Experiencing Greek Antiquity at the Acropolis

I first became compelled to visit Greece during my undergrad studies as an Art History major. Many of my Art History courses emphasized Greek Antiquity, and its undeniable impact on both contemporary art and the connection of art to collective memory. While learning about the construction of Greek society through its art, I needed to personally experience the ancient history of one of the most visited attractions, the Acropolis, and admire the architectural details of its ruins.

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Parthenon on the Acropolis, 2013

The Acropolis is a 5th century BCE complex that sits on an elevated outcrop overlooking the city of Athens. While the Persian Invasion  of 480BCE on the Acropolis negatively transformed it’s landscape, a renowned sculptor, Pheidias, helped fulfilled the visions of a powerful statesman, Pericles, for the reconstruction of the sacred site.

This citadel has become synonymously viewed as an icon of democracy and the birth of western civilization.

One of the most important structures on the Acropolis is the Parthenon. It’s a classical-style temple that was erected for the warrior goddess, Athena. The temple has Ionic characteristics and is supported by Doric columns. Where the Parthenon currently stands, an older Athenian temple stood but was ruined during the Persian Invasion.

When I backpacked for 2 months around Europe in 2013, I booked a ticket to Greece. On my second day in Athens I went to the Acropolis. The walk towards the citadel’s ruins filled me with anticipation because the nearby streets encircling the outcrop offer numerous vantage points of it.

Although I arrived before noon, the site was still congested with tourists. In hindsight, I’m glad I wore appropriate footwear that would accommodate the steep slopes, dusty terrain, and slippery marble.

At this time, all of the Cultural Heritage workers on site were unpaid due to Greece’s economic crisis. Signs and banners were hung throughout the site informing tourists about their hardships.

In 2013, the Parthenon was partially hidden away by scaffolding due to an ongoing restoration project led by the Greek Ministry of Culture. This project started in 1983, and is to ensure the integrity of the architecture and stability. The Chicago Tribune recently posted an article that states the restoration is nearly complete and provides detailed photographs of the accomplishment.

Don’t miss these noteworthy places at the Acropolis:

  • The Entrance
  • Propylaea
  • Erechtheon with the Caryatids (read more about one of my Art History professor’s interesting research concerning the hairstyles of these women)
  • The Temple of Hephaestus
  • Athena Nike Temple

In addition there are two museums in Athens worth a visit. The first is the National Archaeological Museum, which displays famous Greek artifacts and paintings. When I went to the National Archaeological Museum I was blown away by the size of its collection and explored for over 2 hours. The second is the Acropolis Museum, which faces the Acropolis and houses artifacts collected from the site for conservation purposes. Replicas of the original extractions are at the Acropolis.

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View of Athens from the Acropolis, 2013

Exploring Cinque Terre

While traveling in northern Italy, specifically the Liguria region, a visit to Cinque Terre is a must!

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Manarola

Cinque Terre or “Five Lands” is comprised of the following fishing villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. These five Mediterranean villages are built onto the cliff-side terraces and are known for their pastel homes with brightly-painted shutters, jaw-dropping coastlines, and hills filled with vineyards and citrus orchards.

While some villages are sleepier than others, between all five is a diverse selection of wine, trattorias, monuments, and places to explore.

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Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is the most well-known village, and has a variety of shops and restaurants on its main road, Via Colombo. Manarola is a hillside village located on the coastline surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. A nativity scene can be spotted within the vineyards of Manarola.

Corniglia is the tiniest village that is situated on a plateau overlooking the water and is encompassed by vineyards. It also seems to be the least popular because the path from the train station requires a walk up 300+ stairs. The village, Vernazza, surrounds its harbor and still has architectural traces of its past as a defensive fortress against the Turks. Although Monterosso was my least favorite, it is popular with the locals and travelers for its beaches and also the Old and New Towns.

Travelers have two options to explore this area – ride the train or hike the connecting paths. While a hiking trail is a great way to be immersed within Cinque Terre, hikers can be prevented from using the trails from either the impact of landslides or preservation endeavors.

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Vernazza

Fortunately I visited Cinque Terre during the off-season of November, and took the train from Genoa to La Spezia. Since didn’t struggle against hoards of tourists, I explored Cinque Terre at my own pace. I should also mention that in the morning I started out with a hat, sweater, and rain jacket, but quickly shed the clothes during the mid-afternoon’s humidity.

While Riomaggiore and Manarola were my favorite villages because of their picturesque qualities, the locals in Manarola were incredibly friendly. I took the train between Riomaggiore and Manarola because a previous rainfall caused landslides on these trails. I was able to complete the trails between Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. The trail from Corniglia to Vernazza took approximately an hour to complete, and offered scenes of the dramatic coastline and vineyards decorating the hills. At the end of this hike was a stunning panoramic view of Vernazza. The path between Vernazza to Monterosso was more even but took longer than the previous hike. By the end of the day, I was exhausted from exploring and hiking.

Although Cinque Terre is a well-known tourist site, it doesn’t disappoint. It lives up to its excitement and will continue to draw in tourists due to its beauty and history.

You can learn more about visiting this fascinating World Heritage Site here.

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Monterosso

Männlichen Gondola Ride, Views of the Swiss Alps

While staying in Interlaken, Switzerland, my friend and I decided to visit Männlichen. Located within the Swiss Alps, Männlichen stands at 7,687 ft and has the longest gondola ride in Europe. We heard that this ride and hike offered some of the most beautiful views in this part of Switzerland.

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We took the train from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald, and transferred to Grindelwald Grund. Grindelwald Grund has awing vie

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View from Grindelwald Grund’s train station

ws of Lauterbrunnen Valley and Grindelwald. We rode the gondola from Grindelwald Grund via Holenstein to the top of Männlichen.

Surprisingly, no one else rode in our 30 minute gondola ride up the mountain. Below our cablecar and throughout the mountainside, there were many cows with chiming bells, a few homes tucked away, and hikers.

When our gondola deposited us at the top of Männlichen, there was a restaurant, a playground, picnic tables, hammocks, and plenty of area to explore and enjoy the breath-taking views of the Swiss mountain range. Our surreal viewpoint from Männlichen was of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.

We took an easy hiking trail from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg, which offered more dramatic scenes of the mountain range. This walking path is narrow and is appropriate for the width 2 to 3 people because of the close edges. Although we went in the middle of July, there was some remnants of snow along the hiking trail.

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Once we reached Kleine Scheidegg, we took the log train to go back down the mountain. However, it is possible to ride the highest train in Europe from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfrau, fondly referred to as the “Top of Europe”.

Things to do in Tokyo

Recently, a friend with an upcoming trip to Tokyo reached out to me for itinerary suggestions. I was more than happy to oblige because Tokyo is one of my favorite places to explore. The first time I visited Tokyo was for a study abroad program at Sophia University. Last November, I returned to Japan with my partner and a group of our friends. Previously on my blog, I shared various sites to see in Kyoto and my visit to Lake Ashi.

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Sensoji Temple & Asakusa Shrine – the grounds house Sensoji (a buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon), Asakusa Shrine (a shinto shrine), and the iconic Kaminari Gate through which tourists enter the complex. There is also Nakamise, a strip of tourist shops and tasty Japanese snacks. Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. This is one of my favorite destinations in Tokyo and I highly recommend visiting for the history, architecture, and Nakamise shops. Located outside of this complex is Shin-Nakamise Street, which has even more shops and snack options.

Takeshita dori – a quirky, narrow street in Harajuku with many independent fashion shops, cute boutiques, and cafes. The Sundays are especially lively, and many people come and dress up in stylish and trendy outfits. Once turning onto any of the nearby main streets, you will find larger chain stores and also Yoyogi Koen (park). It’s close to Harajuku Station and Meijijingu-mae Station.

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Meiji Shrine – a Shinto shrine that was built for Emperor Meiji during the early 1900s. The spacious paths have massive wooden torii and are lined with trees. On the complex besides the main sanctuary and shrine, is an expansive wall made entirely of sake barrels. Within the evergreen forest’s cool shade, the grounds immerse visitors within nature. The Shrine Since it’s across the street from Takeshita dori, it’s accessible by Meijijingu-mae Station and Harajuku Station.

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Zozoji Temple and Tokyo Tower area – this is a great area to wander Tokyo. I enjoy the visual juxtaposition of Zozoji temple with Tokyo Tower in the background. There’s usually a Sweet Potato vendor at the base of Zozoji Temple’s stairs. If you continue past the Jisho statues and prayers at Zozoji temple, you will find Tokyo Tower.

553363_10151854305308797_1121811822_n.jpgThe Imperial Palace East Gardens – was previously the site of Edo Castle, which was Japan’s second capital city. Much of the original structures are gone, except for some gates, guardhouses, and moats. Currently, the the site is now home to the Emperor, and tourists have access to wander around the outer areas and park.

Every Sunday, the streets before the grounds are closed for free cycling. However access to the public, main part of the Imperial Palace ends at 3:30pm on Sundays. There is a sidewalk that circles the grounds, but is popular with runners.

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View from Observatory at Roppongi Hills

Roppongi Hills & Observatory – shopping mall with a variety of restaurants, the Mori Art Museum, a garden and an outdoor area has light shows during the summer, and the Observatory that features a promising view of Tokyo’s skyline. When you purchase a ticket to the Observatory, it includes access to the Museum, and for an additional fee you can include the Sky deck. Mount Fuji is visible on clear days from the Observatory. There are bars in the observatory section, but they are expensive (think $16 or $18 for a cocktail).(including Tokyo tower and sometimes Mount Fuji). Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Sky tree also provide great views of the city.

  • Although it’s expensive, I’d recommend going to the Moon Lounge in the evening. Requesting a table by the window is incredibly expensive, so we settled on a seat at the bar that still provided a decent view of the city. I ordered the Gesyoku a mixed drink with red wine.
  • The Shinjuku Metropolitan Center offers a free view of the city. In my opinion, the Observatory or the Shinjuku Metropolitan Center offer better views than Tokyo Tower.

Odaiba – is a man-made island located in southern Tokyo that has arcade games, amusement rides, several shopping malls, and restaurants. Here is a comprehensive guide to all of the different attractions and sites. Fortunately, I visited DiverCity Tokyo Plaza twice, the first time was with the RX-78-2 Gundam in 2012 and most recently saw the Unicorn Gundam in 2017.

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Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market – this marketplace is one of the oldest and largest fish markets globally. If you’re able to arrive at 5am, you can watch the infamous tuna auctions. Although I waited over 10 minutes to order sake (salmon) sushi in the outdoor area of the market, it was honestly the best sushi I’ve ever eaten.

Shibuya – experience of the mayhem of the overwhelming intersection before Shibuya Station. When all of the stop lights turn red, pedestrians surge across.

Kabuki or Noh theatre – if you’re a fan of theatre you should spare time to see a show.

  • Kabuki is known for it’s all men acting crew with dramatic make-up and decorative costumes. It also has detailed stage designs typically with features like with a bridge built into the audience, moving platforms, and trapdoors for stunts.
  • Noh is a classical musical drama with symbolic plots. The actors use their movements to present the story with minimal dialogue.
  • While I enjoyed Noh more than Kabuki, I felt the quality and design of kabuki outweighs the more simplified Noh shows. Moreover, Kabuki shows tend to be 3 to 4 hours in length, and Noh are much shorter. While both shows will be in Japanese, you should have the option to either listen to an English translation on a headset or follow along on a transcription of the show.

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    Visit in 2012 to Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland – it explains itself, however I loved my day here because it felt like a compact version of Disney World. However at Tokyo Disney, there are more adorable souvenirs and main characters walking around obliged to take photos.

I was ecstatic when I met Mickey Mouse and he took a photo with me. In addition to Disneyland, there’s also Disney Sea.

Miyazaki Museum – any fans of Miyazaki movies should tour this museum. While I haven’t had the chance to visit, it is on my bucket list for when I return. Unfortunately the only ways to purchase tickets are at a kiosk in Family Mart/Lawson’s (but usually needs to be done weeks in advance since they’re typically sold out) or with an overpriced tour online.

Chichen Itza, A Slice of the Mayan World

In the last week of April, I took a tour from Cozumel to the Yucatán peninsula to visit the ancient Mayan archaeological site, Chichen Itza. Even though each way took three hours because of a ferry ride to the mainland and a shuttle service, it was well worth it. 31543518_10156962242623797_420894816344211456_n

Chichen Itza (At the edge of the well of the Itzaes) used to be one of the main Mayan cities. The site was settled largely in its present location because of its close vicinity to two cenotes, which are accessible areas that lead to underground pools of water. The site is historically significant due to the synthesis of Mayan and Mexican architectural stylization. The stonework and hieroglyphs on the buildings were painted with local colors, some residual colors can still be faintly seen.

The Kukulkan Pyramid or El Castillo is the iconic, large pyramid that attracts millions of tourists each year to learn about Mayan history and culture. Recently in 2017, it was established as a Wonder of the World. Although tourists are no longer able to climb up the stairs of El Castillo, the site is still impressive. A quirky feature to El Castillo is that if a group of people clap before it, the sound of a squawking bird will echo back.

Here are some other noteworthy areas on the complex to see:

  • Temple of Warriors with its many columns and a statue of Chacmool, where human sacrifices occurred.
  • The Great Ball Court and the North Temple (Temple of the Bearded Man)
  • The Osario Group is a short pyramid
  • The Observatory is a tower with a circular staircase that is thought to be used by the Mayan people to study astronomy.
  • Temple of Xtoloc
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Panoramic shot of the Temple of Warriors

When I visited a few days ago, the temperature was beyond 90 degrees Fahrenheit It’s important to frequently drink water and apply sunblock. The ideal time to go is in the morning because the site will be overwhelmed by tourists in the afternoon. I heard the site was commercialized, however I was stunned by the persistent vendors that lined many main pathways on the outskirts of the site.

Don’t forget to taste Xtabentún, a local liquor made from honey and anise seed.

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The Osario Group with El Castillo in the background

Snorkeling Belize’s Coral Reef

When I heard that Belize is home to the second largest coral reef in the world, I knew I needed to snorkel it. Especially since I already snorkeled the largest one – the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, Australia. Belize’s reef stretches to be just shy of 200 miles and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During my trip to Belize, my friends and I took a tour from Belize City to visit a coral reef about 45 minutes away. The coral reef in Belize did not disappoint. spotted starfish, rays, eels, living conch and varieties of vibrant fish. Even on our way there a dolphin curiously hitched a ride in the boat’s wake. I was relieved to see that the coral at our snorkeling site was still colorful and healthy.

During my snorkeling experience, I learned that there are over 500 different types of fish at this coral reef.

After snorkeling for a little over an hour, our boat stopped at the quaint, but privately owned “Starfish Island”. The island very touristy, but relaxing in a hammock merely steps away from the Caribbean water was the perfect way to end the day. The island has plenty of lounge chairs, a swing-set in the water, playground, hammocks, a bar, restaurant, and also rentable floats and kayaks.

You can learn more about traveling Belize and seeing it’s Coral Reef here.

Things to do in Kyoto, Japan

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Walking within the torii at Fushimi Inari

During my 8 day adventure through Japan, I explored Kyoto for three days in early November. Three days was not enough time. The city instilled me with a desire to return one day and visit more of it’s ancient sites.

Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. There are many protective Fox Statues along the trails of the shrine. It’s located on a mountain, and is easily accessible from the JR Nara Line at Kyoto Station. This site also has free entry and is virtually always open. It’s best to go early in the morning because the pathways of red torii became quickly congested with fellow tourists.

 

Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Pure Water Temple) is a wooden Buddhist temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has a balcony overlooking Kyoto. We were fortunate to visit here during November, when all of the trees were bright with peak autumn colors. A diminutive statue of Kannon sits inside the temple’s Main Hall. While not the quickest route, we took the Keihan Railway Line to Kiyomizu-Gojo Station and walked about 20 minutes to reach this temple.

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View of Kyoto from Kyomizu-dera

 

Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka are streets sloping downhill from Kiyomizu-dera Temple and into the heart of Gion’s historical district. The streets, architecture, and occasional Geisha promises to transport any tourist back in time. You can also spot Yasaka Pagoda from this area (not featured in the image below).

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Kinkakuji’s reflection in the pond

 

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) is another iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan, but is distant from the main city. The Zen pavilion is layered in gold leaf and on calm days, you can witness it’s stark reflection in the pond. While the most inexpensive way to visit is by bus, we were pressed for time and took the metro to Kitaoji Station and then hired a taxi for a 10 minute ride.

 

Arashiyama is a town located in western Kyoto that’s infamous for it’s Bamboo Forest (a UNESCO World Heritage site). However it also has hiking trails, the Togetsukyō Bridge with gorgeous views of the river, shops, restaurants, and Tenryuji Temple another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Bridge in Arashiyama

 

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Nara is another popular tourist destination known for its Park. Inside of Nara Park are an abundance of sacred deer that will bow at you if you feed them crackers,
and also Todaiji Temple. Crackers can be bought everywhere in the park, but practice caution with some of the deer because they tend to nibble on everything. It takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes one way via metro from Kyoto Central Station.

Pontocho Alley is a narrow street along the river that boasts historical architecture like Gion. This area is close to Gion-Shijo Station and has plenty of restaurants, and fun thematic bars to explore at night. The bars are built into various floors of the buildings and can sometimes only offer limited occupancy of about 5-15 people. I wish we had more time to explore the fun bars in this area. One of my favorite bars we went to was Cafe La Siesta 8bit Edition. It’s a gamer bar with a myriad of retro consoles, hand-held games, and card games. They have a human-sized Gameboy that plays N64 and their drink menu is based off of vintage games too.

Nishiki Market is approximately a 400-year old market in downtown with over 100 stalls selling diverse foods and tourist items.

Lake Ashi and Hakone’s Hot Springs

29425232_10156834205338797_7907052753489231872_nStaying in a ryoukan (a traditional Japanese inn with an outdoor hotspring) has been at the top of my bucket list for a while, especially since I endeavored in a lot of anime and manga as a child.

Last November, I made my second trip to Japan and made sure to include this experience. Before the trip, I scoured the internet for hours before carefully selecting a ryoukan in Hakone.

Hakone is widely known for is its variety of traditional onsen, Lake Ashi, and vicinity to Mount Fuji.

On the day of our check in to the ryoukan, we took a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakone to explore Lake Ashi. We were sure to purchase the Hakone Free Pass, which cost 4,000 yen (approx 40$) from Odawara Station, and also had our luggage delivered directly to the ryoukan. While the delivery can be a little expensive, it was so worth it to not have to worry about retrieving our luggage from a locker in the train station after a long day of riding the rails and ropeways.

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Volcanic activity in Hakone

The Hakone Tozan Railway brought us to the ropeway, which passed through cloudy mountain tops and leisurely deposited us at Togendai on the shore of Lake Ashi. While it was raining when we caught the boat, we held our breaths at the possibility of spotting any views of Mount Fuji. Nonetheless, the ride on Lake Ashi was memorable.

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Torii of Peace at Lake Ashi

We went took the pirate boat to one of the few ports, Motohakone, to visit the Hakone Shrine.

The shrine dates back to the Nara period, and the cedar trees on the main path are at least 800 years old. The walk is easily accessible from the docks, and takes about 15 to 20 minutes to reach.

That evening, we took the ropeway and train back to our ryoukan at the Naka-Gora Station.

At check-in we were able to choose a time slot for when we wanted to dip in a private outdoor onsen. We were also given yukata, socks, and sandals for walking about the resort and the traditional dinner.

  • Side note, many ryoukan offer a complimentary dinner and breakfast. While I don’t eat shellfish and I’m a borderline vegetarian, I struggled to enjoy the several course dinner. Bring snacks if you’re unsure whether you will enjoy the meal.

During our hour long time slot in the evening, my boyfriend and I relaxed in a private onsen that was hidden within bamboo thickets. The private bath was especially relaxing after a day of traveling from Tokyo and touring the countryside.

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My yukata hung beside the private onsen at the ryoukan

Our hotel room was spacious with tatami flooring, a king-sized bed, and we were greeted by Japanese sweets. There was also an intimate outdoor bath on our room’s porch with a view of the autumnal countryside. Although this additional feature was a costly upgrade, the next morning I enjoyed listening to the rain fall against the leaves in the hot bath.

While it was more expensive than would have been ideal, I’m glad that my boyfriend and I were able to do this together.

There are cheaper options available to have the Lake Ashi and/or onsen experience.

  • Catch an all day tour from Tokyo.
  • Take the Shinkansen/Romance Car to Hakone, and if you’re planning on staying in the area either store your luggage in a locker or have it delivered to your next destination.
  • There are many ryoukans in this region with various onsen options, such as gender segregated hot springs, a private bath at the ryoukan that can be ‘rented’ for you and your family/partner, or a private bath attached to your room.