four-star L’Ostelliere hotel, where guests can have a unique and unforgettable stay in Piedmont. After a delicious banquet of cured meats, cheeses, vegetables and cheese risotto paired with 4 different wines, we embark on our final stretch to the riviera.

We arrive at Grand Hotel Miramare, our hotel for the next 4 nights; this hotel is the epitome of classic Italian elegance. Situated in the heart of the Italian Riviera, the art nouveau-style building overlooks the beautiful Golfo del Tigullio. Palms, camellias and lavender are among the aromatic plants growing in the hotel’s large Mediterranean garden. The spa and choice of restaurants and bars add to the sense of luxury. Built in 1903, Grand Hotel Miramare was one of the first luxury hotels on the Italian Riviera. You feel like you are following in the footsteps of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who spent their honeymoon here in the 1940s!

The next day, our first day excursion is to Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and the pesto sauce! Known as “the proud one” due to its glorious past and impressive landmarks, Genoa is the capital city of the Liguria region. Part of the old town is inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List. After a two-hour long city tour among its labyrinth of narrow, medieval alleyways, we have built enough appetite to make our way to Il Genovese, a 1912 establishment featuring genuine Genovese dishes such as of course, the pesto. With lots of wine and pasta to last for days, we head back to Santa Margherita.

On our 7th day, the crew heads over to Cinque Terre by bus first to La Spezia, where we embark in a ferry that takes us to our first stop Portoverene. Perched on the dreamy Golfo dei Poeti’s western promontory, this historic fishing port’s sinuous seven- and eight-story harbor front houses form an almost impregnable citadel around the muscular Castello Doria. Later we continue our boat trip and reach Monterosso which has the best beaches of the Cinque Terre villages and the most wine shops, artisan shops, hotels and restaurants. In Monterosso we visit the Enoteca Internazionale wine shop and taste 2 different Cinque Terre Doc white wines and a glass of sciacchetra’ (local sweet wine with very limited production) in addition to a mixture of cured meats and cheeses. It takes about an hour to return back to Grand Miramare hotel early afternoon.

Our last day in the riviera couldn’t be more marvelous. We board our private boat towards Portofino, a charming Italian fishing village and vacation resort famous for its picturesque harbor and historical association with celebrity and artistic visitors. The “Piazzetta,” meeting-up point for the international jet-set, is the symbol of Portofino, while the port, with its characteristic, brightly-colored houses, is the icon of this borgo’s maritime traditions, whose inhabitants were called “delfini” (dolphins) by the Greeks and Romans. Next, we stop in San Fruttuoso, one of the most unique and special places in all of Liguria with two powerful attractions: the ancient One Benedictine monastery and the Christ of the Abyss statue. Our boat tour finishes in Camogli, a cozy medieval fishing village with an old port and a very distinctive character. Here we find authentic fishermen and old boats, boutique shops and restaurants. We all break into smaller groups and head to different restaurants to taste the local cuisine. I decide to try the famous and only offered locally, cheese focaccia, paired with some delicious local wine.

Our trip comes to a closure by having a spectacular farewell dinner at the Grand Hotel Miramare where the chef has prepared the most sumptuous and succulent 5 course meal for us paired with several white, red and sparkling wine. As we all cheer and reminisce about the last week, everyone is already asking: Where are you taking us next?

Giardino Hotels, Switzerland


Jen Connelly

Book your vacation in Switzerland

Wonderful Mountain Villages, Superb Skiing, Obligatory Cheese Fondue

I flew into Zurich Airport for my time in Switzerland, which sets expectations for what guests can anticipate from the overall experience in the country. The airport is efficient, well-planned, and very easy to navigate for travelers.

Hotel Atlantis by Giardino picked us up from the airport, and a brief commute through Zurich’s city streets took us to the urban oasis that is Atlantis. Situated on a hill above Zurich, the hotel offers sweeping vistas of the city below, while still being a quick train ride from the city center. An expansive spa, Michelin starred restaurant, and bar with nightly piano music await guests looking to recharge.

From Zurich, we took the train up to St Moritz. After a three hour journey from the city through picturesque rolling green hills and snow-capped mountains, we were welcomed by our transfers from Giardino Mountain Hotel. Giardino boasts a location just minutes from the glitz and glam of St Moritz, while guests can enjoy the charming local village of Champfer. While in St Moritz, we had the opportunity to experience a few different facets of the area. There was extensive skiing with long groomers and powder stashes, a private on-mountain lounge at one of the après hot spots, courtesy of Giardino, and a village tour to complete our stay.

I wrapped up my Switzerland tour with a final night in Zurich. A trip to Europe in winter wouldn’t be complete with visiting Christmas markets, so I explored the best that Zurich has to offer. From a market with rows of vendors and an oversized Swarovski tree in the main train station, to a choir off the Bahnhofstrasse, and a market with locals undeterred by the rain, Zurich definitely lived up to expectations.

Hotel Atlantis by Giardino

Giardino Mountain Hotel

Scarp Ridge Lodge at Crested Butte

Eleven Experience has ten properties around the globe, and Taylor River Lodge is one of them. At each destination, comfortable lodging and delicious, seasonal food are combined with guided outdoor adventures on mountains, in the backcountry, and on the water for guests of all ages and skill levels. No matter how remote, every lodge has custom, well designed accommodations, talented chefs, enticing spas, and world-class guides who will show you new dimensions of life, friendship, family, and adventure. Whether heli-skiing near the Arctic Circle in Iceland or casting for bonefish on a remote flat in the Bahamas, Eleven experiences are a different kind of escape.

A perfectly remodeled historic building located in the heart of Crested Butte

There are 5 king rooms with en-suite bathrooms and a bunkroom with 7 bunks and connecting nanny room. There is also a lot of public space for people to hang out with each other including a saltwater pool, 2 hot tubs, work out facility and kids game room.

There is a button in each room you press and it puts more oxygen in the room. Great for guests who get altitude sickness.

They only do buyouts in the winter but can sell by the room during the summer months.

Breakfast each morning as well as a bar in the house. Each room also has a mini bar with drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks that they replenish each day at no additional charge.

Unique experience:

They have a private mountain above Lake Irwin for cat skiing. They will pick the guests up at the lodge each morning in a luxury cat (leather seats & TVs) take them to the private mountain on whichever run they would like to do. The guest skis down and by the time they are at the bottom, the cat will arrive to take them back up. There is a private lodge where they can arrange for lunch as well. Or if they want to ski Crested Butte they will shuttle them there each morning and pick them up as needed.


Jackie Yamaguchi

Book your vacation at Scarp Ridge Lodge
Crested Butte
Crested Butte is considered a holdout, retaining its small town charm and the adventurous soul that it has always had. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning, you immediately feel a difference that sets Crested Butte apart from other mountain locations.

Taylor River Lodge at Crested Butte


Jen Connelly

Book your vacation at Taylor River Lodge

Eleven is not just about their properties; they’re about really experiencing a destination.

After booking, an Experience Manager reaches out to find out likes and dislikes with food and activities. This is not a superficial inquiry, they strive to get thorough information on clients to provide a really customized stay. Your trip begins when you’re welcomed at the airport by one of their team members, who provides an SUV fully stocked with snacks and drinks for the ride to the property. Once you arrive, another team member gives you a tour of the property and all of its amenities, which are plentiful. With both properties, your rooms are stocked with a complimentary mini-bar, which contains unique beverages and a lot of locally made snacks–not your typical minibar. If you’re staying at Taylor River Lodge, this includes wine and PBR, just to give you some options.

The Eleven team has an elevated level of guest service, and they really try to go above and beyond with guest requests. We had a hiking/whitewater rafting guide (same person) that also does ski in the winter, and is both entertaining and knowledgeable. Our fly fishing guides were incredible as well; offering tips on technique, and making sure everyone has a good time.

Taylor River Lodge offers buyouts, but they aren’t required. Even if some family members aren’t into fly fishing, there are plenty of other activities for them so they can explore and enjoy the area. The property feels rustic chic, and is definitely a place that is like summer camp for any age. In addition to their pool and hot tub, which have a glass garage door that fully open them up to nature, the property has games for adults and kids. Foosball, a pool table, in addition to lawn games (corn hole, etc), and a well stocked pond where guests can learn to fish set this property apart. They have a teepee on site where kids like to play (and can sleep there as well if they choose), as well as axe and knife throwing, bb guns, and archery.

Scarp Ridge would be a great option for multi-gen families or any type of small group. This property feels even more high end than Taylor River Lodge, and would be the perfect fit for discerning guests. Since it’s right off Elk Avenue, guests can walk or bike anywhere they’d like to go in town within minutes. For skiers in the winter, the cat skiing is for any ability level. For more timid skiers, they can stick to the freshly groomed cat track that goes down the mountain, while more advanced and expert skiers can be taken to couloirs by the guide. The options are endless.

Eleven Experience has ten properties around the globe, and Taylor River Lodge is one of them. At each destination, comfortable lodging and delicious, seasonal food are combined with guided outdoor adventures on mountains, in the backcountry, and on the water for guests of all ages and skill levels. No matter how remote, every lodge has custom, well designed accommodations, talented chefs, enticing spas, and world-class guides who will show you new dimensions of life, friendship, family, and adventure. Whether heli-skiing near the Arctic Circle in Iceland or casting for bonefish on a remote flat in the Bahamas, Eleven experiences are a different kind of escape.

Reno and Lake Tahoe – a wonderland for all seasons

As I travelled back to Florida from Reno/Tahoe a couple of weeks ago, I chatted with a few people in the airports. Everyone had the same response: “Reno, isn’t that like a little Vegas?”

Six months ago, that probably would have been my response. In reality, the area is nothing like Las Vegas, except they are in the same state. I see Reno and Lake Tahoe as a wonderland for all seasons.   The skiing around the lake with the larger well-known resorts such as Squaw Valley to the west and Heavenly to the South are great choices for winter and summer mountain destinations. Today I wanted to say a little about the lesser knowns. Mt Rose is the highest with a base at 8260 feet above sea level and 1300 acres, which makes this a nice choice for a few days of skiing. Mount Rose is just 20 miles from Reno. This is a great choice to stay and play in Reno, and still ski while on your trip.

Crossing over the divide from Mt Rose you will find Incline Village. This is home to the beautiful Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino. This property is located on the north shore of Lake Tahoe and is one of the only resorts with their own private beach. I was there in the fall and it was still a great place to go to relax by the water or even take a sail on the catamaran operating out of the hotel.

Another place to check out while in Incline Village is the CalNeva Resort. If famous names like Frank, Marilyn, and Kennedy ring a bell, the history of the CalNeva resort is for you. This property has been closed and will reopen after a major remodel in 2016 under a Starwood brand, according to what I can find. I will definitely need to go back and see the history of the property. Diamond Peak is a quaint little ski area closest to the Hyatt on the north side of the lake. This ski area does something a little different than most. I have paid for “First Tracks” to go up on many ski mountains, but have never seen “Last Tracks” This is a wine and beer tasting on mountain at the end of the day. Dates and times are limited to parts of the year, but the locals were all chatting about it still in October.

Our trip to the area also took us to the small mining town of Virginia City. Bonanza fans will remember this Old West town mentioned throughout the years of the TV series. In the late 1800s this thriving town had over 30,000 residents. There is still a steam train that will take you from Carson City to this historic mining town. All the history of the area is quite an interesting read.

We have now come full circle and back to Reno, a city on the grow. This city is also home to Tesla. This electric car icon is adding around 10 million square feet to its plant here in coming years. Other notable contributors to the 50,000 jobs coming to Reno are Microsoft, Amazon, and some in the air industry. The Riverwalk located downtown is a must-see with many renowned restaurants in the area. Other things to do while in the area include the 50+ golf courses, the expansion of the Truckee river whitewater park system, and the 13 breweries in the area. Being a person from North Dakota, I have to mention the world’s largest all-sports store, Scheels. Probably the most noticeable item you will see in Reno, however, is the millions of dollars in upgrades being done in the hotels from the lavish spa and pool area at the Peppermill, to the many restaurants, bars and clubs of the tri properties: The Eldorado, Silver Legacy, and Circus Circus. The Atlantis, The Grand Sierra, The Nugget and Harrah’s Reno, Bill Harrah’s original Bingo Hall, are all making improvements and making Reno a destination worth looking into.

A special thanks to Reno Tahoe USA, The Eldorado, The Peppermill and to our other Reno Tahoe partners for making this trip a memorable one.

Reno Nevada
Reno is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which provides opportunities for skiing and snowmobile riding in the winter, as well as hiking and cycling in the summer. Lake Tahoe is also within 30 minutes of Reno, and offers chances for water activities and skiing as well.

Team Alpine in the Land of the Rising Sun! – JAPAN

Team Alpine in the Land of the Rising Sun! “JAPAN”

Plenty of destinations around the world claim to be unique, but Japan can be fully confident of this assertion. The centuries which Japan spent closed off from the outside world have left it with an exotic and highly individual culture, making it an appealing destination for all curious travelers.

Team Alpine was invited to participate at Japanese Travel Mart which took place in Tokyo for three days in late September. Two of our team members, Lilly and Pete, had an opportunity to attend the trade show where they had meetings with the suppliers from our ski travel industry and beyond. They also took part of the studying trip organized by the host of the expo and were taken to explore the famous ‘Golden Route’. When the FAM trip was ended, they didn’t miss an opportunity to visit Hakuba and Shiga Kogen in order to strengthen relationships with the vendors at these ski resorts and do site inspections of several properties at each place. We are sharing with you their experiences and adventures so you know what to expect when travelling to Japan for your first time.


Tokyo, for all its chaotic blur of activity, is a remarkably efficient city. Getting from A to B is generally quick and straightforward, unless – as in our case – you’re on your first visit and keep stopping to stare at everything. How long did it take to put all that neon in place? What are those teenagers wearing? And what is that coming out of the vending machine? As a city to wander through, it’s utterly fascinating: from the Manga comic megastores of Akihabara to the capsule hotels and fashion stores of Ginza.

It was in the more traditional quarters of the city, however, that we lingered the longest. It’s a fantastic city – and not just a modern one. For the little time we had between schedules, we decided to wander around and explore the city ourselves.Getting on the train was easy once we figured out the metro/subway/train lines.

Shibuya was one of the first town areas where we experienced full energy and excitement. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most colorful and busy districts, packed with shopping, dining and nightclubs serving swarms of visitors that come to the district everyday. Shibuya’s large intersection gets flooded by pedestrians each time the crossing light turns green, making it a popular photo and movie filming spot.

As night fell, we were getting into the city vibe more and more. Being on the west side of the city, we used it to move towards Shinjuku. Shinjuku town begins at the world’s busiest train station. People from all walks of life and ethnic groups crowd together on streets lined with places popular with both locals and tourists!

Being eager for a deeper understanding and experience of the unique Japanese world and culture , we decided to visit the traditional Asakusa area where you can find the oldest and most significant Japanese Buddhist temple – Sensō-ji. As we approached the temple through Nakamise shopping street we found a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs.

A twenty minute walk across the Sumida River from Asakusa sits Tokyo Sky Tree, the biggest broadcasting tower in the world.It is amazing how an ancient spiritual site stands next to one that is so modern.

We had an amazing opportunity to run into traditional dance performance of Aomori Nebuta band that was performing in front of the Tokyo Station plaza. The sounds of the drums, the pair of gongs and the flutes carried our imagination out to an ancient time of Samurai era.


After leaving Tokyo and making our way along the scenic freeways, we found ourselves at Kawaguchiko Station in Yamanashi and made our way to the 5th Step of Mt. Fuji, which is almost near the top of the famous cone that has become a symbol of Japan. As the clouds broke briefly here and there, we ended up seeing the summit. It was a magical and fascinating look at the peak of the ‘Japanese Holy Mountain’. The journey we had on Mt. Fuji was amazing! Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, stands 12,389 feet and is the highest mountain in Japan. Just 62 miles from Tokyo, the mountain is within view of Japan’s capitol on a clear day. Fuji became a symbol of the country after about 1500 when the capitol moved to Edo or Tokyo. Mount Fuji is also considered an active volcano, though it has not erupted since 1708.

On the way back to Tokyo, we made a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Oshino Hakkai (Pond)’. The Oshino Hakkai (eight seas of Oshino) is located at the Oshino village of Yamanashi Prefecture, which is comprised of eight ponds (The ponds of Deguchi-ike, Okama-ike, Sokonuke-ike, Choshi-ike, Waku-ike, Nigori-ike, Kagami-ike and Shobu-ike) as its name described. The area is filled with many tourist spots such as Japanese folk homes with straw-thatched roof, the old temples, Museum of History and Folklore which can be traced back to 1800s, as well as many gift shops and restaurants. The water source of these eight ponds are from the underground water of Mt. Fuji, there are ponds in different geological states such as the swamp-like ponds and the ponds with transparent water. Oshino Hakkai was chosen as one of the Natural Monuments of Japan, as well as one of the 100 selections of Water of Japan and the 100 selections of new Fugaku of the prefecture.

In an early evening we arrived at our next destination ‘Tokyo Skytree’. Boasting a height of 2080 ft, making it the world’s highest stand-alone communication tower, Tokyo SkyTree opened in May 2012 and has already become a major symbol of Tokyo, forming the center of Tokyo Skytree Town, which also encompasses Tokyo Solamachi, a complex that includes many shops and restaurants, as well as an aquarium and planetarium. The appeal of Tokyo Skytree lies in the fact that although it is a hi-tech structure, it also evokes a sense of traditional beauty.


After having a lavish buffet breakfast at Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo and walking few minutes to Shinagawa train station, we boarded the famous bullet train ‘Shinkansen’ and headed to Osaka. The legendary train is not just a 200 mph train that rockets across the island of Japan. These trains are stopping and going with New York subway regularity.

Each Bullet Train has 16 cars, holds at least 1300 people, and rockets out of Tokyo Station every 5 minutes. This is not a luxury cruise liner or a vehicle with space shuttle like exclusivity. The Shinkansen is the definition of a workhorse. There are 323 bullet trains in operation every day just for the route between Japan’s two largest cities; Tokyo and Osaka. They have a yearly average speed of about 170 mph yet a yearly delay time that is measured in seconds.

Another image we could not quite wrap our heads around was going 200 miles per hour. Or even 150 for that matter. The truth is, the train is so smooth that you never even know that you are traveling so fast. The only time you can feel the speed is when you look out the window and see buildings and trees whipping by so fast that your brain has trouble processing it.

The Shinkansen is simply a marvel of planning and engineering that you should experience yourself when you come to Japan.

Upon arrival at Osaka train station, we were met by our transfer provider who took us to the must-see attraction in Osaka, which is called Umeda Sky Building.

The Umeda Sky Building is an architectural highlight in the city centre of Osaka. At the upper floor, you have a good view at the city of Osaka. Planes flying to Osaka airport fly at the same height as the building. Inside, there is an exhibition about floating gardens. When the tour was over, we departed for a lunch at Dotonbori area.

Dotonbori, the symbol of Osaka, the epitome of kuidaore, is nestled along the canal of the Umezu river. If there was ever a place to simultaneously exhibit both traditional and modern Japan, it would be here. An area loved by both tourists and locals alike, Dotonbori seems to have something for everyone.

If you’re going for a more traditional trip you can catch a Bunraku (traditional puppet theater) performance nearby or visit Hozen-ji Temple for a quieter atmosphere. Dotonbori is filled with exciting shops, restaurants, bars, and boat rides down the canal. It’s no wonder this area has been famous since its establishment in the early 1600s. If you’re not hungry enough for a full meal, just grab a nice snack at one of the many food vendors lining the streets. Be sure to try either takoyaki or okonomiyaki—both regional specialties of Osaka.

Our last visit for today was Osaka-jo Castle.
Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) was built by the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan in the latter half of the 16th century, on the site of a temple called Ishiyama Hongan-ji. The construction work began in 1583 and most buildings such as the castle tower were completed in 1585. Its gross area is over 3,300,000 square meters and tens of thousands of people were daily mobilized in its construction. The donjon is five-tiered and nine-storied, and has large golden sea creature ornaments shining on the rooftop. It is claimed that pure gold chasings were set in the corridors. One of the charms of this castle is the beauty of its stone wall. Reportedly, there are 40,000 rocks in the wall. Legend has it that powerful daimyo from all parts of Japan competed in carrying the large rocks to display their loyalty to the Toyotomi hegemon. The existing castle tower was built in 1931. It has five tiers and is approximately 40 m high. It is the symbol of Osaka.

We left Osaka in the early evening and took off to the cultural heart and soul of Japan: Kyoto. This was it! All the images that wide-eyed foreigners picture when the country’s name were evoked: centuries-old temples set against perfectly manicured gardens, lantern-lined quaint alleys, white-faced geishas shuffling along in clogs.This is what greeted us when we arrived in Kyoto, another ancient capital of Japan, and culturally its most important.

We checked in at Kyoto Hot Spring Hatoya Zuihokaku Hotel. The hotel is very conveniently located right next to the train station. The rooms were spacious with everything you needed in them, including very nice gowns. The traditional Japanese breakfast was very interesting to explore and tasted good. The Onsen bath on the top floor was nice, big, and clean. An excellent experience which shouldn’t be missed.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years, beginning in 794, when Emperor Kammu made the city the seat of his imperial court and the center of Japan’s political world. Having escaped the ravages of World War II, the city is a treasure trove of important cultural properties. Kyoto is dotted with over 2000 shrines and temples, which contain about 20% of Japan’s National Treasures. Many aspects of traditional culture have been carefully preserved since the Heian period. Kyoto people are justifiably proud of their traditions, including omotenashi, or traditional hospitality, as well as kaiseki ryori, food beautiful enough to be called art, and many others.

The geisha and maiko of Kyoto are famous for their skill in traditional Japanese arts. Resplendent in beautiful kimono and lavish makeup, they are considered the very essence of Japanese beauty and refinement.

The next morning we were off to the nearby city of Fushimi, one of the largest sake producing regions of Japan. Here we visited the Fushimi Inari shrine. This Shinto shrine, established in the 8th century, is famous for the long tunnels of vermilion torii gates straddling a network of trails leading to the top of the heavily forested Mt. Inari. With seemingly endless arcades of vermilion torii (shrine gates) spread across a thickly wooded mountain, this vast shrine complex is a world unto its own. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in all of Kyoto.

The entire complex, consisting of five shrines, sprawls across the wooded slopes of Inari-san. A pathway wanders two miles up the mountain and is lined with dozens of atmospheric sub-shrines.
Fushimi Inari was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. Nowadays, the shrine is one of Japan’s most popular, and is the head shrine for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered the length and breadth of the country.

Not far from Fushimi Inari Shrine is Kyoto’s traditional brewing area. The brewers originally set up shop here in the the 1600s, primarily because of local springs–famed for their delicious water–and the Horikawa River and canal that offered quick access north into central Kyoto and south to Osaka. We came here to visit Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. There are over 6,000 tools and implements related to sake brewing and production at the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery. The buildings on the campus are fascinating as well, and include a reproduction of the original Gekkeikan office. Also on display are photographs of the brewery in times gone past. We also learned about the sake brewing process in a mini-brewer,y and of course when the visit was over, we bought sake and sake-related products in the shop including sake cups and flasks.

After lunch, we headed back to Kyoto and stopped by Kinkaku-ji Temple.

Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is one of Kyoto’s, as well as Japan’s, most recognizable attractions. The gleaming building covered in gold leaf seems to float on the aptly named Mirror Pond, especially on a sunny day.

The highlight of the day was definitely our Kimono experience! The entire group was dressed in Kimono clothing in the local store and we were taken for a leisurely stroll in Nijo-jo castle!

Built in 1603, it was the Kyoto home of Tokugawa leayasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun. The ostentatious style of construction was intended as a demonstration of leayasu’s prestige, and to signal the demise of the emperor’s power. The finest artists of the day filled the castle with delicate transom woodcarvings and paintings by the Kano School on sliding doors. One of the castle’s most intriguing features is the so-called ‘nightingale’ floors. To protect the Shogun from real or imagined enemies, these floorboards creak when stepped on.

Our last day in this marvelous city! We wished we could stay longer and explore Kyoto on our own as there are so much to see and do.

The final morning, we left our hotel and continued our journey to Kiyomizu-dera temple before we headed to the Itami airport in Osaka for our return flight to Haneda AP in Tokyo.

Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto and was built at the end of the 8th century. The main hall was constructed in the 17th century, and is famous for its location overhanging a cliff. The platform of the main hall, which is supported by 139 giant pillars, affords a spectacular view of the town of Kyoto. It is designated a National Treasure. The three-storied pagoda in the temple precinct, which was rebuilt during the 17th century, is designated by the national government as an Important Cultural Property.

The expansive site, with an area of 130,000 square meters, contains many Important Cultural Properties, including buildings and Buddhist images. Along the ravine to the south of the main hall grow cherry and maple trees. This site is known for its cherry blossoms in the spring, and its red leaves during the fall.

We made it back to Tokyo again and even though we were a little bit tired, we were ready for another bullet train experience to Nagano. We boarded the train in late afternoon and arrived in Nagano. We took a rental car, and continued our journey to Hakuba.

The Hakuba Valley is surrounded by the Japanese Alps and became well known through the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. It has become a popular location for winter sports fans, with all levels of skiers able to enjoy the 11 resorts. All 11 resorts can be accessed by the circulating shuttle buses. The valley is also blessed with abundant powder, making the backcountry tours very popular among visitors!

The next day, we drove back to Nagano, dropped off our car and met our friends Kobi and Yuki who were our hosts during the stay in Shiga Kogen.

Shiga Kogen is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and National Park of spectacular mountain scenery. It was host to the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Giant Slalom, and is now a popular destination for skiers and boarders with 19 resorts and plenty of fresh Japow! Shiga Kogen is located at an altitude of over 5000 feet and is renowned for its panoramic views.

The most popular attraction in this area are Japanese snow monkeys! Seeing Jigokudani Monkey Park’s wild monkeys bathe in Jigokudani ‘s hot springs was a fantastic experience. The area was successfully made into a monkey park in 1962. There are about 200 monkeys that regularly make the trip down the mountain to use the hot springs.

A visit to the Nagano area would not be complete without seeing the famous Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano City, said to have been built in the early 7th century. It consists of 39 buildings including Dai-hongan and Dai-kanjin and is the main tourist spot in Nagano. Since Zenkoji Temple is not affiliated with any one particular sect of Buddhism, it is open to everyone regardless of their beliefs, and it is believed that a visit there once in a lifetime will ensure a passage into the Land of Happiness.

The temple has grown on the basis of this popular belief from ancient times and therefore been popular amongst a great variety of people throughout its history. The front entry to the main hall of the temple is paved with flagstones. The stores lining the approach sell a usual plethora of gifts, knickknacks and local products. These include Buddhist family altars, pickled vegetables and traditional toys.

And so with that, after almost 10 days, we came to the end of our stay here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Not wanting to sound cliched, but it really seemed like only yesterday when left the US. This being our first visit, we think we’ve seen a lot of what the country has to offer, from the uniquely Japanese quotidian minutiae (capsule hotels, meal ticket vending machines, public baths, bum-washing toilets) to the broader aspects like its contentious military history, and imperial and spiritual past.

The people’s famed courtesy, politeness and efficiency was certainly not lost on us, and we saw what a civilized place can really look like, and how well its people can behave. Nihon, you have been inspiring, and we hope to be back again before long!

More than anywhere else I’ve been, I feel like Japan is the kind of destination that every traveler must experience at least once in their lifetime. I loved my ten days there and I can’t wait to return.