Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

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Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

Life Elevated in Park City: Where Anything Can Happen

Not only can you can challenge yourself on snowy white groomed-to-perfection slopes or participate in Nastar races on the runs skied by Olympic contestants during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games; you can also enjoy sleigh riding, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snow shoeing or heli skiing during the winter. Or, you can choose to be entertained in one of the many aprez-ski entertainment lounges in the ski resorts or on Main Street. How about champagne and caviar aprez-skiing at a cozy yurt? Two of the world’s best ski resorts: Deer Valley and Park City Resort, offer some of the best skiing in the world.

Sundance Film Festival Park City 2017

During the 10-day Sundance Film Festival showcasing American Independent and international films, the old mining town is filled to the brim with actors, producers, film critics, investors and over 40,000 movie lovers, all in fluffy down jackets, knitted beanie hats with furry pompoms and aprez-ski booties. A great place to spot celebrities, or attend forums discussing issues and topics which are motivating both film makers and audiences. Any movie could become a breakout hit, any new talent could be discovered. The air is filled with the anticipation of boom or bust.  One third of film features come from first-time film makers, and one third from foreign countries. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked, one fourth of all retail stores and galleries are turned into Sundance VIP Lounges.

World Cup Freestyle Aerial contestant

Just a few days after the Sundance Film Festival has left Park City back to its slow normal pace, the World Cup of Freestyle Skiing embarks on the mining town with a completely different energy and enthusiasm. For three afternoons and nights the best and most exhilarating dare devils of the world compete for world recognition at Deer Valley Resort. The Freestyle Aerial competitions display stunning breathtaking acrobatic excellence, as the Aerial Freestyle competitors twist, fly and dive, and the Dual Mogul competitors display amazing speed racing combined with aerial flip and turn talents. The final night this year was packed to the brim with an estimated 50,000 spectators and the energy was contagious, filled with cheers or sympathy for those who crashed and lost their chances for medals. What a great event which even is free of charge to all lovers of the sport and excitement.

World Cup Freestyle Skiing: Cheering audience

Once again, after the completion is over, the old mining city is back to normal, where weathered skiers and snow boarders pack the lounges after a day of thrills. The steeply sloped Main Street is packed with art galleries, restaurants and bars, luxe realtors and retail stores, offering an artsy all-American Main Street charm. The ski reason ends Mid-April, after which the city slows down to a hiatus until Memorial Day Weekend.

Deer Valley Resort-Peak view

Summer activities: during summer the mountain is again filled with non-stop activities such as mountain biking, hiking, golfing and horseback riding to hot air ballooning. Music filled evenings offer a variety of outdoor concerts, from symphonies, rock, folk or jazz, where you can enjoy custom gourmet picnic baskets or bags. Silly Sundays on Main Street are fun and packed with tourists and locals, enjoying live bands, fresh food markets and food vendors. Bicycle races and soccer tournaments bring new masses of tourists to town.

Hot Air Ballooning: summer activity
Fall colors are spectacular near Park City

Food: the resort town caters to families and couples who enjoy eating and relaxing as much as they enjoy skiing or mountain biking. Healthy, comfort and delicious food options are plentiful, both on the resorts and on the charming Main Street.

For an unforgettable dining experience try Chimayo, located on Main Street: a charming Tex-Mex romantic style restaurant on Main Street, which offers delicious Tex-Mex food, I especially recommended the Elk and the Tortilla Soup. A perfect setting for a romantic dinner complete with fire places. Reservations recommended. 368 Main St, Park City, UT 84060-5223 Tel: (435) 649-6222 www.chimayorestaurant.com

High West Distillery Park City
High West Distillery Park City: a historic western monument

For a locally made whisky tasting experience and gastro-dining, try the High West Distillery just behind Main Street. This western historical monument is a wonderfully renovated old western garage turned into a cozy restaurant and bar. Try their Flight 101 and taste the difference, best sitting at one of the cozy bars, where the bartender can walk you through the difference. You can purchase the whisky you tasted and get food pairing suggestions. Reservations are recommended as the place is very popular. 703 Park Avenue, just one block off historic Main Street. www.highwest.com

Under the Desert Sun: Discover the Treasures of Palm Springs

Palm Springs may conjure memories of celebrities, piano bars, endless golf, tennis, date plantations and maybe even vague spring break memories. Located only 1 hour 45 minutes east of Los Angeles and Orange County, Palm Springs offer wonderful unique getaway opportunities. 

This desert oasis vacation destination is returning to its glory days as a Hollywood oasis, and is becoming a gathering spot for modern architectural design connoisseurs, as well as musicians and artists inspired by nature. The Rat Pack lived, loved and played here in the golden days. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball built homes here and you can now rent these homes!

Parker
A whimsical Modern living room at the Parker Hotel

Here are 5 treasures to explore in the Palm Springs area:

1.       Modern Architecture: In the fifties and sixties the mountains and the deserts of Palm Springs inspired a Modern Movement in Architecture, which became known as the Desert Modernism. The architecture embraced mountain views and the warm climate, defining a lifestyle of informal elegance, often designed for celebrities and Hollywood socialites, but still seems very appropriate and desirable for today’s living. Recognizable by its use of walls of glass, deep roof overhangs, horizontal lines, screens, and a mixed use of natural and manmade materials, much of this architectural legacy still exist. You can buy a map of Modern Palm Springs listing 82 architectural gems, for $5 at the Visitor Center, to explore legendary hidden jewels of architecture and desert acclimatized, sustainable architecture by great architects of the past (most of them have passed away). Palm Springs Visitor Center: Palm Springs Visitor Center: www.visitpalmsprings.com  Tel: 760.778.8418 2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262

Former Coachella Valley Savings & Loan, now Chase Bank designed by Stewart Williams in 1960
Former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan – now Palm Springs Architecture & Design Center, designed by Stewart Williams in 1960. Metal screens were adjustable to be able to modulate and control lighting during the day

2.       Uptown Palm Springs Design District in the northern end of Palm Springs, at North Palm Canyon Dr. between Vista Chino and Alejo Rd, is a delightful up-and-coming lifestyle shopping area lined with vintage and modern shopping, great restaurants, galleries, vintage furniture shops and a few well-known fashion designers, such as Trina Turk, who started out in Palm Springs, when this area was run-down. Take the time to stroll down the street, chat with the vendors who love the special “air” about Palm Springs, and duck inside every so often for a refreshment as it does get hot, or stay at one of the renovated hotels such as Skylark Hotel or the new ARRIVE Hotel to be in walking distance. If you love Modern Design, visit Palm Springs during Modernist Week, February 16-26, 2017. www.modernismweek.com

 IMG_1888Sunnylands

3.       Desert Gardens at Sunnylands: Nine acres of desert gardens surround Sunnylands Center. Definitely a place to visit if you appreciate stunning, contemporary desert landscaping and if you love photography. Designed by landscape architect James Burnett, the gardens include more than 53,000 individual desert plants. The gardens are located at the historical Annenberg Residence (Camp David of the West) in Rancho Mirage, designed by Architect Quincy Jones, which is now a museum, but you need to buy tickets one month ahead for the museum. Visit the gardens for free, Thursdays-Sundays, from 8:30 am to 4 pmwww.sunnylands.org. 37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA 92270 Tel: 760. 202.2222   

4.       Shopping: If you are looking for amazing discounted deals, the biggest Outlet Shopping Mall in California at Desert Hills Premium Outlets is located just 20 minutes outside Palm Springs off the 103 freeway. Here you will find a stunning collection of almost any of your favorite fashion designers, ranging from Jimmy Choo to Polo, Rags and Bones, Vince, Barney’s, Yves Saint Laurent – just to mention a few – in a delightful new mall, with discounted prices ranging from 20%-65% or more. www.premiumoutlets.com. 448400 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, CA 92230  Tel: 951.849.6641

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

5.       Joshua Tree National Park: Located about 40 miles North East from Palm Springs, the Park is a daytrip which covers 2 distinctly different desert areas: the lower Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert), covers the eastern half of the park, best known for creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus. The Mojave Desert is higher, and slightly cooler, best known for its unruly Joshua trees. Rugged mountains, arroyos, and playas form a mosaic of immense beauty and complexity in nature. The fragile desert environment provides space for self-discovery, and can be a refuge for the human spirit. www.nps.gov/jotr Tel: 760.367.5500  74485 National Park Dr., Twenty Nine Palms, CA 92277

 Tile floor at Parker

Palm Springs is very hot and arid, especially during the summer months, where you can get amazing deals on hotels. Winter months January to April is peak season with more comfortable temperatures for most, but much higher prices. Also famous for spas, hot springs and a vibrant alternative lifestyle.