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

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen

DESTINATION VIETNAM: EXPLORE HANOI

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A country so rich and diverse in culture: a cruel past with horrifying wars, wonderful hardworking and generous people and with so much potential for recreational and resort destinations. Diverse adventures and explorations await in different cities, Unesco World Heritage sites and stunning nature for the adventurous destineer and traveler.

Having recently returned from an intense one week exploration so full of diverse impressions my mind and camera are so full of impressions.

HANOI turned out to be completely different from my preconceived expectations. I expected to find formal French Colonial architecture juxtaposed with communist style concrete soulless buildings and wide streets jam packed with cars, an auditory inferno and assault on all senses. Instead I found a vibrant, exotic, vivacious, small scale and colorful urban life unfolding in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street dining at Old Quarter hanoi
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Street entertainers in Old Quarter Hanoi

Saturday evening in Old Quarter. The streets become pedestrian zones, inviting locals and tourists to share the ambiance on tiny low plastic chairs. Many small restaurants offer BBQ Korean style, where you prepare your own meet and vegetables while watching the street life unfold.

Intriguing coffee houses lure you with a reminiscence of romanticized rustic salvaged vintage combat furniture, worn out tile or concrete flooring flooring, bright and vibrant hues of wall colors, and-the best coffee in the world.

Food is being barbecued at tiny tin cans on low tables Korean style at the sidewalks while cheerful people are gathering for coffee, drinks or food on tiny kid sized plastic chairs.  The fumes of burning hot chestnuts merge with grilled corn on the cob; charcoal flames are being whipped to perfect intensity by old squatting ladies with banana leaves. The tantalizing mouthwatering sniffs of barbecued meat and onions interspersed with the scent of incense create a mysterious layered impact of scentsations. while live music and dance performances add to the auditory fusion.  Brightly colored lanterns and string lights add to the layered romantic experience.  We were lucky to experience the Old Quarter during the weekend when large areas are closed to traffic and Old Quarter becomes a large pedestrian zone

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street food

Beware, Hanoi can be cold and humid. Arriving from Bangkok’s hottest season in sandals and thin clothing was a thermal shock, but fortunately the Old Quarter is full of stores selling North Face feather jackets.  Comforted by cozy down jackets all street life activities can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street life in Hanoi

At daytime the sidewalks are completely overtaken by parked motorbikes and you jump for your life trying to navigate the narrow streets full of motorbikes, bicycling rickshaws and vans.  The city is best enjoyed by bicycle rickshaw.  The elderly male rickshaw drivers are agile dare devils, going against intense traffic, honking cars and motorbikes with whole families of 4-5 on top.   We covered the major sight seeing venues and the rich variety of Old Quarter streets by rickshaw.

explore hanoi by rickshaw
Explore the city by bicycle rickshaw

Each street has their own type of businesses: one street of bamboo vendors, one for auto spare parts, one for motor bike repair shops, one for Chinese temple accessories, one full of vibrant baskets filled with garment dyes, one for fabric vendors, one for tailors, one for chrome metal manufacturers, one for lock makers, one for bird and fish vendors, one for tombstone, etc.

Some of the biggest sightseeing’s are the Women’s Prison but the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets was too daunting for a sinister experience.  The Library Temple Gardens was quaint and poetic. The monumental Ho Chi Minh Monument and museum turned out to be closed on a Monday. The lake is charming. Time for another Vietnamese coffee!

Conc Cafe, Hanoi
Conc’ Café: a coffee place with overtones of the Vietcong era

Hotels in the Old Quarter are tiny and can be a “hit-and-miss”, as even 4 star hotels can be rather unimpressive at the least and the photos on travel sites can be very deceiving.  Spas can also turn out to be less than a glamorous experience.  I recommend to book a hotel for the first night only and then explore some hotels by foot in person to find one that live up to your expectations.  With the large amount of tourists in Hanoi, new smaller independent hotels seems to have a great target audience. Most hotels can arrange junk boat excursions at Halong Bay and city excursions, but do search Trip Advisor first to read the reviews.

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Mysterious Halong Bay covered by clouds and drizzly rain

A tour to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a must. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours and is rather nauseating as the roads are still less than desirable and some of the excursion vans offer very little legroom.  Modern rest stops are surprisingly clean and sell all kinds of souvenirs plus some limited food choices. Once you arrive at your cruise junk boat and start your excursion through the stunning freestanding rocks and mysterious caves you forget about the hurdles of getting there.  Our day was poetic, interspersed by a thick layer of fog and a light drizzle. Elderly ladies in bamboo row boats will take you through beautiful secret photogenic coves-or you can choose to kayak yourself, but cannot take photos.  I strongly recommend to take the bamboo boat to support the lovely Vietnamese hardworking women.  You may even get a song.

Halong Bay
Bamboo boating in Halong Bay
Halong Bay
A wonderful Vietnamese woman and her bamboo boat

After a delightful fresh seafood lunch on the junk boat, we entered a great huge stalagmite cave which was fantastic and mysterious, although a slightly distressed experience as the cave was packed with groups of very loud Chinese tourists. The caves were used to hide troops during the war.  The stalagmite formations were truly stunning and offered myriads of photo opportunities.

Halong Bay
Magnificent Karst Caves at Halong Bay

Halong Bay

I highly recommend to take the 2 day junk boat trip in lieu of the one day trip.  One day just gave you an initial impression, whereas sleeping on one of the red-sailed junks will leave you with truly memorable experiences.  The 4-5 hour drive back to Hanoi was rather grueling as the minibuses were designed for Asians and not for westerners (No leg and shoulder space).-and the traffic congestion was gridlocked getting back into Hanoi.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen