Must Do’s In Mumbai

Once you’ve survived the initial shock of Mumbai it can be easy to find yourself wondering just where to begin. Built over seven islands and the reclaimed land in between the area that would become Mumbai has been inhabited in some form or another since the stone age. From Koli fishing villages to the financial capital of a space faring civilisation Mumbai is steeped in history.

During it’s time it has had many rulers including the Mauryans, the Gujarat Sultans, the Portuguese and the British to name a few. Mumbai has also had a long history of naval commerce being an important trade hub with the Egyptians, the Persians and the Romans.

This rich historical narrative is evident throughout Mumbai from her temples, docks, parks, food, architecture and sculptures. So it’s easy to see just why it can be daunting knowing where to start with Mumbai. This being said the are a number of must sees for anyone visiting the city.

If you are staying in Colaba or Fort you can pack the main attractions in three or four days. You can start the day with breakfast at Leopold’s, a famous eatery in the city, not just for it’s appearance in Shantarm. Opened by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in 1871 Leopold’s (named after the Belgian king of the day) has survived different incarnations and upheavals, even having been directly targetted during the 2008 terrorist attacks on the city.

From Leopold’s it’s only a short walk to the ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Opened in 1903 the Taj is a glorious example of Indo-Gothic architecture and considered an institution of the city, a bastion of luxury and hospitality where no detail is missed and no demand too great. Over it’s prestigious history it has hosted scores of notable guests from royalty, industrialists, tycoons, heads of state, film and rocks stars over.

Over the street is the Gateway Of India. Began in 1911 to commemorate a visit by Emperor George V, His Majesty only ever saw it’s cardboard model. Completed in 1924 and built with basalt rock this triumphal arch would have been the first sight greeting visitors coming by sea to India. In the days of the British Raj this was the point where dignitaries would alight from their voyage. This was also the place where, in 1948, the last British soldiers ceremonially left India when the country gained independence. You can easily walk around The Taj but you have to pass through a security check-point to access the Gateway. Here you’ll be approached by photographers offering to take you picture for a fee (personally I don’t think it’s worth it).

There are touts that will try to sell you tickets for ferries to Elephanta Island as well. Whereas these are accepted they’re usually overpriced as well, you can buy a ticket directly for the ferries if you just wander behind the gate itself to where the boarding point is hidden. They shouldn’t cost more the 200 Rs. for a return journey. While you’re appreciating the Gateway you might find some Indian tourist taking an interest in you as well and coming over wanting to have their picture taken with you leaving you feeling like a celebrity for a few minutes.

After the ferry crossing to Elephanta you might be met by “guides” waiting to give you a tour of the caves. Though somewhat knowledgeable these are locals more interested in taking you to their shops than giving a value for money tour. If you do want to be given a proper, informative tour you’ll find licensed guides waiting for you just after you step through the ticket office. To get there you have to go up a stone stair-way lined with stalls, which is mercifully under canvass providing much needed cover from the sun while climbing the many steps.

The caves themselves are a collection of Buddhist and Hindu rock carvings depicting scenes from the Vedas and other important religious texts. The precise date of when these began is a topic of historic debate but are most commonly placed from the 5th-6th Century A.D. The caves, unfortunately, were not treated favourably by Portuguese after the island was ceded to them in 1534 and some of the sculptures are defaced or in a state of ruin (though some point the finger at earlier Gujarati rulers). The main cave has since been restored and despite evidence of vandalism the caves remain a testimony to the artistry, genius and meta-physical beliefs of a civilisation gone by.

While you’re visiting you’ll notice monkeys and dogs wandering quite prevalently here. Though it might be tempting to approach them to try and get a good picture be careful, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The Macaques don’t respond well to smiles either, considering bared teeth as a challenge to fight.

Back in Mumbai there is plenty more to be seen, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a fine example of architectural fusion, mixing Victorian and Indo-Gothic styles that are reminiscent of the grandeur of Indian palaces. Finished in 1887 to commemorate the fiftieth year of Queen Victoria’s rule the CST, as it’s otherwise known, is one of India’s busiest stations. It serves both Mumbai’s metro and long-haul journeys out of the city, if you’re heading to your next location via train you will most likely leave from here.

Marine drive makes for a splendid walk along the beach front, if you’re lucky you might even catch a wedding taking place on the east side of the road which is highly popular for wedding venues. As the sun starts to set you’ll see young couples lining the walk way, holding hands and enjoying each other’s company. Public displays of affection between the sexes, so much as holding hands in the street, can still be taboo in India. But here, along this 3.6 kilometre stretch of road, as twilight draws in there seems to be some sort of magic here where this does not hold sway and couples can openly share their fondness for one another.

Toward the north-side of Marine Drive is Chowpatty Beach, popular with city residents and tourists from further away in Maharashtra and India. People often flock here to play cricket, football and to perform ceremonies and rituals. It is not advisable to swim in the sea here as many storm and sewer drains find their way into Back Bay. More wholesome than the sea, though, are the numerous fast-food stalls that the beach is famous for. Here you’ll find a varriety of vendors offering sweet and savory dishes that are well worth trying out.

If you really want to be immersed in India cuisine I’d personally recommend making the small pilgrimage to Mini Punjab’s Lakeside Restaurant. Located in the north of the city in Powai, this restaurant boasts Mumbai’s largest thali who’s size demands that two waiters are needed to carry it over. With a selection of forty-four different traditional dishes this is a colossus of a feast, if you’re not sure what it is your eating ask the staff, they’re more than happy to tell you about the individual items. You’ll need a friend or two at least to tackle this one.

The Haji Ali Mosque is a shrine to a Sufi saint of the same name placed on a small island in Worli Bay. Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a wealthy Uzbek merchant and traveller who would come to settle in Mumbai in the 15th century. Having made the pilgrimage to Mecca Ali would go on to preach Islam in the city and gather a following to himself, legend states that he even performed a number of miracles. Built in 1431 this tomb is a wonderful example of Indo-Islamic architecture and is reachable by the causeway that connects it with Worli, which itself was one of the seven original islands of Mumbai.

Finally, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, there’s the Dharavi Slum to visit. This is one of the largest and most densely populated slums in the world. Made famous in Slumdog Millionaire the slum has a number of cottage industries such as leather tanners, potters, plastic recycling, repairing and re-supplying white goods. All this is packed into 520 square acres of prime real-estate along side a population of just under one-million. Finding a guide is a sensible idea as most are former, if not current, residents and you, as their guest, will be left alone by potential thieves. You can find these online or by asking your hotel or hostel. A tour of the slum gives visitors a taste of a vibrant community spirit and the industriousness of the people who call Dharavi home.

While you’re in the process of getting to grips with how things are done in Mumbai these are the best places to experience. In between dodging cows and hailing auto-rickshaws these locations will give, figuratively and literally, a taste for a city that has been through drastic changes during it’s history. From humble stone age villages, to Islamic, to colonial rule and now a global financial powerhouse, Mumbai thrives with it’s history very much still on display and interwoven with a boisterous modern city. Enjoy and mind the monkeys.

Dharavi Slum Tour

AYAN KHAN +91 77385 09198
dharavitours@gmail.com

Surviving Your First 48 Hours In Mumbai

A city of lights, where dreams are made and broken. This is where thousands from across the country flock to pursue their big-screen aspirations, a financial powerhouse, home to the rich and famous. But this isn’t LA, this is Mumbai. Even before the symbolic Gateway was finished in 1924 Mumbai was, and still is, a vital aperture to the rest of India. Many a traveller’s journey through the sub-continent still starts here.

However, Mumbai has a reputation as somewhere difficult to traverse and that is generally terrifying. When you tell people where you’re going on holiday you might get a sympathetic “oh, how lovely,” when what they really mean to say is, “another poor soul rammed into the black hole of Bombay, I can’t think of anything worse.”

Mumbai is definitely a place that can test even seasoned travellers. To start with it’s a densely populated metropolis. Estimated at over 20 million people it’s India’s most populous city and that number is only growing. Rush hour on the metro is enough to set off any claustraphobic’s anxiety. Then there’s the traffic, which is chaotic at best and doesn’t seem to follow any semblance of rules other than try not to kill anyone. Just crossing the road can be an ordeal.

There are beggars that will yank at your heart strings. Mother’s sitting on the roadside gesturing for food while carrying malnourished infants, people hauling themselves along on wheeled carts with withered legs tucked uselessly under them. There are all manner of disfigurements on display and in general the impoverished, the down-and-out and the low caste.

Questions of safety arise as well, there are pickpockets ready to steal cameras, wallets and passports, leaving you stranded. Female travellers especially might receive unwanted male attention and even be the victim of sexual attacks not just coming from strangers on the street but from hotel and hostel workers as well. On top of this is the worry of health, with food that might you sick and water reportedly unsafe to drink.

With all this to consider you might be asking yourself, why the hell would I want to expose myself to this place? Mumbai is certainly a place that can assault the senses and give you a good cultural slap in the face. But a lot of these problems are either over-hyped or can be overcome with a bit of preparation, a sense of adventure and the right mentality. Here is my advise for surviving your first 48 hours in Mumbai.

Be prepared for a shock. Nothing can truly prepare you for the sensory bombardment that is Bombay, that’s just part of the package, but you can prepare for eventualities before you go. Make sure to pack rehydration powder or tablets, these will be useful if you get Delhi Belly at any point in your trip or if you’re desperately hungover in Goa. These treatments contain the electrolytes and salts your body loses when you have diarrhoea and will help you recover quicker if you do get sick. Go to your GP or local clinic to find out what injections you might need, they can also supply you with anti-malarial tablets but whether or not you want to take those is a whole other article.

Hand sanitiser is a something you’ll want to take with you. Mumbai has a host of western toilets but there are still a lot of squat toilets and you may well be faced with using a spray-hose or jug of water as toilet paper is something of a luxury at times. Either way there aren’t many that have soap to wash your hands with after and the water may not the cleanest either.

Grabbing a large, secure padlock is a good idea, this will be useful to seal your room or locker if you’re at a lower end hotel or a hostel as other guests and even staff might forage through your possessions and will further secure your bag on trains and buses should you use them on your onward journey. In regards to water it’s a good idea to stick to bottled and not drink what comes out of the tap.

Book ahead, this might seem self-evident but there are those cavalier travellers who like to arrive and see where they end up. There is a certain romantic abandon in trusting to chance but on arriving in Mumbai for the first time it helps to have somewhere to go to when you arrive. Online reviews are your friend, a bit of research can help you turn up whether the staff are professional towards their guests and can set your mind at ease especially if you’re a solo female traveller. It’s nice having somewhere safe and relaxed to retreat to after a hectic day.

Navigating any new city can be problematic and Mumbai, with its labyrinthine streets and roads, is no exception. There are a couple of ways you can easily navigate your way around. The first is a very useful app called MAPS.ME. This app works via GPS and doesn’t need to be connected to Wi-Fi to work, you simply download the app at home and then the map you want to use while you’re away. I have found this app incredibly helpful in a number of countries. It’s not great with public transport and metro services but it’s brilliant for street navigation. Whether you’re on foot or trying to guide a taxi to your destination it cuts right through language barriers and gives you a clear idea of where you are, where you’re going and how to get there.

Once you arrive at the airport head for the prepaid taxi stand, this will get you where you want to go. You might have to ask for directions because it doesn’t stand out and isn’t all that well sign posted. Ignore any other taxi’s trying to grab your attention because they’ll give you an over priced fare and might take you on the “scenic” route via a friend’s shop. There might be a guy who takes your bags for you to put them in the car which might be helpful but he’s doing it expecting a tip. It’s a bit of a rip off, especially if you’ve just landed and might only have big notes to give (which some people count on). Personally I’ll put my own bags in the car just to avoid the situation but if you don’t feel like hauling your bag after a long flight go for it, 50-100 Rs is plenty enough for a tip. Don’t worry if they start tying your bags to the top of the taxi, they’re not going anywhere.

Now you’ll leave the relative safety of the airport and get thrown into Mumbai.. The further into the city you go the more hectic it gets, on the road you will see bull carts, taxis, luxury SUV’s, mopeds, bicycles, wagons, auto-rickshaws, tuk-tuks, pretty much any conceivable mode of transport used since 1500 AD. And that’s failing to mention there are dogs, monkeys and cows freely roaming the streets.

The laws of the road are treated merely as suggestions (although on my last trip I noticed most people stopped for red lights). Taxis do have a habit of making unannounced stops on their way to your destination. This can be particularly unnerving at 4AM when you’re jet lagged, have no clue where you are or why your down a shifty looking back ally. You are not being kidnapped, your driver is probably just grabbing cigarettes, a cup of chai or saying hello to a friend you happen to be passing. Strap in if your seat belt works and enjoy the ride.

If you want to be near the main attractions of Mumbai then the best places to stay are in Fort and Colaba. Here you’ll be a short drive away from Elephanta Island, Leopolds, the Taj Hotel, The Gateway To India and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus as well as other landmarks in the city. Navigating your way from place to place can be a bit daunting to a new comer. There’s the language barrier to deal with, a lot of drivers have a grasp of basic English but you shouldn’t expect nor rely on this.

Main attractions are easy to get to but finding your way back may present an issue. This is where MAP.ME would come in useful. As for the fare you might get ripped off a little bit. Learning fair prices and how to haggle is all part of the learning curve in India. Typically I suggest aiming to get the price down to at least half or even a third of the first price offered. It’s important, I think, not to get angry or to be rude while doing this. Think of it as a game, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Haggling is a must if you really want an authentic experience, barter economy is very much a part of the fabric of many Indians’ daily routine and it’ll be good practice for the rest of your trip if you start here.

There is something charming about not knowing where you are in a new city and finding your own way. However, if you don’t want to spend that time trying to find you way around and don’t want to be constantly haggling there are ways around this problem. Uber and Ola (India’s version of Uber) now operate in most major cities. These not only give you the local price for a fare but also cut out any confusion about getting to your destination. I’m not exaggerating when I say these apps are an absolute god-send when it comes to getting about.

Using these apps breeds another problem though; how do I connect to them? Roaming charges on your phone while abroad can be drastically high, that’s if you can connect to the internet in the first place. One way around this is to get an Indian sim-card for your phone, you can always pre-order one before you go, or, failing this you can always ask the receptionist at you hotel/hostel, they usually “know a guy” who can sort you out with one clandestinely. Alternatively look out for Airtel and Vodafone shops, these are the best and most widely connected providers in India. To obtain a sim-card from an official vendor you’ll need a copy of your passport, visa, your current address in India with proof you are staying there and your home address. Even then some simply don’t sell to tourists (this is to do with the way terrorist and rebel organisations have used disposable sims to organise attacks in the past).

The best way to get a sim is to be organised and get one before you go, you can get one from a street vendor, you’ll notice plenty of unofficial Airtel and Vodafone stalls scattered around. This can save you time and effort of getting one properly but then you run the risk of falling foul of rouge sellers and finding your card expires long before your trip does (but then you can always get another). This option could also land you in trouble with the police so it’s not an option I’d highly recommend but it is possible, just be sure to dispose of your card properly before leaving the country.

You can survive without a sim-card altogether if you don’t mind being out of touch on the move. You’d be wrong to think you’re stepping into a communications black hole when landing in Mumbai. India is an IT giant and over the last ten years infrastructure for better and faster internet connectivity has rapidly linked the country. Mumbai is at the forefront of this, the days of searching for an internet cafe all but consigned to history. Here you can find decent to excellent connections at most hotels and hostels, shopping centres, cafes and restaurants. So not getting a sim-card isn’t the end of the world. Getting an Uber or Ola from you hostel or hotel is simple, getting back might prove a bit more difficult if you can’t find Wi-Fi but at least then you could use MAPS.ME and have a good idea of a fair price for getting back.

Street food is something I’d recommend trying. Where ever you are this way of eating out has a way of directly to the heart of a culture and India is no exception with it’s rich culinary heritage. Here all you really need to do is apply common sense, go to a vendor and ask for something you’ve just seen being freshly cooked if you’re uncertain. Avoid anything that looks like it may have been sat around for a while in the heat and attracting flies.

When it comes to beggars that’s really up to you how you handle it. There are some who will just break your heart, especially the children. If you’re in India for a while it is something you have to steel yourself to and have to accept that you can’t help everyone. I had a rule of limiting myself to helping one person a day, whether that was buying them some food or just giving them some money. There are those who will try to take advantage by playing on the heartstrings feeding you some sob story but you really just have to go with your gut on this one.

Be cautious who’s around if you are going to hand over money, if other beggars spot you doing this they might think you’re a soft touch and come begging to you. Some may even go as far as to follow you, grilling you until you fork over some cash. Don’t. Just keep walking and ignore them, some are more persistent than others but eventually they will leave you alone. For these sometimes it’s a good idea to step into a cafe or restaurant for a cup of chai, they wont follow you inside.

For the safety of female travellers many believe it better to travel with a friend but I have met plenty of solo female travellers in India. The advice they have passed on is being aware of your surroundings, using common sense and going with you gut feeling. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable or is making unwanted advances make an excuse and leave. I’ve known many who have taken to wearing fake wedding rings as a deterrent. A stern no is sometimes all it takes, if all else fails make some noise, cause a scene, draw attention to the fact if you’re receiving unwanted attention. Going out at night alone is not overly advised but stick to busy roads if you do. If you’re alone and find it too stressful then befriend some fellow travellers, even if it’s for a few hours. There is safety in numbers. Though there may be those with some patriarchal throw backs in the city, Mumbai is very modern and considered one of, if not the, safest cities for female travellers in the subcontinent. This being said some caution is still needed.

As for personal belongings again use caution and common sense. When I’ve visited India I’ve always gone with something like a money belt or bum bag. This is where it’s best to keep your passport, money and card so that it’s always on your person either hidden away or in your line of sight. Try to keep valuables out of your pockets because thieves and even monkeys have their ways of getting in there without you noticing, especially in busy crowds. If you happen to be carrying a DSLR camera for that perfect shot you are advertising it to people looking for a five finger discount. Ensure you keep it by you at all times, even if you’re sat at cafe and make sure you have it securely strapped to you in the street else you might lose an expensive toy and worse still some brilliant pictures that you’ll treasure later on.

Mumbai is often described as being an assault on the senses and this is absolutely right. The vibrant colours, the cacophony of sounds, the smells both pungent and glorious, they all come at you unapologetically. But this is what makes Mumbai worth visiting, not a reason to stay away. Mumbai is like a hot bath, you can either dip your toe in and decide its too much or throw yourself in and find yourself surprised how quickly you adjust. This is a multicultural city at the forefront of a rising economic giant, with cultural, architectural and culinary heritage dating back centuries, where religions, languages and ceremonies of days gone by cohabit seamlessly with the modern age. So keep your wallet close, your eyes open, your heart strings primed and delve into Mumbai.

A Beginner’s Guide To Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan’s capital. The most populous metropolis in the world, rich in history, culture and culinary wonders. By day a city of consequence, with impressive high rises, palaces, cavernous shopping malls, well nurtured gardens and cherished temple. By night the vast cityscape shines with neon luminescence, the trains at rush hour quite literally packed, there are themed bars, clubs, restaurants and karaoke to sing your heart out to. Naturally it can be a bit confusing trying to decide just where to start and what to do when there is so much on offer. Here a few pointers for your first visit to Tokyo.

When flying into the city you’ll land at either of Tokyo’s two main airports, Haneda or Narita. Once you’ve cleared customs you’ll want to get a PASMO card which you can use for Tokyo’s train and bus services (much like an OYSTER). You can get them from the tourist information post or from a ticket machine and cost3000 with2500 pre-loaded. Haneda is the nearest and easiest to travel from, here you can simply get on the underground from the arrivals terminal. Narita takes a bit more time and attention. Located on the outskirts of Greater Tokyo you have to take the Skyliner, a train service that links you to the main stations such as Nippori and Ueno. Skyliner tickets have to be purchased separately, once you’re at one of the main stations in Tokyo you can start using the PASMO.

The underground itself is the best and most efficient way to get around, with services starting from 5AM and finishing at 12PM. The only thing to really avoid (if you like your personal space) is travelling during peak rush hour. There are guards whose job it is to pack people into the trains and make a sardine tin look spacious. Politeness is something passengers pride themselves on and will not play loud music or make phone calls during their journey. Don’t get worried if you don’t know any of the language. There are station guards everywhere to ask for information and announcements are often made and displayed in English as well as Japanese.

Once you’ve got a grasp on how to get around there are plenty of places to visit. Shibuya is home to the iconic crossing you may have seen used in films like Lost In Translation. At night it shines bright with neon signs over ahead and loud advertisements on huge screens adorning the towering buildings around you. As an economic centre Shibuya is one of the more bustling places in an already busy city. There are pubs, clubs and restaurants galore to choose from here, bring an appetite. With designer and low key shopping spots this is somewhere you can treat yourself and find some souvenirs. It’s also home to a number of love hotels where you and a partner can have some privacy for an hour or two or even the whole evening.

Shinjuku is a lot like Shibuya, a booming economic centre, boasting one of the busiest train stations in the world, loud and colourful, with places to eat, shop and drop. It also has one of my personal favourite spots; Golden Gai. This is one of the quirkier parts of the city and stands out because it doesn’t. In this small segment of Shinjuku there aren’t any bright neon lights or high rises, instead you’ll find two story, unassuming, shanty style bars with more character than seat space. This is one of the few spots in Tokyo that hasn’t been redeveloped. These bars can cram from five to thirty people inside where you can make quick friends. The mix of punters ranges from Japanese business men to travellers and professional gaijins. None of which matters when you’ve all sunk some Sake and someone starts playing Wonderwall. Some are just for locals but if you politely venture inside and find yourself turned away there are plenty more to explore. Some have themes, some do karaoke and food. All are worth exploring.

Harajuku is great if you want some animé style cosplay gear. Here there are a teaming series of ally ways to get some alternative shopping done. There is some seriously weird and wonderful fashion on display here not just in the shop fronts but on the shoppers as well. It’s a hotspot to let your quirky sense of style shine out. There are number of animal cafés where you can eat and have drinks in the company of owls, dogs and cats. Then just the other side of Harajuku’s main station is the Meiji Shrine. The buildings themselves are located within a 170 acre forest, a bit of a contrast when stepping out of a metropolis like Tokyo. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1867 to 1912 during a period of rapid industrialisation for Japan.

Asakusa is the place to go hunting for souvenirs, especially down Nakamise Shopping Street. This open air market has everything, food, sake sets, lanterns, chopsticks, Godzilla figurines, kimonos, artisanal knives. The list goes on. At the top of the street is Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of the most visited in Japan, the pagoda is particularly grand when lit up at night. Around the corner from here is the workshop of David Bull. David is a Ukiyo-e craftsman, a 400 year old wood carving and printing tradition. Having had individual success, despite no formal training, David has now teamed up with American illustrator Jed Henry. Together they take modern animé and video game characters and put a Ukiyo-e twist on them, a highly interesting fusion. I couldn’t resist and bought a couple of prints myself. If you want to know more about David and Jed’s work watch the documentary Ukiyo-e Heroes.

If you’re a fan of animé and manga you’ll want to go to Akihabara. By night this is one of the brightest districts of Tokyo (and that’s saying something). This is an area that has been shaped by Otaku culture and is decorated all over with iconic characters from animé and manga universes. Along with the decorations and building designs you’ll see cosplayers walking the streets giving you the feeling that you really have stepped into a different world. Akihabara also has a large number of maid cafés where the waitresses dress in over the top costumes, sing and dance while they serve your food and drinks. You might not have a clue what’s going on but they’re worth going into just for the experience.

Ueno is where to head to if you’re looking for a walk in a park and to soak up some history and culture. Home to Ueno Park you can take a stroll here past Buddhist temples, ponds and fountains. The park is especially popular in April when the cherry blossoms come into bloom. There are many museums in the area such as The Museum of Nature and Science and The Metropolitan Art Museum. For me The National Museum stood out with it’s collection of significant historical art pieces, archaeological finds, Buddhist manuscripts and examples of armour and clothing throughout different periods in Japanese history.

Near to Iidabashi station is Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Japan’s best loved gardens. Started in 1629 they are amongst Japan’s oldest. Containing, in miniature, examples of both Japanese and Chinese landscapes it is one of only three remaining Daimyō gardens in Japan. This is a place where you can find some peace and tranquility within Tokyo, away from teaming streets and busy roads. Like Ueno Park the gardens are especially popular in April when the Sakura come into bloom. If you happen to be in the gardens while a game is being played at the near by Tokyo Dome you may even think the ancestors are cheering you on your discoveries. Part of Tokyo Dome City, a huge entertainment complex, the dome itself hosts baseball games, concerts from home grown and international artists, martial arts contests and even monster truck events. Within the rest of the complex is a shopping mall, amusement park and Onsen spa. Iidabashi itself has plenty of restaurants to choose from. With the park to roam, rides to make you scream and plenty to eat, you could easily spend a day here.

The Imperial Palace, also known as the Imperial Residence, is located a short walk from Tokyo Station. The official residence of The Emperor and surrounded by a huge moat the nearly half a mile area boasts some of the most valuable real-estate in the world. The East Gardens around Old Edo Castle itself are freely accessible before 5PM. For a tour of the Palace and surrounding buildings you can book online with the Imperial Household Agency. Alternatively you can show up at the Kikyomon Gate before tours start at 10AM or 1.30PM (except Mondays and Sundays), though you are not guaranteed a spot on a tour. Tours usually last an hour but routes can change due to Residence and Court activities.

Apart from all of these places there are some other experiences on offer in Tokyo that really should be taken in. Taiko is the Japanese tradition of playing a drum or drums usually in a group. There is something truly affecting, powerful and unique in these performances and something that connects you directly with the heart of Japan. Though groups like Kodo come and go through Tokyo with a bit of online detective work you should be able to track down a show or even a workshop where you get to try your hand.

Karaoke is a new experience here, this isn’t someone killing you softly down the pub. There are whole tower blocks dedicated to it. This really must be done as a group activity. You get your own room, with a phone to call for drinks and snacks, a tablet computer with an array of songs to choose from and some very low budget video accompaniments that are oddly charming. You might get your own instruments to bang along with and sometimes there’s fancy dress. This really is something fun to try out.

Like any major city Tokyo can put a squeeze on a tight budget but don’t let that stop you from getting around, the underground is very affordable. If you are on a budget avoid taxis, the rides are always pleasant, it’s just the bill at the end might that cause you some discomfort. On first arrival this sprawling metropolis might be a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t know the language. Everything starts making sense pretty quickly though and you’ll soon find yourself enthralled by the bright energy here. Tokyo is one of those places that you could visit time and again and still find something new and wonderful. If you’re finding it hard knowing where to begin these are great places to start your adventure.

Go!

There shines the horizon
A golden arch where
The done day goes
Before it a treacherous sea
Her hostile convulsions have ruined
Many a poor mariner
The skies above, black,
Pour woe, wailing bitter curses
Split asunder by blue fire
Summoning the drums of oblivion
Still the question demands
“What lies beyond?”
Should I traverse the waking gulfs
What would I find?
Some far green country
Of plenty and wonder
Or deceitful rocks
That sit unseen until too late
Is this some flight of fancy?
Do I risk devastation
By rising for something
I do not know I can reach?
Behind me are safe shores
I know which way the wind blows
And where there is shelter to be sought
But I know
And that gilded arch
Where the sun goes to be renewed
Taunts me to go seeking
I have already come to port
My vessel awaits, proved upon
The waves she may be
There is nothing which is made
That cannot be undone
Even this eternal ocean
Will someday succumb
I come to it then
I may land at the coast of Elysium
I may come to ruin on a cruel fate
The way ahead is turbulent
That is certain
With that assured cast off
Hoist the sail to catch the wind
Stand true to the mast
Hold fast to hope
And answer that calling from fathoms
Unbeknownst to oceans
Go!

Utila: A Hidden Gem

A few months ago I was in need of an adventure. Something to get me away from the daily grind, away from grey skies and into azure seas. I wanted to do something new, experience something I had never done before. Unfortunately it felt like my budget was far smaller than my ambitions.

That’s when I heard of a small island off the coast of Honduras. A friend of mine had gone travelling some months before through Central America. On her travels she had stopped at what looked like something straight off a postcard. Stalking through her Facebook pictures I knew I had to see this place for myself. After a bit of an online catch up I found out it was one of the cheapest places around to learn to scuba dive. The next day I booked two weeks off from work, I was going to Utila.

One month, one train and two nearly missed flights later I landed in San Pedro Sula. I was greeted by a pan flute band playing a hauntingly beautiful version of The Sound Of Silence. The taxi driver I’d organised with my hostel was waiting for me with my name on a sign. With his decent English and my broken Spanish we managed to communicate well enough during the journey. He pointed out a couple of neighbourhoods during the ride and I definitely understood I’d be shot and robbed if I ventured into those. Bullet wounds have never been a souvenir I’ve been keen to come away with.

I had faced the decision of either flying direct from San Pedro Sula to Utila’s airstrip or to neighbouring Roatan and getting the ferry from there. The flights ran on Monday,Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 3pm. At £60-85 for a one way flight I didn’t fancy blowing part of my budget that could otherwise be spent more frivolously.

Instead I chose to stay in San Pedro over night at a hostel. The dorm rooms averaged at £7.50. I stayed at one called La Hamaca and was perfectly comfortable for the night. I caught a coach from the municipal centre at 4am the next morning and paid £11 for a ticket to La Ceiba (having pre-booked the ticket at the hostel). The journey got me there in plenty of time for the morning ferry at 9am (the second is at 4.40pm). Once there I purchased a ticket for the ferry at £17, though the cost for this can vary depending on high and low season (I went in March, just at the beginning of high season).

The ride took a little over an hour, after watching La Ceiba and the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains disappear I went to the front of the boat to look for Utila. It started out as the thinnest slither on the horizon, then the tallest point, Pumpkin Hill, became clear. The water turned turquoise as the sea bed shallowed and I greeted by boats and quirky water front bars that were soon to become familiar.

Part of the Bay Islands, it’s situated on the Mesoamerican Reef System, second in size and diversity only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Between the 1550’s and 1700’s the area was caught in conflicts between the Spanish and British as they sought to dominate the Caribbean. All the while pirates such as Henry Morgan would use islands like Utila as bases to gather supplies and store plunder. Today there are still plenty of wrecks to be explored, and maybe even some pirate treasure to be found.

I was in pure holiday mode during the first few days, just enjoying eating, drinking and soaking up the sun. The average cost for a four bed dorm was £8 a night and eating out was cheap costing anything from 50p for light bites and snacks to £15 if I really want to treat myself. A bottle of beer typically cost £1. Tuk-tuk taxis were an inexpensive way to get up and down the main strip and some of the back roads.

After the first couple of days I wanted to be a bit more independent and fancied exploring the island more. There were plenty of rental places up and down the main strip with bicycles, mopeds, off-road motorbikes, quad bikes and golf carts for rent. Bicycles cost £7 a day and mopeds average £13-17, although you may be able to get a discount if you’re hiring for a week. Not all places offer this up front but it doesn’t hurt to ask. I got a little moped for a few days which was perfect for zipping up and down the main strip and some of the other roads. When it came to riding down some of the dirt tracks to get to Pumpkin Hill and some of the more secluded beaches it was hard going but manageable. If you’re feeling that adventurous it might be worth thinking about spending a bit more for something more suited to off roading.

After visiting a few diving schools I got a feel for the average prices and what was on offer. For beginner and advanced courses the cost was £210 which includes all of your gear. Some offered free accommodation for four nights while I was learning which was definitely a bonus. I ended up with Underwater Vision which I would highly recommend for the atmosphere.

The teaching was top quality, we were all well acquainted with our equipment and what to do in an emergency before we even got in the water. Our instructors were professional, patient, explained everything in depth while having a sense of fun and adventure at the same time. For someone like myself who was slightly anxious about being in the open water the instruction on this course gave me total confidence being in the open sea.

However, the main thing that concerned me was diving ethically. Just before I left for Utila I read that in Thailand, Maya Bay, made famous in The Beach, had been closed to tourists to allow for the reef there to recover from intensive visitation. Tourism can have a devastating effect on local flora and fauna, especially delicate corals. What struck me about Utila was the pride that the residents take in the beauty of their island. Due to its location plastic and other waste often washes up on the otherwise postcard perfect beaches. It doesn’t stick around for long though, teams of locals will lovingly clean the beaches, tourists can get in on this as well. Dive centres like Underwater Vision do a weekly clean up run with instructors and students taking part. Most of the beaches are protected as well, there are warning signs and heavy fines against those thinking of illegal fishing or removing shells or corals.

When it came to diving itself all of the instructors have a clear passion for maintaining the beauty of the reef. While in the water they remained watchful of their pupils, reminding us to not get too near the coral should we drift too close. Most instructors are against interacting with the wildlife and instead prefer to lead their groups in observing only. An exception is made for the Red Lion Fish, an invasive species which preys upon native reef maintaining animals such as the Cleaner Shrimp. Instructors and locals spear hunt the fish which has become something of a delicacy on the island.

A lot is being done locally to maintain the reef system and islands but as my instructor, Sam Cogin, told me the problem of conservation is a global one.

“I came here for a few dives. I never thought I would stay for a long time. What kept me here was a combination of self improvement in diving, a lot of amazing people and just really the ability to stay away from Australia and meet new people every day and create experiences.

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching people how to dive. I have made significant changes in my life to try and conserve what we have and being able to show people and explain why its important to reduce consumption. Looking after what’s left while we have it has been really enjoyable and rewarding for me.

My first impressions of the reef were I thought that it was amazing and spectacular. To be honest I think globally more needs to be done in relation to dealing with global warming and the introduction of MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas). I think that addressing this locally will be a short lived adventure. Obviously having Marine Protected Areas in local communities is a great effort but will be short lived long term if the water doesn’t stop getting warmer.”

I spent two very happy weeks on Utila. When it came time to leave I skipped the morning ferry just so I could enjoy a few more hours. Learning to scuba dive was an other worldly experience, one that I’ll be looking to repeat. When your certificate arrives in the post back home it really is something to brighten up the post holiday blues. It was a great way to bond with people, I became quick friends with my dive group. Once the day’s dive is done you’ll probably find yourself headed to a bar with your group like I did. The island has a relaxed vibe to it, no one is in a rush here, everyone is welcoming and I didn’t think twice about walking home alone at night.

Utila is one of those hidden gems, it’s not a five star resort, it’s not a cruise ship destination and that’s part of its charm. The simple life is best here, it wont blow your wallet, most of the bars are wooden shacks, full of character and characters. As for the natural beauty, you’ll find yourself in a hammock, sipping a beer, suspended over clear blue waters wondering why you don’t give the nine to five the sack and stay. There really is love for the island from the locals and long termers, it’s infectious. You might catch it too.cropped-29244070_10156264008364413_1129336078247919616_o1.jpg

Climb

When I was little there was a tree in my back garden. It was huge! Tall and lanky, it towered over the neighbourhood, when a wind kicked up it would sway and swing like a drunk leaving the pub. I used to love climbing it, it was my favourite thing, you couldn’t get me down from there. At first I used to hang around in the lower branches, safe in the knowledge that if i fell the ground wasn’t too far below. After a while, though, the lower branches lost their appeal, suddenly they didn’t feel so high after all. I started to venture further up and found, after the initial discomfort, the view was better from up here. After that I was hooked, everyday I’d venture a bit further than I dared.
One day the wind got real ferocious, I was about halfway up now and clung to the trunk fearing I might be blown away. I wasn’t, I weathered the storm and I found my resolve strengthened. The worst had happened but there I still clung.
Suddenly the swaying tree didn’t seem so ominous, now I’d met with it properly. I redoubled my efforts and soon enough I knew every branch on my ascent like an old friend and I would swing in the breeze at the top most with what felt like the whole world before me.

Wading In The Nature Of Things

After a slight debacle with a cash machine in a near by village we returned to Hampi ready for the day. We headed down to the Sacred Ghats and caught a motorised boat at the crossing there, less scenic than the coracle but also less expensive. On the other bank I hired us a moped and we headed toward Anjeyanadri Hill, believed to the birthplace of Lord Hanuman. Shell quickly dubbed the bike The Colostomiser, it was a rickety, rusty old thing that lurched to the right of its as though possessed. The state of the roads didn’t help either, especially as there was no suspension, the ride was more like a beating specifically for our bottoms and genitals. I expected the thing to fall apart underneath us at any moment and I prayed to the Gods that nothing pulled out suddenly in front of us as the brakes we almost none existent, something I neglected to tell Shell.

Luckily we got to the foot of the hill in one piece, purchased some bananas in the dusty car park there and started our ascent up the zig-zagging white stairs. Very soon we were drenched in sweat as the mid-day sun beat down on us making us wish we had gotten there earlier in the morning. It wasn’t long, either, till the macaques started to gather expectantly around us. A large, rather brazen male sat in the middle of the stairs and fixed us with demanding eyes. We edged past and he followed us on the edge of the stairs until some others climbing the path took his fancy.

After some huffing and puffing we reached the top, all sweaty and panting. The temple itself was not overwhelming, inside it rang and thumped while the Vedas were recited, pilgrims bowed before idols in praise. What really struck me was the view, before us was a vast landscape, doted with brown-gold rocks beyond reckoning, even the hill we’d just climbed looked like it was made of several enormous boulders just stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Out from the sun baked rocks called banana plantations and fields of crops, a vibrant green as the cobalt river snaked its way through the land. We sat around for a while, feeding the macaques and watching their habits before starting down again.

We rode around trying to find a route to Cesare’s shrine, eventually we were pointed down dirt road which ended in a ford. Leaving the moped I splashed my face in the river to cool off while buffalo and white robbed pilgrims passed by. As we crossed I noticed the ford itself had been made using discarded blocks from temple ruins. It was great crossing history like that and I daydreamed about where they may once have stood and how they had come to lie there. The whole place was like that, it whispered with a promise; a promise that every rock, temple and discarded block had a story to tell. I would gladly hear every one of them. I thought back to Elephanta Island where we’d seen the sculpture of the Triumti. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Birth, life and death, the three cosmic functions deified, each function existing for and because of the other. The very machinery of the cosmos which binds all things in a cycle of deaths and renweals, here I was walking across it. Watching as the crystal waters flowed over those old blocks it was so very clear to me then. That which is made fades, crumbles and through it’s own destruction is made a new, not as it was but something else. As the water refreshed my feet it was with a thrill I realised I was wading in the very nature things.