About Renee Blodgett
Renee Blodgett is the founder of We Blog the World. The site combines the magic of an online culture and travel magazine with a global blog network and has contributors from every continent in the world. Having lived in 10 countries and explored nearly 80, she is an avid traveler, and a lover, observer and participant in cultural diversity.
She is also the CEO and founder of Magic Sauce Media, a new media services consultancy focused on viral marketing, social media, branding, events and PR. For over 20 years, she has helped companies from 12 countries get traction in the market. Known for her global and organic approach to product and corporate launches, Renee practices what she pitches and as an active user of social media, she helps clients navigate digital waters from around the world. Renee has been blogging for over 16 years and regularly writes on her personal blog Down the Avenue, Huffington Post, BlogHer, We Blog the World and other sites. She was ranked #12 Social Media Influencer by Forbes Magazine and is listed as a new media influencer and game changer on various sites and books on the new media revolution. In 2013, she was listed as the 6th most influential woman in social media by Forbes Magazine on a Top 20 List.
Her passion for art, storytelling and photography led to the launch of Magic Sauce Photography, which is a visual extension of her writing, the result of which has led to producing six photo books: Galapagos Islands, London, South Africa, Rome, Urbanization and Ecuador.
Renee is also the co-founder of Traveling Geeks, an initiative that brings entrepreneurs, thought leaders, bloggers, creators, curators and influencers to other countries to share and learn from peers, governments, corporations, and the general public in order to educate, share, evaluate, and promote innovative technologies.
Latest Posts by Renee Blodgett
I discovered a fabulous designer in the Paris scene while I was meandering through the Marais over the summer. His name? Guillaume Trontin. His site? Des Habits Tues, where you can get an idea of his style.
While he didn’t have his own shop yet as of mid-summer, he is actively participating in what Paris calls “pop up shops,” which is a shop or site that houses different designers depending on the day. I saw his clothing line at a small shop I’ve been to several times in the Marais over the years, off a little side street, but it’s not where you’ll find him if you venture to Paris.
His site tells you where he’ll be showing his latest on particular dates. For example, he has shown at places like Boutique Ephemere on 38 rue des francs bourgeouis (closest metro is St. Paul) and Galerie Ste-Opportune at 1 place ste-opportune (closest metro is Chatelet). He has also shown at Galerie L11 on 11 rue letort (closest metro Jules Joffrin).
Best way to describe his design? Fresh, fun and colorful. While fun is more the order of the day than elegant, he showed me a few ways to spruce up his dresses.
I fell in love with his creativity and was lucky to find him in the store at the time I was there. Each time I switched into a new dress, he adjusted me to ensure the dress fell the way he wanted it to fall. What fun! His fashion line was in a pop up shop with six other designers, all of which had beautiful garments, jewelry and accessories. Formerly a dancer, he is relatively new to design but oh, man does he have an eye.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Paris fashion time and time again of course, but fresh new talent like Guillaume Trontin makes it even easier.
BTW, as an aside and worth mentioning since I used these guys during my last Paris trip and it’s a great place to mention them since they go hand in hand with shopping. MyParisVip.com offers limo cars, drivers and guides, all of whom speak English and Spanish, which is a godsend after a long day of shopping in Paris. (this is not a sponsored post – I loved using them, particularly my driver Pablo, so ask for him when you book).
I recently had a charming traditional lunch at the famous Au Pied de Cochon in Paris with a journalist friend of mine who thought it would be a great way to sample a classic without traveling out of the city center.
On the out and inside, it’s classic old French brasserie style, specializing in top notch quality food and seafood of course.
In addition to the white tableclothed tables inside, you can also sit outside which is a little more casual and there’s a beautiful bar with decadent walls and ceilings throughout.
This renowned restaurant in Les Halles has been around since 1947. Representing the beating heart of the capital, the Pied de Cochon is an emblematic witness to the Paris of yesteryear. Both a popular venue and a special haunt for celebrities, the Pied de Cochon has always been a place of festive spirit with a motley clientele. Tramps even had their « tramp corner » and every evening could relish onion soup offered by owner Clément Blanc.
Over the years, the Pied de Cochon soon won over the hearts of foreign celebrities, including Hollywood stars, politicians and sports personalities eager to discover this mythical place where popular canailles dishes (pork meats) were served. But it also had its ups and downs, particularly during the Occupation. After three different managements and closures due to black market trading, the hour of Liberation came.
Now onto the food, which is ultimately why you should try this place out in addition to the fact that it’s a Paris institution of sorts.
In 1977, Jacques Chirac, then Mayor of Paris, became a regular to the premises. A period of rebirth was heralded in 1980 with the opening of the first Forum des Halles and to give you an idea of the clientele beyond the political scene, guests over the years have included the likes of Robert Doisneau, Françoise Sagan, Joséphine Baker, Serge Gainsbourg, Mime Marceau, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Vittorio de Sica and Gilbert Bécau.
Take a look at additional main course menu items.
- Saint Anthony’s temptation, breaded pig’s tail, ear, snout and trotter with Béarnaise sauce
- Prime traditional Andouillette de Troyes chitterling (offal) sausage, grilled with Béarnaise sauce and French fries
- The famous Pig’s trotter, grilled with Béarnaise sauce and French fries
- Prime grilled Label Rouge Scottish salmon steak, with rice cooked with peppers
- Whole sea bass from the Frioul islands, grilled in fennel, flambéed in anise liqueur, served with sweet pepper peperonata with pink garlic
- The Oyster Sheller, three no. 3 Breton cupped oysters, three prawns, three small clams, three cockles, whelks
- Traditional onion soup
- Large “Tout Cochon” charcuterie board to share
- Mussels simmered in cream and bacon
- A dozen plump Label Rouge Burgundy snails in their shells
- Crêpes flambéed in Grand Marnier
- “Excellence de Tanzania” dark chocolate mousse
- Seasonal fruit tart
- Chocolate lava cake made with pure Mexican chocolate, with Rhône apricot sorbet
- Famous amber rum baba
Details:6 RUE COQUILLIÈRE – 75001 PARIS
OPEN 24/7, ALL YEAR LONG Also be sure to see our extensive write-up on other Paris restaurants we love. (top Paris restaurants).
Even though Brittany is most definitely in France, I never quite feel like I’m in the same France as the rest of the country. The people of the region seem to have a hunger for learning from new things and people around them and a generosity and warmth that Paris and more urban centers can’t touch.
Brittany is a bit like that regardless of where you go. Although I had been there before, it had been many years and Auray wasn’t one of my stops. What a hidden gem — I LOVED Auray. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had incredibly knowledgeable guides, were able to zip around the city on a segway, had an opportunity to meet with the local mayor and attend a private organ concert at the Basilica directed by the Director of Sacred Music Bruno Belliot. (be sure to see our write up and photos on the concert).
We started our glorious day taking in the history of Saint Anne of Auray and its sanctuary with the local tourism board rep Emelie Lesper, who had a wealth of knowledge about the area. Sites to see in the historical center include the town hall, Auray Castle, Holy Saviour Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel, Saint Gildas Church, The Chapel of the Holy Spirit, the prison, the Belvedere and the Loc Promenade and the Chapel of the Eternal Father.
Notice how many chapels and churches there are on that list and it’s not even complete. You could say that everywhere in France there are oodles of churches, cathedrals and bascilicas, however Auray has a very special spiritual past. As the spiritual capital of Brittany, Saint Anne of Auray has been the largest pilgrimage site in Brittany for more than four centuries, with 500,000 visitors each year.
Each year on July 25 and 26, the Great Pardon takes place and a half million people participate in spiritual celebrations, processions, vigils, masses and more. For the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela, Saint Anne of Auray is a rest stop on the way. In addition to being a spiritual retreat, there’s a rich history to the area as well. From stunning architecture and tranquil verdant gardens to museums, chapels, hamlets and churches, there’s plenty to keep you engaged for several days.
As you walk through the city, you’ll fall upon The Memorial, which is in memory of the 240,000 Bretons who died during WWI and the National and French-Belgian Cemetaries, which are home to the tombs of 2,103 soldiers. You can’t walk far in Auray without running into something on Saint Anne — her statue, made of Kersanton granite and weighing 12 tonnes, stands tall in the gardens. She appears to be worshipped by many and it’s not just the locals who recognize the numerous miracles she performed in her life.
The fountain is the first apparition of St. Anne to Nicolazic. Although she didn’t live for long, what she accomplished during her short life is said to be nothing short of miraculous. The Basilica was built in 1872 to replace the 17th century chapel built by Nicolazic and its design is said to encompass both gothic and renaissance styles.
A statue of St. Anne holding a torch stands at the top of the monument and inside the church, stained glass windows depict the apparitions, the pilgrimage, the life of St. Anne and the mysteries of the Rosary.
The centerpiece of the altar of devotion, dedicated to St. Anne, represents the lives of Anne and Joachim, and is classified as a historical monument. On the right stands a statue of Nicolazic, and on the left, a reliquary-monstrance offered by Anne of Austria and Louis XIII, in thanks to the birth of their son Louis XIV.
Why all the statues, the stained glass, the basilica, the fountain, the books and the videos? It’s hard to imagine that one person could have done so much to earn such acclaim and dedication, but if you’re religious and know your history, you know that her story runs deep.
So, who was this remarkable woman and why does she matter to so many people? St. Anne was the wife of St. Joachim (also noted above), the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was not a catholic but a Jew, who lived in Sepphoris near Nazareth in Galilee, then in Jerusalem in Judea.
St. Anne was known for performing miracles and the cult of St. Anne grew in the East first, in the spreading of the cult of the Virgin Mary, most particularly in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple.
St. Anne was venerated and prayed to in a significant number of places of worship, basilicas, churches and chapels over the centuries. Among these number, in Rome, the parish church of St. Anne in the Vatican, in Jerusalem, the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, in Congo in the Church of St. Anne in Brazzaville, in Asia, Burma and Ceylon. In France, the first sanctuary dedicated to St. Anne was the ancient cathedral of Apt in Vaucluse, in the 11th century.
In Brittany and particularly the Auray region, the cult of St. Anne is historically connected to the first evangelization of Armorique, in the 7th and 8th centuries. According to some theories, “Ana” was the name of a Celtic deity worshipped previously in this area, which would seem to have favoured the spreading of the cult of Mary’s Mother. The diocese of Vannes has celebrated St. Anne from as far back as the early 15th century.
St. Anne has become the patron saint of Brittany and hence the reason why she is so honored in Auray and Brittany in general. Almost all Breton churches have their statues of Saint Anne and many chapels, villages and localities are under her patronage. The Bretons, over the centuries, have introduced many religious festivals (pilgrimages) that include a dedication to St. Anne, the most important being that of Sainte-Anne d’Auray.
Whether you’re religious or spiritual but not religious or not, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by the spiritual presence in Auray. Even those who are atheist and agnostic will likely be inspired by people’s fascination of St. Anne’s life.
Admist Auray’s borders, I found peaceful time to reflect, not because I have followed St. Anne’s life or ever done a pilgrimage to a holy place that honors saints. I find that spiritual places, whether or not there’s a direct connection to something in my life, remind me of the things that are important. In the ever so peaceful courtyard, I could be present with the history of Auray, St. Anne and her life, everything she stood for and the role she played in Brittany’s history.
Inside, candles diffused the light while adding colorful yet calming energy. Here people lit candles, paid respects and prayed. There’s a magic to the place that can’t quite be described in words, but it’s as if you know that a spiritual presence from as far back as the 6th century is in your midst.
The experience couldn’t have been more perfect. I started my day in the Basilica with a mid-day reflection break in the Basilica’s courtyard, and then visited Auray’s natural and beautiful surroundings by food and segway (be sure to read our post on Auray culture and history), before ending my evening with an organ concert at the Basilica (catch our article which includes a snippet of video of the sacred music we heard).
Also check out our Brittany/Normandy food & wine section (and posts), as well as our general section on Brittany/Normandy. And, of course for the passionate about all things France, we have quite a bit of content in our France section as well as Paris.
9 Rue de Vannes
Note: My trip was hosted by the French Tourism Board, however all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
It’s no secret to anyone who has followed my posts for awhile, that I have a soft spot for the Adirondacks and that I spent my childhood hiking in her woods, climbing her peaks and swimming in her waters. For those who haven’t followed my travels and may not even know where the Adirondacks are, it refers to the Adirondack Mountains, a mountain range in upstate New York, roughly a 3-4 hour drive from New York City.
The Adirondacks are not that close to get to for urban travelers nor for those who only have a short window to see a few major highlights when they come to the states. If you have a car, it’s a fairly easy shot up the New York Thruway but if not, you’re stuck on a not so stellar Trailways bus which I had the misfortune of taking this past summer.
That said, if you give the Adirondacks your time, you’ll experience a serene spirit and sense of peace you’ve never known before.
Does that serenity and peace come from the Mohawk Indians of yesteryear? The Hudson River with her long history and roots? Or, does it come from the pine trees? Perhaps it’s the loons who wake you up in the morning and sooth your weary soul as the sun sets? I’m sure it’s a combination of all of them and more, or perhaps its merely the remoteness of the place combined with the fact that people are about as genuine as they get.
I rarely get back to the Adirondacks for a myriad of reasons. Family have passed or those who are still alive, feel as if they have. The place brings me as much sadness as it does joy for many of the same reasons that Richard Russo writes about in Elsewhere, also his old stomping ground. A few friends and family felt that he was a bit “harsh” about the area, and yet I felt he spoke his truth, which is all there is really…
Deep down, I recognize that his truth resonates with countless people I know in the area, even if they never dare say so. For as vocal as I am, I rarely ever dare say so either. Why? Because doing so may come across as attacking your hood rather than supporting it as many point out of Russo’s writings.
As I get older, I’d rather take the approach I take with everything in my life even if it backfires: speak up about what matters in the most authentic way possible. It goes a bit like this: if there’s something positive you can take from a person, place, experience or thing, embrace what works and integrate it into your life. If it doesn’t, learn what the blockage was or why there was a failure and even what caused it and either try to improve upon it or simply let it go. Letting go is so hard isn’t it? Hard, but oh so necessary if we want to move forward in our lives and…heal. Even those among us who tout no dysfunction in their family upbringing, need healing.
While my views and memories are not quite as harsh as those of Richard Russo, there are haunting memories of redneck towns and boroughs, all of which are surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural beauty I have ever known.
When the industries that supported American small towns collapsed, (in the case of the Adirondacks, it was leather), so did people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. With that collapse came a sense of desolation, depression, anger and for those who supported the troops, post war traumatic stress. This is the world I grew up with and knew.
Some people’s anger or perhaps a softer way of putting it is disappointment that they didn’t get what they wanted or felt they deserved in life, turned to drugs, alcohol or the unemployment line. I saw it around me growing up. For those who didn’t end up any of those categories, they either thrived at their profession and generally remained happy or did okay at their profession — enough to have a decent life — and complained bitterly about things around them on a daily basis. Why should it be any surprise that old mill towns like Gloversville, Johnstown, Amsterdam, Fonda, which faced harsh economic and social times, wouldn’t get hit with a sorrowful axe?
I try to go to a place of empathy or sympathy when the chips are down although truth be told, it’s not always easy. In the work environment where I placed my cards now more than twenty years ago, negativity rarely sees the time of day. There’s no time for it. In Silicon Valley, they simply rise above it or they don’t survive. But that doesn’t work for everyone. And, I get it and understand it….I’ve been to both sides and back again.
This isn’t meant to be a rant, but rather a reflection on what is – you know, understanding and knowing what we can control and what we can’t control. I am sure that I resonate with thousands of Americans when I say this: you love your family and close friends even if there are a few who are not in alignment with the positive life choices you’re now making as an adult. Yet, from time-to-time, their pull drags you through the ringer at times, even when it’s not healthy for you to go there. Perhaps that comment isn’t addressing thousands, but everyone I know, for all of us have hidden fears, dark secrets and a portion of our past we’d rather keep hidden. All of us have people who have torn at our heart strings and done it so often that we can barely breathe if we think about embracing it one more time knowing we’ll only get smacked if we do.
The Adirondacks is that place for me and yet I love her as much as I fear her, for the memories she serves me on every visit are mixed with the pure joy of an innocent childhood and a dysfunctional environment that kicked far too many families in the but.
So, while the authenticity of the people is as pure as the water that comes down from the mountains above the winding Benson Road, it’s sometimes hard to hear the voices. It’s not because we don’t love those voices, but because we do.
Richard Russo, I understand, painfully so and yet what you miss in your memoir is the sheer beauty of the nature that surrounds Adirondack State Park. Is it because you never had an opportunity to sleep under her stars? If not, walk with me and I will show you her beauty.
For those of us who were blessed enough to grow up inside her woods and among her lakes, rivers and ponds, perhaps we were saved from the misery that crippled so many others who didn’t get her joy. Like Thoreau who was healed by Walden Pond’s waters, the nature we know best heals our deepest wounds if we only allow it.
When I go back, despite the fact that I love people and anyone who knows me knows this to be true, all I want to do is spend time with HER, the Adirondack mountains. For within her natural beauty, there’s no pain, resentment, pity, misunderstanding, frustration, jealousy or all the things I get hit with from external forces, like so many of us do. She dishes me nothing but pure joy and frankly, we all need a place like that.
We may all have someone — a family member, a friend or a boss — who make us feel as if “we’re not good enough or simply enough”. It’s that other parallel universe and all the negative voices in it that we need less of in our lives, not more. Make positive choices that serve you in your life as you march on, not hurt you or hold you back from a purer destiny….
Nature doesn’t have an ax to grind or something to settle. The lake doesn’t tell me I should have done something else, become someone else, lived somewhere else or married someone else. It simply is. And while I’ve been witness to some of the most stunning natural settings across four continents in the last couple of years, there’s nothing like your childhood soil. And, this is mine…..
All the photos I took above are of East Caroga Lake. Be sure to read my latest blog post which includes more stunning photos of the region – The Adirondack Loop, which was done in mid-October of this year. Also read other posts I wrote about the area and while there are several, start with The Allure of an Adirondack Summer and Lake George, The Queen of American Lakes. Thanks to my childhood friend Bob who opened his camp and heart this summer, where I had some time to reflect upon all the things that make Adirondack’s lakes so great and in particular the one where we first learned how to fish — Caroga Lake.
While I had been to Chartres France before and of course visited its majestic cathedral, I didn’t remember how much of a spiritual presence it had, inside and out. Spending time in the Chartres Cathedral was one of my favorite experiences on a recent fall “Spiritual France” tour, which included homes of famous saints, cathedrals, churches and cemeteries throughout Normandy and Brittany. With her 4,000 sculpted statues, 5,000 figures and artisan craftmanship steeped in 12th and 13th century design, the Cathedral pretty much has everyone at “hello.”
It’s no surprise that its listed and registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The cathedral touts a number of impressive facts, but the one that is bound to impress any American is that the first cathedral was built as far back as the 4th century, with the oldest relics dating back to the 9th century with the crypt of Saint-Lubin. Several buildings were then rebuilt on the same site.
After a fire in the 11th century, Bishop Fulbert had a new cathedral built. Today, all what remains of this cathedral is the crypt, the third largest in Europe after Saint Peter’s in Rome and Canterbury. In 1134, most of the city was apparently devasted by a fire, however the cathedral was thankfully saved. A new facade was built afterwards and completed between 1150 and 1155, the Old Tower roughly around 1170.
If those “date” stats aren’t enough to impress, how about its sheer size? The North Tower (New Bell) stands 112 meters tall, the South Tower (Old Bell) is at 103 meters and the total length of the nave extends to nearly 33 meters.
Below is a shot of the cathedral at night during the “Light Show.” Be sure to read my separate post that focuses on the Chartres Light Show alone. It’s an experience you’ll not want to miss.
The main facade has conserved the original 12th century Royal Gateway and its large picture windows, as well as the south tower and the lower sections of the north tower. The nine sculpted gateways (the Cathedral’s three gateways on each side) allow you to see the precision of the artists and sculptors of the time. The images show “catechism in images” — there are more than 4,000 sculpted figures in total.
The use of candles throughout create a translucent effect in various parts of the cathedral.
The candles combined with the powerful presence of the saints and figurines represented throughout in stone, granite and stained glass, could be part of the reason why the cathedral exudes more spirituality than a lot of cathedrals and churches I’ve spent time in the past.
Then there’s the stained glass, which is a combination of moving, awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful. They sparkle in various tones depending on what the light is like in the cathedral at any given time. With 172 in total, they cover 2,600 square meters with roughly 5,000 represented characters.
The stained glass inside the walls of Chartres represent the richest collection in Europe both in terms of their age and beauty. Mostly representing the times of the 12th and 13th centuries, with the 12th century being most known for that period’s use of bright blue, which you’ll see throughout the stained glass images below.
The mark of their donators appears on them: the coats of arms for the important families or scenes describing specific trades or corporations.
Each year, the cathedral receives roughly 1,300,000 visitors from around the world, eager to feel the same strong spiritual presence of Chartres as I felt on that very special afternoon. For roughly 300,000 of those visitors, they are there as an act of faith and for others, they visit for a myriad of reasons, some of which include spirituality and religion, culture and arts.
Throughout the year, pilgrims from France and foreign diocese and parishes from around the world visit the cathedral. One worth noting is the annual mass in Tamil for 5,000 Paris-region residents originally from Sri Lanka.
It’s also known for its having the International Organ Festival every year. In addition, the Grand Prix de Chartres attracts international virtuosos and there are special organ recital events throughout the summer and fall months.
The Chartres Must See Checklist includes:
- Notre Dame Cathedral (Saint-Peter Church, Saint-Aignan Church, Rechevres Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church and Saint-Andre Collegiate Church).
- Fine Arts Museum for large collections of Vlamincks, earthenware, ancient tools and enamels.
- International Stained Glass Center – see my separate write up on this place…I absolutely loved the experience and this is a must do before leaving Chartres.
- Archaeology Museum – explores the local daily life of inhabitants and craftsmen since the Neolithic period through the 20th century.
- The Picassiette House – it was built between 1930 and 1962 with broken pieces of earthenware and crockery and as such, is a unique example of Naive art. I really wish i had time to see this – I absolutely love the creativity behind this house.
- TEA – have tea here because it’s one of things you do in Chartres. Be sure to order a macaroon with it. Teas of Chartres include Blue Tea, Lights of Chartres Tea, Kiss of Chartres Tea and Henry IV Tea. I had to mention this since I’m a huge fan of teas as many who know me will know. It could have something to do with the years I spent living in England.
- Take a Cooking Lesson – I would have loved to do this. The tourism office can help you set this up – email resa at orchartres dot fr. The cooking sessions occur in the prestigious setting of La Maison du Saumon.
- Antiques – if you have room in your luggage or don’t mind shipping, take a walk on the wild side, the ancient wild side that is, by visiting their more than ten antique stores in the center of the city. Antiquities available include furniture, paintings, jewelry, ornaments and art objects.
- Flea Market – I’m a sucker for markets — any and all of them, so worth mentioning for your list if you love them too, is the year-round market they have on the fourth Sunday of each month on Epars Square.
- The Old Town – the old town is charming. You can meander and weave in and out of the old districts, best to do by foot of course. Head down the Jardin de l’Eveche, where you’ll get a stunning view of the city. You’ll get there by following the Rue des Ecuyers, cross over the stone bridge which crosses the Eure River and then walking past some of the ancient half timbered houses you’ll pass along the way. There are some interesting thematic guided tours which help educate you about the city’s archaeological heritage.
Also a fun discovery are two very cool 3D immersion apps which allow you to take a 3D tour of the sanctuary as the inhabitants of ancient Chartres experienced it 2,000 years ago and to discover the development of the site of Guillaume Gate and its barbican from Antiquity to present day. To download both, type in Saint-Martin-au-Val in Situ and Chartres La Porte Guillaume In Situ in the App Store and Google Play search engines.
Be sure to check out our Brittany/Normandy food & wine section (and posts), as well as our general section on Brittany/Normandy. And, of course for the passionate about all things France, we have quite a bit of content in our France section as well as Paris.
Note: My trip was hosted by the French Tourism Board, however all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
Despite my love of the road and exploring all things new and different, Japan has remained off my priority “hit” list for years even though I’ll admit that I have always been intrigued by its allure and mystery.
You see, as far back as I can remember, I had pen pals….in the traditional sense, you know….in the pre-Internet days. I wrote hand written letters to what started out as a few people from far away places to dozens from around the world. My very first pen pal was from Sweden and the second was from Japan. We met them in a hotel restaurant in upstate New York and my grandfather being the man he was, had to proactively interject ourselves into their conversation while they were having a quiet dinner.
It was in his nature to do something like this and I have to admit, we were secretly glad he did since our entire table was in awe over the beautifully elegant traditional clothing that adorned their bodies.
It was rare to see a woman and her daughter from another country alone in the 1970s in the very provincial area where we grew up. And so, off we went to interrupt their dinner and “chat” with them only to learn that the daughter spoke no English at all and the mother could only speak a few basic words and phrases in English. That one encounter led to a few decades of letter exchanges, almost entirely with the mother even though the daughter was much closer to my age at the time.
She would always send me the most decadent cards and photos. The cards had ribbons trailing them, sparkles and icons and the photos were most always of traditional rituals or events her daughter participated in, such as dance and piano recitals. Her English was always broken and spotty but the dialogue continued and even after the Internet took over traditional penmanship, we continued with Christmas cards.
After adding more and more country stamps to my passport, I still had never come across elaborate and beautifully styled cards as the ones from Japan that made it to my mailbox each year. Only in recent years have our annual cards stopped.
After so many long years, I now embark on a trip to Japan, somewhat by accident and somewhat designed.
You see, I have something called a destination intention board in my office and Japan has been on that board for about a year now, together with other countries you’d think a seasoned traveler would have hit by now, like Peru and Argentina. Although I traveled extensively through Southeast Asia in my twenties, hitting Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Macau, Nepal and India, Malaysia and Japan were purposely skipped at the time, largely because the around the world tickets didn’t stop there (at least not easily) and Japan was always known as an expensive destination and as a young traveler, that simply meant that it was off limits.
I had 3 more opportunities to visit Japan over the years, two of which were business related however I was asked “not to come” by our business partner at the time and that they send a man instead. It wasn’t said in precisely in those words, but the translation from my international new business development manager who spoke six languages, alluded as such.
Miffed by this, I somehow wasn’t entirely offended; it actually added to the intrigue. I had heard of stereotypical stories of women in boardrooms only present to serve tea, men with multiple concubines, stories of American male business counterparts who would go out drinking with Japanese partners only to come home with a credit card bills that made their CFO’s skin crawl. The beauty of the Geisha Girls, traditional dance and of course fresh sushi.
A long time fan of sushi, I had secretly dreamed of being sent to Japan with an unlimited expense account and merely asked to entertain a partner by taking them the top ten sushi restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. I envisioned other scenarios like an assignment to sample the best saki across four cities and write about it.
And yet, as the years went on and the travel continued, I never really found a reason to go to Tokyo and the frequent stories of $300 cab rides, $1,000 dinners and $40 draft beers easily directed my focus to other more affordable destinations and so I let Japan and the alluring city of Tokyo wait it out.
As the few people I know in Tokyo will attest, I was a bit nervous about my arrival. They probably saw the emails as anal, repetitive, uncannily junior in nature for such an avid traveler and perhaps a little overly cautious.
As many people know, I don’t put a lot of planning and research into a trip in advance. While I do cover the basics such as protocols, money, health, visas and where to avoid, I don’t research known activities or sites I’m supposed to visit. Rather, I land and let the experience take me organically.
This is a little easier when the culture is more aligned with your own such as I felt was the case with the Vikings in Iceland last summer. Frankly, it had been a couple of decades since I visited a country whose language was not only a far cry from the English language, but written in a form that is indecipherable by anyone who grows up with the Latin alphabet. When you think the Eastern European languages are hard to grasp and are pulling your hair out, try looking at Japanese for the first time and making any kind of sense of it.
That said, I quickly learned that Japanese a beautiful language that just rolls, which more familiar languages like German and Russian have never done for me. That introduction started on the plane and continued at Tokyo’s Narita airport upon arrival.
I love the feeling I get when I first land in a foreign destination for the first time – the butterflies go off in a rather addictive way, not unlike the kind I get when I meet an attractive man with a mysterious allure. Those familiar butterflies happily went off as the plane smoothly landed on Tokyo’s soil, albeit over four hours late, so late that I was concerned about catching the very last Limousine bus into the center of Tokyo, which apparently stopped immediately in front of my hotel.
I didn’t sleep on the plane and I’m not sure if it was due to the few cups of green tea, the not so pleasant smells coming from the seats in front of me, or the fact that I was somewhat tightly wound by having all my ducks on a row (SO not the case) when I landed.
I realized as I went through Immigration and then customs, that I didn’t actually have the address of the hotel, but surely there was only one Hotel Otani. Actually no…..in fact, there are three Otani Hotels, two of which the Limousine Bus stop at – this is one of the downfalls of not preparing for a trip as extensively as some travelers do, where every detail is confirmed three times before they leave the country.
Luckily we (the ticket agent and I) figured it out through process of elimination. What I did know:
I knew that Japan had changed dramatically from the days where women were not found in board rooms or became engineers.
I knew that Japan would have beautiful temples, gardens, mountains and views. I knew I could eat like a king and smile ear-to-ear at every meal.
Iknew about Tokyo’s efficiency and formal culture, such as bowing, being courteous and polite rather than forward and assuming, something I was looking forward to coming from a culture who just does and asks for forgiveness later. It’s an American quality I admire and respect, but also find grating at times, even in myself. I knew there was much to learn from Japanese culture and yet I feared it at the same time.
Someone asked me at the Travel + Leisure Smitty Awards event I recently attended in New York what was the most “foreign” place I ever visited? “What do you mean by foreign”, I asked him. He pondered and then shook his head and added, “where was the one place you felt more out of sorts than anywhere else, where you felt more confused, more out of alignment with who you were and knew, than any other place?”
Great great question. I thought about arriving in Bucharest and Prague in the mid-eighties and my exchanges with security and police officers, or the absurdity of banned objects in Russia, Malawi and Tanzania around the same time and the constant warning of my hotel phone being tapped. I thought about taking the third class train with the goats and the snakes through Egypt and nearly being sold in Somalia to a family. I thought about China the first year it had opened to the western world, where I was spat on at a ticket counter and later, nearly died in hostel in the north.
And yet, at the tip of my tongue, I wanted to say, it very well may be Japan where I knew I would be in a week’s time.
Sure, westerners travel to Tokyo on business all the time and have been for years. The city attracts mainstream tourists and has international hotels and chains just like other global cities do.
I am writing this on the Limousine bus from Narita to the New Otani Hotel, something I try to do before I actually experience a place. Why? Because doing so before you meet a new city, allows all the stereotypes, preconceived ideas (some truthful, some not) and images in your mind to escape freely and openly before a culture actually touches your soul.
Currently I write impressions that aren’t really impressions at all (yet), but illusions of a place I have only discovered from books, photos, blog posts, movies, stories and cartoons.
As I make my way on the long one hour and a forty minute journey to my hotel, the suburbs and high rised buildings of the outskirts zip past me in the darkness. The bus is air conditioned, offers wifi and has reclining chairs and its efficiency very well may be unparalleled. Sorry Singapore.
As I sit in comfort, I am aware of my excitement about my first sushi experience in Tokyo while simultaneously I take in my sore muscles and tired body. I think of how cold it was at JFK before we left, the air conditioning blasting through the vents and coating us with icy air as we digested all the lame reasons for yet another flight delay.
Then, And a warm smile crossed my face as I thought of the Japanese woman in her early fifties who took her shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders as she saw me shivering. Later, the same woman gave me her seat so I had no one sitting next to me for the 13+ hour flight. Ahhh, her dramatic eyes with the ever so precise black eyeliner which would have looked hideous on my eyes, yet made hers glow and sparkle.
My first encounter with a Japanese angel and somehow I knew I would encounter many more angels and magical moments on this overdue trip. As the bus driver shot me the same warm smile she had given me so many hours before, and helped me with my heavy camera bag down the stairs, I made my way through the rolling doors of my first Tokyo hotel, ready to let a new experience begin.
One of my favorite afternoons in Tokyo was spent at the Nezu-jinja Shrine in the north, which is located off the beaten path on the Chiyoda line in a tiny little suburb called Nezu. It is said to have been established over 1,900 years ago by the legendary priest Yamato Takeru no Mikoto in Sendagi with Susanoo no Mikoto as the chief deity.
The shrine itself was completely empty when I arrived and by the time I left a few hours later, there was only one man walking his dog and a teenage student in her school uniform wandering about. The place was so serene, so tranquil that it would be easy to sit amidst its spiritual presence for hours if not days.
It has an incredibly rich and old past and boasts a number of fascinating factoids, largely related to the shrine’s age. In the Edo Period (1600-1867), the 5th shogun Tsunayoshi relocated it from Sendagi to Nezu to commemorate the adoption of Ienobu as his successor and the 6th shogun Ienobu chose it as the guardian deity. The Gongen-style architectures (typical of modern shrines) of Honden (main sanctuary), Haiden (worship hall), Heiden (offering hall), Karamon (Chinese-style gate), Romon (two-story gate) and Sukibei (lattice-windowed wall) are designated as nationally Important Cultural Properties.
The best way for you experience this place is to go on a visual and audio journey with me. Have a look below a the video I shot as I not only walked through the Nezu Jinja Shrine but also through the neighborhood of Nezu (the subway has the same name and where you get off on the green Chiyoda line to get there).
1 Chrome 28-9
Take the Green/Chiyoda Line north from the center of Tokyo and get off at NEZU, which is also an old residential neighborhood and one worth walking around if you’re into architecture and real local cultural life.
Photo credits: Japan Travel and Japan Web Magazine.
Below are some fun dishes that I had at three different Latin Quarter restaurants in Paris in the last few months. Enjoy!