Top places to see Cherry Blossoms in Japan in Spring

The cherry blossom flowering in spring or the Sakura season is dependent on the snowfall, temperatures of the preceding winter and the geographical location. Generally, the milder the climate, the earlier the blossoms open. In most of the major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, the cherry blossom season typically takes place from the last week of March to early April and that is really the time to be in these cities for Hanami (cherry blossom festival).

TOKYO

Imperial castle:

The grounds and the moats surrounding the grand palace is the most grandiose setting for Hanami. There are more sakura trees in the inner parts of the gardens as well where the former Edo Castle was present.

Chidorigafuchi Moat:

Memorise this tongue-twisting name as you cant afford to miss the mind blowing sight of the bowers of flowers and their reflections in the waters of the moat to the west of the Imperial Palace. Especially pretty here at sunset.

OSAKA

Osaka Castle:

The symbol of Osaka is undoubtedly the best Hanami spot in this bustling city. There are more than 4000 cherry trees on the spacious grounds surrounding Osaka Castle. Take leisurely walk here or ride the road train up to the castle for the best selfie spots. Nishinomaru Park in the castle’s western part with green lawns and views of the castle tower that light up in the evening is a great place to have a picnic. There is also a plum grove here with over a 100 varieties of plum blooms to admire.

HIROSHIMA

When you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Atomic Park dome, the woebegone symbols of war and destruction and the whole saga of 6th August 1945 unfolds itself before your eyes and leaves you in a very melancholy mood. Stroll down the riverside and you be comforted to see families of the local people of this city having a picnic underneath the cherry blossoms. Join them or go across the river for the “soul food” of Hiroshima or the piping hot Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for lunch.

KYOTO

Maruyama Park

In the heart of Gion lies the Yasaka Shrine. The park behind offers a green solace and it is the city’s most popular place for cherry blossom viewing. A pleasant place to stroll in the morning as well when there is a cool nip in the air.

Riverside:


The banks of the Kamo River are a favorite place for Kyotoites to relax, stroll, cycle, play ball games, picnic and of course pose for a picture beneath the cherry blossoms. All the tourists don rented kimonos and hairpieces to strike a pose here.

Shijo Dori:

The main street of Gion has many interesting cafes, eateries and of course cherry blossom spots for all the Instagram queens! Some had even hired a professional photographer for an exclusive shoot. Now that’s a good way to preserve these priceless memories forever.

Higashi Hongan-ji or the Eastern Temple :

The grandest head temple in Kyoto is just a ten minute walk from Kyoto Station and the entire boulevard is full of cherry blossoms. Grab some food from the food courts around and have a picnic underneath the trees.

Fushimi Inari :

The pink and white blossoms offset against the bright red of colors of the shrine and the toriis paint a pretty picture. Rendezvous with some more as you stroll along the romantic riverside behind.

HAKONE

The entire route from Odawara station to Hakone is embellished with cherry trees in full bloom.However if you take the Limited Express Romancecar or the scenic mountain railway, as the name suggests, the journey is even more ethereal

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Kodak zen moment: Plum blossoms in a zen garden….

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Spring time is the time for other flowers too…here are some bright yellow daffodils that said “Konichiwa” to me outside my hotel every day !

 

Around Kyoto with Taichi

The red, green and gold tour of must-visit locations around Kyoto was most interesting because of our friendly guide for the day Taichi Asami. A university student, who volunteers with Kyoto greeters to show foreign tourists his city, his way..

A lot of emails had gone back and forth between us to chose these three most popular spots around Kyoto. Yet Taichi had promised we would break free from the stereotype tours here and do the different on his local food tours.

We were excited to met him at the Yamadaya ryokan where we were staying close to the station and he helped us navigate the crowds to reach the platform of the suburban trains we were to board for our tour of the surrounding areas of the city

First stop : Gimme Red : Fushimi inari shrine

A truly remarkable shrine that boasts of 10,000 vermilion red Torii’s (traditional Japanese red gates) that snake it’s way up the hill.At the summit is the shrine in honour of Inari, the god of rice, sake, and prosperity. Hence visited by devotees from the business community and individuals thankful for their prosperity.

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Each torii has the name of the donor inscribed on its left.There is a feeling of bliss as you walk through this long tunnel of torii which is truly one of the most iconic visions of Kyoto.

All that energetic climbing up and down (albeit half way) the hill had left us ravenous for food and it was sheer delight to exit into the food alley. Taichi helped us chose the right food (Vegetarian mochi rice cakes on a stick for Jaydeep). Lots of grilled meaty delights topped with mayonnaise here. Munching on the sticks we walked back to the station to board the train to our next site.

Second stop : Go green : Arashiyama bamboo forest

 

 

 

Third stop : Golden temple : Kinkakuji 

 

Coffee with the Hippos

Chasing the wildebeests for two days in a safari van can be quite tiring and a massage by the in-house masseuse Jane at Mara River Lodge was just what the we needed before this marvellous holiday ended. Topped with an Irish coffee ….I was enjoying just what the bartender ordered here !

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The hospitality of the staff was overwhelming. Francis the bartender took personal care of us…whether it was coffee, single malt or wine, he knew exactly how we wanted our drinks. The view of the river and the all hippos dunking themselves in the water from the bar was so perfect that you could just sit there all day with your camera!

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5 families of hippopotamuses…well that’s almost a soap opera of entertainment there. We got some fabulous pictures of some of their antics as you can see. “River horse” as the Greek meaning of their name suggests, they spend over 16 hours in the water. They are also very loud animals and if the whole bloat starts to grunt and snort together, its quite a rock show !

They basked in the sun all day, especially the little ones in their creche on the river bank and walked around only towards sunset to graze on the grass and aquatic plants.

A short game drive on the last day was full of some astonishing sightings, some moments which have to be captured in order to be able to cherish those memories forever …an ostrich that crossed our path, a cheetah camouflaged so perfectly in the grass that it barely caught our eye, a whole jenny of giraffes (27 of them! I counted, but sadly couldn’t get them all in one frame)

Birds are also in abundance here in the grasslands, making it a lensman’s delight. We spotted the blue superb starling, the crown cranes, lilac-breasted roller and many more avians in this veritable ornithological paradise.

Although I am a very meticulous planner, sometimes unplanned surprises can turn out truly delightful too. Such was our stay at the Mara River Lodge this August. We had stayed at the Mara Serena the last time we visited Kenya but this time obviously owing to the great migration all hotels were booked and we had to take what was available.

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The real treat was in store for my husband who is a vegetarian and Chef Charles really made the best of Indian (as the owner is an Indian) vegetarian food for him. He had perfected the culinary art of Gujarati dishes like khichadi kadhi, theplas and chaas under the able tutelage of the owner of the resort. Puri bhaji was the breakfast on the last day!

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I was very happy with his local dishes as well, I must say, complimented by the best wines of this continent. The location, ambience and the warm and helpful staff made our stay very special.

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Asante sana ! Till we meet again

Photo credits : Dr Jaydeep H Palep

Born Free

The great wildebeest migration, the Serengeti crossing, the greatest natural phenomenon on earth …. it’s been written about, filmed and photographed so many times over and over. This exhilarating experience was on our bucket list for a long time and finally we made it happen in August 2018.

 

This was my second trip to the Maasai Mara (earlier one being in May 2013) yet the beauty of the grasslands does leave you breathless each time! Since we were short of time, we took the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi which made 5 stops (not airports, just airstrips in the grass) before we reached Mara North in the Lemek Conservancy.

 

“Jambo!” We were warmly greeted at the Mara River Lodge. As the name suggests it is located right on the river, perfect for bird photography but not the place to see the crossing as it is along the northern part of the Mara River. I had been actively tracking the herds on Herdtracker every day since mid July and they were still a 100 km away.

 

One could sit and enjoy watching 5 families of hippo frolicking in the water and basking in the sun here. But we had to get to where the real action was. So after a quick cup of fine Kenyan brewed coffee whilst our lunch boxes were being packed, we jumped into the van on our quest to witness the migration.

 

It was long game drive, 3 hours to reach the river and a lot of game to be seen en route. Thompson’s gazelles, herds of elephants, towering giraffes, topis, elands and many more animals grazing in the vast grasslands.

 

As we got closer to the Southern part of the Mara river, the excitement and anticipation surged, the search for the wildebeests and the river crossing point escalated. We spotted a big crocodile and some hippos peacefully basking in the sun.

 

But where were the wildebeests? They don’t seem to be crossing here. We asked every safari van driver that passed by if they had seen anything. Finally one of them said “Oh yes! They were crossing at point no. 5 one hour ago, but it would be over now! ” Point no. 5 ….where is that? It doesn’t show on Google maps. Our driver seemed to know about it but he was reluctant to drive that far. Well, we weren’t here to see Northern Lights so we just urged him on. A few kilometres later what do we see ? Suddenly we were engulfed by herds and herds of wildebeests till the horizon. They came in hundreds, then thousands and then a few more thousands until all we could see was a massive grey-black sea of wildebeests.

 

Moving the safari van slowly along the rugged path was a task with the big wildebeests grunting on either side and little ones scampering around. We managed to reach the river by 3 pm but were greatly disappointed to only see the evidence of the crossing by virtue of carcasses of the ones who never made it submerged in the river and hovering vultures.

 

For the next couple of hours we drove along the river bank that was completely was packed with wildebeests. Would they cross again? Would the lions attack them as food was certainly present in abundance? We hopefully hovered along the bank along with at least another 30 vans, each vying for the best spot to sight the action.

 

Suddenly out of nowhere one of the vans spotted him; the king of the jungle enjoying his afternoon siesta in the grass. He was woken up by the sounds of the safari vans or the scurrying animals and looked around to the survey his prey.

 

Seeing a large herd so close by he started walking towards us, then walked right past our van and disappeared …not to be see for a few minutes. We were waiting with bated breath trying to figure out where he was …..and there he was crouching right behind our rear wheel waiting to spring an attack on the weakest of the beasts.

 

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He darted out and started chasing the herd at lightning speed, while they ran deeper into the bushes seeking shelter. Whether the lion grabbed his dinner or not we really could not see as our of the blue (and green) there was a huge cloud of dust that arose as the herd clamoured west towards the river bank; the leader of the pack contemplating crossing again to get away from the lion on this side maybe.

 

River crossings are considered the highlight of the spectacle. Sometimes a herd may reach the river and then hang out on its banks for days, frustrating the crocodiles and tourists alike. But once it begins, its a sight to behold. Few other sights would be second to them for the sheer drama and adrenaline surge they create amongst those fortunate to witness them in a lifetime.Would the vile crocodiles lurking in the murky waters capture in its jaws the brave animal that jumped in first? Would the animals be able to scramble up the slippery river bank? Would weak or injured wildebeest be able to swim across at all? All cameras were poised in every safari van on both the banks to capture every second of these thrilling events.

 

We witnessed this for the next one hour, loads of wildebeests and a few zebras as well scrambling down the slope of the banks, hurtling through the shallow waters. They had picked a safe spot and there didn’t seem to be any villains in the water here. That’s the first question everyone asked me when I got back and I replied that I wasn’t crestfallen that I had not seen the wildebeests fall prey to the crocodiles. In fact I was feeling propitious to have witnesses the survival of the fittest.

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The beautiful pattern made by the silvery grey animals on the banks as they ascended on the opposite side to safety will remain etched in my mind forever. I was rooting for these brave forerunners, and did witness a few heart-breaking moments when an animal broke a hind leg trying to climb the bank or lost its precarious grip and fell down onto others, injuring them all. This is what made the Migration a true spectacle – the ecstasy and the agony of survival, unedited, unfiltered, in raw true life.

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We had beat the odds a few times here… normally the crossing doesn’t happen twice in a day, and not towards sunset. So we were feeling truly lucky as we headed back to the hotel.

Humming this song on my way back as the sun set over the grasslands….

“Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star”
Photo Credits : Dr Jaydeep Palep
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Whatever floats your boat

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A solitary fisherman drifts over the calm waters of the lake that is now filled to the brim and the mid monsoon skies above are heavily overcast, threatening another downpour soon. He nonchalantly casts his net, hoping to trap some fish, to feed his family maybe and a big catch will help him to earn some money in this “dry” season of his livelihood. He waits patiently and so do we as we watch him from the balcony of our floating cottage at Club Mahindras Ashtamudi…

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The verdant state of Kerala is blessed with over 30 backwaters and Ashtamudi ( so named because it has “eight cones “) which is about 3 hours drive from Trivandrum airport, is now gaining a lot of popularity as the perfect family holiday destination.

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We had been to Munnar, Thekkady, Kumarokam and Cochin in the past at the time of the Onam festival in 2013. Another short holiday to Wayanad from Calicut in the North a few years later was a heavenly experience. The magic of the monsoons of Kerala and the piquant taste of the local food beckoned us once again to explore God’s own country this July. As I returned to Mumbai and wrote this blog, the state was devastated by the worst flood ever and our prayers and help in different forms was sent to the people.

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The location of this resort tucked away amidst swaying palms and its unique floating cottages truly make very memorable experience. There cant be a better place to sip a cup of hot tea, especially when its made using a traditional steamer. Soak in in the waterfront vistas every evening, nibbling on some crunchy bhajiyas!

The décor of the cottages is so tastefully done using the local coir and wooden panels that retain the natural flavour of the region. A whole new take on relaxation, as you listen to the pitter patter of the rain from your cosy balcony, literally putting your feet up.

The floating restaurant serves the most appeasing fare, especially all the local cuisine. Thursday is the day for the Onam Sadhya, a whole feast served on a banana leaf and certainly not to be missed.

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Fret not, you will be able to finish it and the natural sequelae that follows once you have devoured it….the perfect afternoon siesta !

Kids can be kept busy while you snooze as there are so many activities for them here, from swimming to cycling. Board games, indoor and outdoor games. Or just laze in the hammock enjoying the breeze and the sound of the rippling water.

The houseboat cruise awaits next morning to take you deeper into the heart of the backwaters. Drift along the waters, feel free as the birds that fly around you and the breeze that tangles your hair. Get up close and personal with the locals as you visit Munroe island, the coir factory and sip on fresh coconut water.

Back to the resort for some delectable local dishes for lunch iddiappams, malabar parathas and ghee roast, appams and karimeen pollichattu ….its really going to be hard to leave this place and go back home !

“Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain”……When it rains you can sit indoors with your cup of coffee, your favourite book ……or go for a completely rejuvenating ayurvedic massage at the spa

The old adage that families that eat together stay together has now been transformed to families that holiday together stay together……Club Mahindras Ashtamudi is really the perfect family holiday destination all through the year!

Soul trip to the southern land’s end of India

We had visited the Westernmost point of Europe in Portugal (Cabo de Roca) a couple of years ago where there is an inscription of a quote “Where the land ends and the sea begins.” ….that reminded me that we have a similar “Land’s end” of the Indian peninsula thats more unique because its where a sea, a bay and an ocean meet….Kanyakumari.

We planned a trip here in the midst of the monsoon of July 2018. The great coastal drive from Trivandrum airport was very pleasant through the rain-blessed verdant coconut and banana groves and estuaries with birds, sometimes with a glimpse of the rugged sea.

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We were greeted by a small shower in the morning as is typical in July and the sky was heavily overcast with clouds. When we reached Kanyakumari in afternoon, the waves were lashing, the ocean roaring in a fury and the waters so turbulent around us. All the fishing boats were safely docked on the shore.

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As we boarded the ferry to the Vivekananda rock and I looked back at the shoreline, the words of the Great Swami spoken at the Parliament of Religions reverberated in my ears “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world tolerance & universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religion as true.”

Can you spot a church, a mosque and a temple in this picture that together reiterate even to this day his beliefs of 1893.

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The Vivekananda Rock Memorial was built in 1970 in memory of Swami Vivekananda who is said to have attained enlightenment here. The Living memorial and the mandapams are worth visiting. The most interesting is the sundial and sunrise calendar (although we were totally devoid of any rays of the sun here that day !)

Just sitting by the sea and listening to the sound of the waves is a truly immersive experience here….Smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly…

The Thiruvalluvar Statue in the memory of the the greatest poet of South India looms large at 40 metres and one can see people bathing in the Triveni Sangam or the holy confluence of the three great water bodies.

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The billowing clouds engulfed the sky in the evening too so we really could not witness the sun set and the moon rise over three seas (Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean) simultaneously. A morning walk to the pier in the hope of seeing the sunrise revealed just a streak of light at the horizon but a wonderful photo opportunity to capture the fishermen and fishing boats not really in a mood to brave the stormy waters around.

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Based on the reviews we went to Sarvana restaurant for lunch looking for an authentic south Indian thali but found it very bland and not up to the mark especially the rassam. Dinner was a more satisfying fare at a smaller family run restaurant opposite Hotel Sangam called South Food Center and would recommend it. We stayed at the Seashore Hotel which definitely had the best view and a scrumptious breakfast.

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Its a great feeling to have visited this “V” tip and southernmost point of the Indian Subcontinent which was definitely on my bucket list and I hope to visit more such iconic land’s ends as we wander the globe..Cape of Good Hope or Land’s End, Cornwall maybe….

Hidden gems of Goa : Palolem and beyond

Nestled at the southernmost end of Sunapranta or the “Golden Land” as the state of Goa is often called, is Palolem with its gilded beach and emerald sea. This pristine beach has gained popularity in the last ten years. It doesn’t boast of fancy resorts with swimming pools for a holiday but has only wooden makeshift huts on the beach with the the clear sea just waiting for you to dive into!

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The ART RESORT as the name signifies is very unique resort designed and managed by a German girl with the idea of showcasing various forms of Indian art, a beautiful blend of the East and the West in an artsy way. The perfect place for a girlie getaway with my friend Julie to celebrate her last bank holiday weekend in India.

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The brightly painted cottages with white curtains are just a stone’s throw from the beach. The interior ones have a cosy terrace attached or hammocks in front to read a book underneath the shade of the palm trees.

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The trendy restaurant and bar area facing the waterfront serves really good food and drinks so its the perfect place to laze around with a book, watching the lashing waves.Well this was definitely the agenda I had in mind when I planned this trip with my friend Julie…. to enjoy the sun, sea, sand, some great food, a few drinks and a lot of laughs …..

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They have a local artist here who offers art classes, an Ayurvedic massage spa and some Yoga classes on the beach as well. So its really the perfect setting for an idyllic getaway. As the night approaches the whole beach lights up and a leisurely stroll down the sandy shore led us to discover Ciarans, the restaurant which has the best local food, view, music and ambience. After dinner we walked some more, the night was so peaceful and the sound of the waves so soothing !

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On Day 2 we set off the explore the neighbouring beach of Patnem on a curious trail of signboards from “Alice in wonderland “…follow the rabbit …to LaLa Land …Whats that you may wonder ? A prisitine resort overlooking Colomb Bay. We decided that this is the place to come back for lunch and went ahead to Patnem beach for a dip in the warm blue waters. The beach was pretty much deserted and we cooled down at the beachfront shack with a drink.

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The afternoon heat was really sweltering, yet it didn’t dampen our fervour to wander and discover some more surprises just around the corner. Graffiti, if you please! and the aroma of cinnamon rolls wafting from Karma cafe and bakery reminding me that “somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” Mango smoothies with a twist to beat the heat.

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Heading back to Palolem, via LaLa Land at Colomb Bay for a lazy late lunch. They claim its the most magical place to stay and I’m sure I was intrigued enough to like to confirm that next time I’m here on a holiday.

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We were back to Palolem by evening and the aquamarine waters were just beckoning us for a cooling evening dip and then a candlelight dinner on the beach

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A view like this to wake up to ….if only we had nothing else to do but all the time to stand and stare at the clear blue sky and waters.

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“You can shake the sand from your shoes, but it will never leave your soul.”

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No trip to Goa would be complete without a meal at Martin’s Corner and I couldn’t possible let my friend leave the country without having tasted the best of Goan seafood here. Prawn vindaloo is just the starter, many more scrumptious dishes coming up before we make a dash for the flight!31693067_10216903994858649_2223934435235987456_n.jpg31743682_10216915857675212_3374072663596072960_o.jpg31723288_10216903996138681_2688226636226101248_n.jpg

Footnotes :

  • The beach huts here are dismantled at the advent on the monsoon season by mid May and reassembled again in October. Hence this experience can only be enjoyed from November to April
  • Scuba diving is possible, especially with a very experienced Hungarian instructor but the water is a bit murky as you can see…31599846_10216915818394230_1611699246761771008_o

 

Photocredits : Julie Till-Dowling ….Nomad…Beach comber, Himalayan Dreamer, Lover of Life in the air, below the seas and on the earth 🐠….and so much more !!!

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