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Feeling like Royalty at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Interested in Japanese culture, heritage, and history? If the answer to any of these is yes, visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward is a must. The Palace is situated almost at the center of Tokyo, defining the heart of the city.

Being the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is situated in a large park and contains a number of buildings, such as the main palace, the private residence of the Imperial family, a number of museums and administration offices, and an archive, among others. This is because the current modern palace, also called Kyuden, was designed to host court functions and receptions, as well as being the residence of the Emperor and Empress.

We grabbed the metro at Korakuen Station (our accommodation was in Bunkyo City) and took the Marunouchi Line to arrive at Otemachi Station, only a six-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

In front of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge

Walking along one of the 12 moats surrounding the Palace, we were pleasantly surprised by the magnificent view of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge whose name literally means ‘Main Gate Stone Bridge’. Its twin stone arches, perfectly reflected in the crystalline palace moat, create an atmosphere of idyllic serenity, not to mention the perfect photographic background when viewed from Kyuden Plaza just in front of the Palace Main Gates. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sites, this bridge is also called Magane-bashi or ‘the eyeglass bridge’ or ‘the spectacles bridge’, due to its distinct look. Unfortunately, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge is not accessible to the public, therefore one can take as many photos as one wants, but no one can actually cross it. Pictures of the stunning double bridge soaring over the canal, leading into the fortified walls with the Imperial Palace in the background more than make up for not being able to walk on it though.

After taking a million photos, we were approaching the public facilities right next to the main gate, when we saw a tour guide and a number of people waiting nearby and realised that most of the Imperial Palace could only be visited with a tour guide! We hadn’t been aware of that at all, but we were very lucky as the walking tour in question was about to start, and it was free. There were a few open places too so we could just register and be part of the group there and then without even booking! How fortunate is that?!

So, beware. Unless you visit with a guided tour, most of the Palace and grounds, except for the Imperial Household Agency (a governmental agency building) and the East Gardens, are not open to the public. Fortunately, such free 1.5 hour walking tours as the one we encountered by pure chance are available from Tuesday to Saturday. These free guided tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency and are available in a number of languages (there are different tour guides). English, Chinese and Spanish are among the languages catered for. Tours start at 10am and 13.00 in winter, and at 10am only in summer. Although we were lucky enough to find two available places in the tour while we were there, it is always better to book beforehand. To book this tour, and for more information, you can access the Imperial Household Agency website.

The Imperial Palace’s Main Gate – Pic Source: alamy.com

The guided tours normally start in front of the Palace’s Main Gate. It is a very good tour and the guide was very nice, providing an explanation of the history and background of the castle, and even showing us photos of the current Imperial family. At the start of the tour, we were given a badge and asked to fill a form, then we were taken to a large pavilion where there was a baggage-checkpoint. There were also lockers where, for a small price, one could leave one’s belongings in order not to be encumbered with them during the tour. I really recommend leaving your stuff in one of the lockers as the tour is quite a walk! There were literally hundreds of other people waiting in the pavilion, where the guides gave out some instructions in different languages and sorted us into groups depending on the language we preferred our tour to be in.

In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, center left, and Empress Michiko, center right, smile at Prince Hisahito, fifth from right. Also pictured are from left, Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, Princess Mako, behind Akihito, Princess Aiko, Princess Kako, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito and Princess Kiko.

The tour guide recounted how the present Imperial Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, residence of the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The total area comprising of grounds and castle, spans 1.15 square kilometres. In 1873 a fire consumed the old Shogun residence, and the current Imperial Palace was constructed on the same site in 1888.

The Imperial Palace grounds are divided into 6 wings, however we were not able to visit them all, not even with the guide. Of course, the Emperor’s residential area (found in Fukiage Garden) and the Emperor’s work office were out of bounds.

We started the tour by walking through the Main Gate and into the beautiful Ni-no-maru gardens at the lower level of the Palace.Then, we discovered another bridge, this one made of metal, spanning the moat right behind Seimon Ishibashi Bridge and having the same twin arches structure. This was the Nijubashi Bridge, which is accessible to the public. In fact we had to cross it, since it leads directly to the main Imperial Palace buildings.

Crossing Nijubashi Bridge

The first building we encountered during our guided tour was the picturesque Fishimi Yagura – a turret and look-out in which weapons used to be stored, and from which archers could defend the palace against invading armies. The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower (1659) is a three-story square-shaped fort which had become the symbol of Edo Castle after the castle’s main tower was rebuilt following the great fire of 1657.

The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower

We also spotted Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower, which is the last remaining corner watchtower pertaining to the original Edo Castle.

The Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower

We walked on to the Chowaden Reception Hall, which is the largest structure in the Palace, and which is the place where the Japanese Imperial family appear to give blessings to the public every new year, and on the Emperor’s birthday. It is also where official state functions and ceremonies are held. During the tour we were also taken to a number of other Halls, such as the Seiden State Function Hall and the Homeiden Banquet Hall.

Following the tour, one can freely roam through Kogyo-gaien National Park, which is situated at the southern tip of the Palace grounds. Personally, if you plan on visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (and I really suggest you do), I would recommend allocating at least two or three hours for the experience, since the tour itself can take from 1.5 to 2 hours, and you’d definitely need at least another half an hour to walk around and enjoy the surroundings.

Snowdon – The Highest Mountain in Wales

Whenever we look up at a mountain, one of the first questions we usually ask ourselves is, ‘I wonder what it all looks like from up there?’ Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon, is no exception. Its summit offers without a doubt, the grandest view in Wales – not a surprise, since at 1.085 meters (3.560 ft) high, Snowdon is the highest mountain in all of not only Wales, but also England. And this is why I absolutely had to visit this monumental site while I was in Wales a while ago.

I must admit – I am not a very sports-minded person. I don’t like walking much, and I have never tried mountain-climbing, which is why I have frequently thought that reaching the summit of a mountain for me would be practically impossible. Fortunately however, I was totally wrong. At least with regards to Snowdon. This is because the summit of Snowdon, also known as the ‘roof of Wales’, can be reached not only on foot, but also by railway. Be warned however, tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis, so the easiest thing to do if you want to journey up the mountain by train, is to visit the official website and book your seats beforehand, instead of trying your luck at the ticket booth. I have spoken to a number of people who made the journey to Snowdon, which is found within the Snowdonia National Park in the county of Gwynedd, and who told me that once they arrived at the ticket booth, they had to leave empty handed, as the train-carriages were all fully booked for that day already. So, it’s much better to plan ahead and make hay while the sun shines.

In front of the small train station

My journey to Snowdon was a memorable one. I had done my homework so I knew that the railway is usually closed from October to March, since the mountain can be quite dangerous during the bad winter-time weather, which is why I visited the park in September. I had also found a number of YouTube videos of the train journey, uploaded by errant tourists, therefore I also realized that the train-carriages were not large, and that they each had limited capacity, which is why I booked my tickets online. When we arrived, we parked our rented car at the Pen-y-Pass car-park, which is directly in front of the restaurant, gift-shop and ticket booth found at the foot of the mountain. There was a very nice parker there who refused to let us pay before we had checked whether the train was actually working on that day or not, since there was a bit of a high wind and trains usually do not make the journey during bad weather (in such cases, full refunds are given). Everything was fine however, so our hope of reaching the summit on that day were fulfilled.

Our train!

The train was really cute and small and we couldn’t refrain from taking some selfies with it. We boarded and started our ride, which we knew would be 4.7 miles (7.6 km) long and take approximately two and a half hours – one hour to the summit, half an hour there, and then another hour back. I was immediately struck by the beautiful atmosphere and panorama which one can admire from the train-carriages itself. These have huge glass panels from where one can take as many photographs as one likes. The train chugged along slowly, both to give us tourists a chance to take pictures, and also because the mountain terrain is not easy to traverse. A multitude of sheep and goats looked at us pass by slowly, while we gazed in wonder at the magical panorama unfolding around us. Gone were all traces of modern civilization, as we were surrounded by nature, animals and plants. Snowdonia National Park is in fact a national nature reserve and contains a large number of rare flora and fauna.

The view from the train

As the driver told us about how Snowdon Mountain was formed out of volcanic rocks sculpted by ice during the Ice Age, we were further amazed to see a waterfall plunging majestically into a 20 metre gorge directly below us. Cameras clicked madly as the train emerged into the open, treeless countryside and we had the first glimpse of the sharp peak of Snowdon. The landscape all around us was dotted with many tiny abandoned, simple shepherd-dwellings. Just behind the ridge, we could also see the Snowdon Ranger path, as well as the youth hostel. Some intrepid young people, burdened with climbing gear, picnic baskets, and jackets, were starting to walk along the track up the mountain and we waved at them gleefully as we passed. While the journey from Llanberis (that is, the foot of the mountain) to the small station at the summit, takes an hour by train, it usually takes around 6 hours covering between 7 to 10 miles, for those who brave the journey on foot, depending of course, on the path taken. There are in fact, six main routes to the summit, ranging from ‘beginner’ to ‘expert’ mountain climbing skills. Climbing the mountain on foot is not as hard as one might think, especially in good weather conditions, however one must keep in mind that the right equipment, know-how, and resources are needed. Mountain slopes can be treacherous and slippery, and in fact a large number of people were injured and even fell and died while climbing this mountain throughout the years.

Snowdon village could be seen below us at this point. We could also see the passage of time when we looked at the old quarry near it, which showed the sedentary rock blending into slate. Very colorful and interesting. As the train continued its journey upwards, we could also see the Hill of the Falcon in the distance – so called because it is the home of a large number of rare Peregrine Falcons, as well as Llydaw Lake, which is one of Snowdonia’s deepest lakes. Half-way up the mountain we stopped in order for the train to re-fill its tanks and for the tourists to have a cup of coffee at the halfway Café. It was really getting chilly at this point, and I bemoaned my fingerless gloves and thin hood, which weren’t nearly enough to protect me from the glacial climate. Beyond the coffee shop, we could see Glaslyn Lake, with its seemingly black and silent waters. I could very well understand how this strange place could inspire people to believe in the legend of the afanc, which is a water-monster who is thought to reside in it. Another legend relating to Snowdon Mountain relates how the giant Rhitta Gawr, who wore a cloak made out of men’s beards, was killed by King Arthur after trying to take his beard, and is buried at the top of Snowdon.

Glaslyn Lake

As we approached the summit, it was so cold that the drops of mist were like rain against the window panes. Everything was obscured as we entered a cloud of condensation, and as the doors opened to admit us to the coffee shop station at the top, we were told to be careful and not miss the train which would go back in 30 minutes, as there would be no more journeys for that day. Frozen stiff and knowing that the best was yet to come, we started walking towards the peak which, we were told, was only a few steep steps ahead. Wet, slippery, uneven steps, which one had to climb in the blinding mist and freezing wind. I admit at this point I was quite scared, but I consoled myself by thinking about the amazing view awaiting me. Snowdon is well known to offer one of the most extensive views of the British Isles – since in good weather Ireland, Scotland, England and the Isle of Man are all visible, as well as 24 counties, 29 lakes, and 17 islands.

Reaching the Summit
The height marker at the peak of the mountain

Unfortunately for me, this was not one of those days. Snowdon is close to the sea which means that the weather changes frequently. The only thing I saw from the summit was a wall of mist. I took a photograph with the height marker at the peak, and we went back for the return one-hour ride. Although I did not get to see the famous panorama I was aiming for, I still feel like it was a memorable experience because the journey up the mountain was an adventure in itself. Still – Snowdon remains an unreachable mystery, so perhaps someday I will go back, and who knows, maybe that day I will try to brave one of its rock-climbing routes on foot.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

German Sausages and Sauerkraut!

German cuisine, like any other European cuisine, is very tasty and has evolved though hundreds of years of social upheaval, political turmoil and economic/trading fluctuations. It varies from region to region, yet on the other hand, shares a number of famous recipes with a number of neighboring countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands.

The first time I journeyed to Germany, I was sorry not to have time to sample any local food, since I was there to attend a three-day heavy metal festival (Wacken Open-air Festival) and to be honest I was more worried about pitching my tent and not getting all my stuff wet in the mud, rather than actually exploring the country.

Fortunately for me, these last few years I had the opportunity to visit Germany twice, both for leisure purposes, and I finally had the time and inclination to sample some of its most notorious food.

I was staying at a self-catering apartment during both of my visits to Germany, so also had the opportunity to cook while I was there. My visit to a German supermarket was a revelation – sausages, sausages, and more sausages! So many brands, sizes, colors and varieties! I was seriously impressed!

So many varieties!

There are too many German sausages to mention them all – the most well-known is perhaps the Bratwurst, which is a sausage made from minced pork and beef, usually grilled and served with sweet mustard in a breadroll. My boyfriend went crazy for itand bought three while we were roaming around a German Christmas market, even though it was still 9am!

Pigging Out!

The Frankfurter (bockwurst) is another well-known German sausage. As the name suggests, it originated in Frankfurt and is made with veal and pork flavored with pepper and paprika. One must also not fail to mention the really tasty Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, which is usually flavored with marjoram and served with sauerkraut and horseradish. As is the Knackwurst, which is made from beef and flavored with garlic.

By the way, yes ‘wurst‘ means ‘sausage’ in German. In case you hadn’t noticed!

Another staple of German cuisine, is the much-vaunted Sauerkraut.

I’m going to write it up-front – I DO NOT LIKE SAUERKRAUT. I tasted it twice while I was in Germany, and after that I promised myself, I’d never eat it again. Be it as it may, that is my personal opinion, and most people seem to really like it, so perhaps I’m a minority in this case.

The Sauerkraut is in the middle!

Although sauerkraut is synonym to Germany and has been a staple in the German diet since the 1600s, it was in fact ‘invented’ by the Chinese, who first had the idea to ferment cabbages in their own juices, which is the basic idea behind this dish. Its popularity as a side dish (most restaurants in Germany insert sauerkraut instead of the usual salad as a side-plate) not to mention its many health properties make it a ‘superfood’. It is not only a low-calorie and low-fat food, but also chock-full with vitamins.

Sauerkraut has a long shelf-life and a distinct sour flavor. No wonder really – since as previously mentioned it consists of fermented cabbage. There are many many varieties of sauerkraut. Some pickle carrots together with the shredded cabbage, others include apples or cranberries for additional flavor, or else beets for color. Some serve it hot and some serve it cold. There are those who add seeds or berries, others use it in soups or even pie fillings.

If you’re interested in trying to cook it, here‘s one of the many good recipes I found online while researching this article.

A Sea Adventure – The Inner Hebrides Archipelago in Scotland!

As the ferry broke away from the mainland and onto the cold Atlantic, I clapped on my fluffy ear-muffs and took a deep breath of the freezing pure air. I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland, towards the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands within the archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides.

The port of Oban

My camera clicked madly as the crossing took us through a large number of small islands, both habited and uninhibited, which form part of this archipelago. Random ruined castles, modern lighthouses, tiny hamlets, and small forests standing proudly amidst the roar of the surf, filled my vision.

The one-day trip to visit three of the most famous islands within the Inner Hebrides had not been a spur of the moment decision. We had in fact, booked and paid for it online weeks before actually setting foot on Scotland, in order to make sure that the date was solidly set beforehand. We were lucky in that we managed to visit during the last week of September, since passage for tourists to two out of the three islands we were visiting, is never possible during winter-time. Bookings were accepted up to the beginning of October, subject to weather conditions of course.

Oban – On the West coast of Scotland

Leaving our rented car parked snugly at Oban, we collected our combo-tickets from the ticket office, and set off towards the Ferry Terminal Railway Peer. There are a number of cruise companies which offer combo tickets at not much more than £45 per person. Such tickets usually include all the ferries to and from the specific islands one wishes to visit, as well as any possible coaches or busses, and the relevant guides. In our case, we opted to visit the Islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

The comfortable ferry, which sported a wine-bar and cafeteria, made port at Craignure on Mull, the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after the Isle of Skye. We were greeted by our coach-driver and guide, who was herself a native of Mull, and who proceeded to drive us around the picturesque island for around an hour, recounting anecdotes about the various ruins, legends, and even personages who had lived there. I must admit that without her lilting cheerful voice narrating so many colourful stories, I might have started to feel a little cramped at this point. This was because we had no time to stop anywhere or to walk around and visit Mull properly, since we had to travel directly to Fionnphort on the other side of the island, in order to catch yet another ferry to the Isle of Iona. The day was cloudy, windy and quite cold, and the gentle Scottish rain pattered on the windows of the coach, making it impossible for us to take any photos along the way. We could still admire the isle itself though. A lush picturesque symphony of moorland, mountain scenery and coastal views, dotted with small cottages and many many sheep. Our guide informed us that on Mull there were in fact three sheep for every human being.

The Isle of Iona

The ferry we boarded at Fionnphort was markedly smaller than the first one. There was a middle space reserved for one or two small cars, and some railings for pedestrians to perch on at the sides. The presence of the wind was much more pronounced on such a small craft. A couple of dogs yapped steadily as we bobbed up and down towards the smaller, yet more well-known island of Iona. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iona is famous for its Abbey, which is the one of the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages. The Abbey is of particular historical and cultural interest in that it was here that Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, settled and built his first monastery. It is also the place of origin of the wondrous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript which is today kept at Trinity College in Dublin.

Iona Abbey

Personally, I am not much of a religious pilgrim, yet history, art and architecture fascinate me, which is why the Benedictine Abbey of Iona attracted me so much. The medieval arches, romantic columns, and amazingly crafted stained glass windows were the perfect complement for the natural landscape of the Hebrides. Shaggy highland cows with long horns and a peaceful expression looked at me quizzically while I breathed in the salty air and strolled along the rugged beach directly behind the Abbey. The chill actually got to me at this point and I was very happy to purchase a pair of white cotton ear-muffs from the Abbey’s souvenir shop itself. I must have been quite a sight. Perhaps that’s why the cows were staring at me.

After eating some lunch at one of the handful of small pubs on Iona, we prepared for the highlight of the day – the trip to the mythological tiny island of Staffa, and the visit to the legendary Fingal’s Cave. Being part of a Nature Reserve, and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a unique natural monument formed entirely of hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which I had visited a couple of years back.

We boarded an even SMALLER boat (our third one), with a capacity of not more than 25 people. The wind had really picked up at this point, and I started to get a tiny bit worried. What’s more, before starting the craft, the captain said that he had to inform us that the crossing would not be an easy one, and that in fact some people from an earlier cruise had been pretty sick. Going to the Isle of Staffa and back was going to take us approximately an hour and a half of sailing. He asked us if there was anyone who preferred to remain on land and be reimbursed the trip, since he would not be taking responsibility for any accidents. Five people got off the boat. I was scared to death. My boyfriend was looking at me breathlessly, excited by the prospect of such an adventure. I gritted my teeth and sat down. How bad could it get? Right?

All went well at first. The wind was behind us, so the boat crested the waves blithely and I got used to the rock and roll motion of the deck. It was fun actually. The waves sprayed all over us as we tried to keep steady enough to use our cameras. There was so much to take in! The Inner Hebrides are comprised of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited ones, and Staffa is one of the latter. As we drank in the blueness of the sea and sky around us, caught between them like flies in amber, our captain told us of the facts and legends surrounding Fingal’s Cave. The 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep cave itself was known to to the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people as Uamh-Binn, meaning ‘the Cave of Melody’, due to the eerie sounds which emanate from its arching cathedral-like features when the wind and the echo of the waves sound just-so. Legend has it that the Irish warrior and leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was as big as a giant, built a bridge here between the Isle of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, in order for him to reach his nemesis and rival Benandonner. The legend which connects the two structures is geologically correct in fact, as both of them were created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have, at one time, formed a ‘bridge’. We are talking of around 60 million years ago here, so there were no human beings around to see it at the time.

Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa
The fractured columns on the Isle of Staffa

As we got closer and closer to the islet and to the cave itself, anything seemed possible. The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the ocean. When I had booked our cruise, we had been promised that we could actually land on the island and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns form a walkway just above water level, permitting exploration on foot. Unfortunately, the captain at this point informed us that the sea was becoming too rough, and that landing was dangerous. So, we had to be content with looking closely at the island from the sea. We didn’t even enter the mouth of the cave. I admit that I was, and still am, bitterly disappointed about this. Scottish weather is fickle and changeable however, especially at sea, so there was nothing to be done. It was after all, the end of September. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to visit the Hebrides to go during high summer, when the weather is calmer.

Seeing Fingal’s Cave, even from afar, was a great experience. No wonder the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to create ‘The Hebrides Overture’, also known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, after visiting in 1829! Famous landscape painter J.M.W Turner painted it, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria all expressed amazement after visiting it, and Pink Floyd even named one of their earliest unreleased songs after the cave.

Coming back, all the feelings of awe and amazement totally fled. The sea had gotten even rougher, and this time, the boat was going against the wind. I don’t usually suffer from sea-sickness, but that trip was truly a nightmare. I sat down in a corner, held on for dear life, and ended up hugging a fire hydrant in an effort not to fall or roll off, as the now huge waves crashed against the tiny boat and all the other passengers gasped in terror, trying not to cry out. I admit, those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. Cutting a long story short, after our arrival at the Isle of Mull, we still had to suffer through an hour-long trip in the coach, and another 45 minutes on the ferry from Fionnphort back to Oban where we had left the car.

It wasn’t an easy journey to say the least, but the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave, the charm of the Inner Hebrides, and the depth of emotion I felt there, will be truly remembered forever. As will, unfortunately, the hellish boat-ride amidst the stormy Atlantic Ocean!

A slightly different version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.