The Greens and The Grays of Salzburg

The impression I went with to Salzburg was that of a mini-Vienna, a bit more beautiful, a bit less inclined towards music (what with the absence of any Opera house) and a bit more closer to Mozart. And boy, was I wrong. Salzburg is so beautiful that it becomes difficult to even start writing about it.. Going with low or ground to earth expectations of a city is usually a good strategy, but with Salzburg I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered. When I look back, this is what I remember the most.

The view from Salzburg Fort

What you define as the best view is highly subjective to your own personal preferences. I usually like views that are a bit closer to the city, not at too much height. Rather than a top view where most of the architecture is reduced to menial spots of barely recognizable color, I like a lateral view that allows you to look at spires, and sometimes even throngs of people roaming around. And the winner for that among the free views in Salzburg is the fort! Or more accurately, the view just before the entrance to the fort, just at the right height. You can climb to the top for free, it is the entrance to the fort that requires a fees. There is also a funicular that runs to the top with a fee of euro 2. But really, the climb is not very difficult.

We lost count of how many hours we spent here

Another interesting hike is Kapuzinerberg. The deal with the hike is that there are a number of paths through the hill and all of them have a different view, so you’ll be taking on some risk in the degree of picturesque your pick is. Just don’t take the white path shown on google maps by default, as it has the least views with a very steep climb. I would advise going on the trek only if you have a lot of time in Salzburg. It takes at most 3 hours and there is a restaurant at top which is open till 5 pm and feels very relaxing after the hike.

View on the way  to the top
I also got to see a dandelion.. !

A Day Trip to St. Wolfgang

Hands down the best day trip from Salzburg. The town is absolutely charming and peaceful. You don’t really need to take the guided tours. I’m not a huge fan of these as they do not give you time to explore the town at your own pace. There is a bus that goes directly to St Gilgen (bus 150). It leaves every half an hour.

If you go during summers, you can take a ferry ride from St Gilgen to St. Wolfgang. It costs euro 20 for a day trip and euro 13.5 for a return trip between St. Wolfgang and St Gilgen. The benefit of the day trip is that it allows access to another town Strobl from St. Wolfgang. St. Wolfgang, from where Mozart’s mother hails, is a quaint little town with beautiful views of the lake, a market with shops selling handmade marmalade, punch and soaps, and scenic restaurants and cafes.

The last ferry from Strobl leaves at 16:20. So you need to leave Salzburg early. Infact if you’re early enough, you can go to both St. Wolfgang and Hallstatt in the same day. To get to Hallstatt, you need to get to Bad Ischl through bus 150 and then take a train to Hallstatt. The total journey from Salzburg to Hallstatt takes 2.5 hours. So you need to leave Salzburg really early (say at 7) to do both. I thought it would be too hectic, so just went till St Gilgen and Wolfsgang to have a leisurely day.

If you go in the winter months, you might find the entire lake frozen and being used for ice skating!

 

Music!

You can’t go wrong with music in Salzburg. Concerts are in abundance and of good quality. I really liked the Mirabell Concert. It is held in the Mirabell Palace which gives a unique touch to the concert. The capacity of the hall being around 100 people, it doesn’t feel very crowded either. The tickets can be bought at any tourist information center. On a weekend, they may get sold out early so it’s good to book in advance.

The concert aside, if you grab a bench in Mozartplatz in the evening, and you’re lucky, you might be the audience of an occasional street performer. Not an authentic experience, but immensely enjoyable, and costing as much as you think it is worth.

 

When I think of Salzburg, I remember the greens and the grays of the paths and the river. Among all these the pedestrian bridge laden with locks would shine like stars suspended in sunlight. There I was, in the old town market eating a frozen yogurt or buying vegan candies or looking at weird sculptures, or lounging beside the river on a clear day, or gazing at the breathtaking architecture of Salzburg Cathedral. And it was green and pretty and relaxing till the end.

If you’re going to Austria or anywhere near, Salzburg is a must.

What I Miss Most about Japan

Japan can be a wonderful delight of authentic and new experiences hard to replicate anywhere else. I stayed there for two months and still feel I have not seen enough. Nevertheless, I do believe I’ve had my share of moments which will last me a lifetime, or till I next visit the country at least. So here’s the best.

1. Relaxing in an Onsen and Staying in a Ryokan

A.K.A Hot springs. And a natural follow up to that is staying in a ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. I wasn’t gutsy enough to go to a public onsen but it was so completely relaxing that I can’t begin to describe it. And add to that the entire experience of staying in a ryokan, roaming around in the yukata and sleeping on a futon with straw mats (tatami) flooring all amidst the mountains of rural Japan. Pure Bliss. Even if you’re traveling to Japan in the summer months, you can still enjoy an onsen if you go to Hokkaido or the Japanese Alps!

 

2. Experiencing the (semi-) rural part of Japan

I ended up in Takayama for three days – one at the ryokan, one in Takayama center and one at Shirakawa go. The entire trip was chockful of firsts – my first time seeing snow & snowfall (courtesy of Shirakawago), the onsen which was a unique experience of its own and seeing the Japanese alps first hand. Even though it’s (sort-of) a village, there is so much in and around the city – a morning market along the banks of the Miyagawa river, Takayama old street, 60 year old huts in the Gassho Zukuri style, a Japanese eatery run by an old couple that serves vegetarian food and of course, shrines. When planning my trip, I had to choose between Takayama and the Fuji Five lakes but Takayama did not give me any time to think about what I might be missing. And if you add the white of the snow to the color palette, it was picture perfect.

3. Visiting a Temple Market

I was fairly lucky in the timing of my visit to Kyoto. There’s a flea market happening there at the Toji Temple on the 21st of every month, fill to the brim with the all-too-familiar Japanese crowd. And so much fun – there was food, kimono and all kinds of artefacts on sale. Though the experience was quite different from urban Japanese places, I found that walking the streets of Kappabashi, Tokyo, gave me a similar feeling (you’ll find katana and ceramic shops there instead of kimono ones which I personally find to be an acceptable trade).

4. Enjoying the season

I went around Japan when fall was in full phase, and that was a treat in itself. Then there is the cherry blossom season, which will be good eye candy too (or so the pictures tell me, never having seen it for myself). But even if your visit does not match a particular season, Japan has a number of festivals celebrating the coming and going of different seasons. The ones I’m most excited about are Wakakusa Yamayaki where they set Mount Mikasa, the entire mountain in Nara, alight; Sapporo snow festival in January/February which sports huge snow sculptures of different things (even Dearth Vader’s head); the festival float display at the Takayama festival both in spring and autumn. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see any of these first hand, but it’s definitely on my to do list.  Another thing I’d recommend, especially during fall, is taking a walk around either Koyasan or Kurama Mountain (rail connectivity from Kyoto). Most of these look beautiful during autumn.

My best memories from the winters spent in Tokyo are of the splendid lights. A number of places put up winter illuminations which are breathtakingly beautiful. Not all of them are worth travelling a large distance, I’d say. But if there’s time to spare, they can be quite rewarding. There’s the Caretta Shiodome in Tokyo, Nabana no Sato and small light-ups near most of the major subway stations.

5. Souvenir shopping and Anime stuff!

Anime MerchandiseDo I need say more? There is the One Piece Museum in Tokyo Tower, J-World in Tokyo, the anime themed rides in Disneyland and the Studio Ghibli Park. All of them can be amazing/meh depending on which fandom you belong to. But if you chose the right ones, you’ll sure as hell have a good time.

And then there is merch shopping in Akihabara. There is a flea market in Akihabara as well which sells anime merchandise at unbelievably low prices. And all of the multi storey Animate where you can just go and get lost.       

I have no estimate of how much time I spent looking for affordable rates for stuff I had to buy – some were necessities like overcoats and other things required for my mental satisfaction, like a kimono, which I know I will not wear in my life ever, but still needed to buy just for the sake of it. Now Japan has a huge number of stores for buying second hand items, most of them in really good condition, even in some of the branded showrooms. And then there are the never-ending strangely animal themed souvenirs. 

6. Watching the Tea Ceremony and Bunraku Theater

Or just getting a taste of macha in a traditional surrounding. I attended this twice. Once was a tea ceremony held by the Tea club in my college. They even taught us how to whisk macha ourselves and I just couldn’t get it right! This was where I got to see the complete tea ceremony (while having to sit on my toes for the entire duration).

The second time was when I went to visit a temple in Kyoto, where I got to see the Zen garden, do a bit of meditation and was invited to sit and sip green tea. No ceremony here, but the matcha was still wonderful.

I wasn’t able to see a Kabuki performance, but did manage to catch a Bunraku show (Puppet Theater). The puppets are around three-fourths the height of an average person and it requires three people to control one puppet – very different from the string puppet shows I’ve seen in Rajasthan. It was a pretty unique experience! There are national theaters in both Osaka and Tokyo which regularly stage Bunraku and Kabuki shows.

7. Taking a random walk to find hidden streets

The best part about Japan is, the country feels completely safe – even if you’re a girl walking alone in a street halfway through the night. I don’t remember many incidents where I felt unsafe no matter what the time of the day (or night). What this means is an endless possibility to explore. Rather than looking for destinations on google maps, I found myself choosing streets and areas and scouring through them at my leisure. With the land beneath my feet being Japan, there wasn’t much room for disappointment. More about Walking around in Osaka.

As much as I’d like to say that’s all, Japan has so much going on that the list may just never end. One thing which would be on many’s list will be food. Being a vegetarian, most of my survival in Japan was through Ice Cream (and bread), so won’t be much of a help there. What are the experiences you look forward to the most in your trip to Japan?

Fall Splendor at Koyasan

Koyasan was another of those places which I pondered over a lot – whether it was worth it or not. There were a few places that I went to (like Nara) which were (almost) universally liked and touted about everywhere. But when I reached there, it didn’t feel like anything new or special. Maybe because being from India many (seemingly) Asian attractions are not anything extraordinary for me. But Koyasan boasted of something people in tropical countries are not very fortunate of seeing often – the autumn colours. So when our host in Osaka casually remarked that Koyasan would be a beautiful place to visit that time around (in November), that sealed the deal.

Because it was a sudden plan, I had not really done my homework when it came to the place. At Shin-Imamiya station, I came to know that the journey will be three way – train, cable car then bus.

Map from Namba/ Shin Imamiya to Koyasan

But at the Bus stop at Koya-San. I was totally at a loss of where to go. Thankfully, there was a very helpful (like most Japanese) person there, who with my broken Japanese and his handful English helped me figure out that Okukunoin is probably the best place to start.

A Train Stop on the way to Koyasan
Cable Car stop at Koyasan

Now Okunoin is where Kukai, a sacred religious figure in Japan, is believed to be in eternal meditation. As you walk from the bus stop to the main worship hall, there are innumerous gravestones of people who wanted to be buried near Kukai. I don’t know the exact figure, but around 200,000 monks are buried in the area.

The Way to Okunoin
Graves like little houses for the gone, and they really had such personal touch

The walk feels both surreal and beautiful. And I stopped more than once to look at some of the graves wishing I could understand at least some of what was written on them.

This was almost cute(?)
A common stop. Praying meant offering water to all these idols. Time consuming, but somehow, fun

I came to know this later, but there are audio guides available for all of Koyasan at many tourist information centers and they do not cost much. One information center is at the entrance of Okunoin too and it’s better to get them if you do not have any guide. The entire mountain is very rich, culturally, and the guides may give you more to appreciate about it. In fact many of the graves had the guide markings on them and all of them was a reminder (for me) that how different the trip might have been with a guide.

Anyway. You don’t need a guide to appreciate nature. And Koyasan did not lack anywhere in natural beauty. It is visited aplenty by tourists too, mostly Japanese. And it is not unusual to spot an occasional monk going about his way.

There are many other historical places. They were not difficult to find. They’re highlighted in almost any map you come across (even bus route maps, so you’ll stumble onto them even if you’re not particularly headed there).

Other Tidbits

Koyasan is also known for its vegetarian meals – Shoujin Ryouri – as the cuisine is called. The monks here strictly follow a vegetarian diet. So need not to say, I was pretty excited about trying it out. I mean, it could be the only place in Japan where I could try out the local meal! So I asked at the tourist centre about a good place where I could get one, and as a good sign, the place even had a queue. When I finally got my order, it was…. actually not as good as I had hoped it would be. Either the restaurant was not as good, or (and I’m sorry if I sound obnoxious) Indians have a wider palate when it comes to vegetarian food. I’ll need some time to get use to the Japanese cuisine.

If you’re planning a long stay in Kyoto, I found Koyasan to be very similar to Kurama Mountain (and the Kibune shrine there). From June to September, the restaurants there build platforms on tiny waterfalls for customers to enjoy their cuisines while being closer to nature. This practice is called Kawadoko. More info here.

For me, Koyasan equates to the the beautiful colors and the mystical feeling in Okunoin. If you’re someone more accustomed to autumn in its splendour, it may not hold much of wonder. But if you’re not, the place may just make you fall in love with the season. Read about my trip to Osaka.

 

 

 

Rains, Ruins and Rice Fields

I went to Hampi with no plans at all. Zilch. It was a desperate get-out-of-the-city trip and Hampi had been on my list forever. When I mentioned it to the people around me, I got quite mixed reactions so I ended up booking a solo trip and boy, am I glad I did.

The weather was perfect! I would suggest rains as the season to go to Hampi as

  1. It’s not very crowded then
  2. The rains make everything look so much more fresh and green it’s mesmerizing

I did a one day trip to the place. So it got very tiring. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the trip to bits. It is one of the best I’ve ever done. And not the tick off your checklist kind of trip, not even close. It actually ended up being a fresher experience than many of the slow trips I’ve done before. I would still suggest a two/three day trip – just so it doesn’t feel like a marathon. On my day in Hampi, I cycled 5 odd kilometres, climbed two hills (one of them twice owing to my stupidi miscalculation), and walked around still more. The next day I found myself so beat, I laid in my bed doing nothing. The same can be done over two/three days, and you’d get to interact more with the awesome travel community in Hampi.

IMG_20170819_082357

And what a community it is. The hub is a restaurant – Mango Tree. It is a sweet, leisurely shack with really good food. To top it off, they have floor seating with just the right amount of cushioning. It’s hard to pin-point why I preferred going to that place every time – the food, the relaxing seating or the random traveler you’ll inevitably run into. I met two Germans who were roaming around in India for the past few weeks and ended up spending half of my day with them. At dinner I ran into a girl from the states who’d been travelling between India and Thailand teaching yoga. Two other travelers joined us while we were talking and we ended up playing cards for the evening, I also got travelling advice from one of them. Imagine me, an Indian, getting coached on what to see in Hampi, by a German. And it is this advice that led me to cross the river and into the rice fields – so I am eternally grateful.

The major ruins of Hampi are on one side of the Tumgabhadra river. A motorboat and Coracle (which is just a fancy word for a large sturdy basket) is employed by the locals to help people cross the river if they feel like seeing the other side as well. I was drifted across in a coracle. I talked to the guy and he agreed to take me sightseeing on the makeshift dinghy. The ride was very serene and roller-coasterish, because when we reached a shallow end of the river, the guy spun the coracle around in fast circles. Such fun! The entire ride was fifteen minutes but the experience was so surreal, it felt worth it.

Coracle at the base of Tungabhadra River

On the other side of the river, they have scooties and mopeds for rent. I got one and drove it to the Hanuman temple (also called Monkey Temple) which was a cool vantage point with around 550 step climb.

View from Hanuman Temple

But more than the temple, it was the ride – scootering among paddy fields, with the wind roaring in my ears and the occasional splatter of rain – which I absolutely enjoyed. I’d never imagined rice could be this beautiful and green..! I feel that a trip to the other side of Tungabhadra is a must for all travelers in Hampi, especially for those who’ve never seen rice fields before.

Paddy Fields
Views while Scootering

As for the ruins of Hampi, I joined a guided cycling tour which I happened to run into. The half day tour included cycling to the major archaeological sites and temples with some background information from the guide. The guide, Hanuman, was very patient with our questions and helped cover more sites in greater detail than I could have by myself.

Ruins at Hampi
Walking Views
The Zenana
Step Well

Hampi is one of those places where I feel lucky to have gone. I’d geared up for encountering stories of the land and its history. Little did I know that I would end up finding such colorful people, serene nature and create stories of my own.

Viennese Titbits

Ah Vienna! In a city with such history, music and coffee houses, no amount of time spent can be enough. Here’s some questions and chunks of info that I hope make your trip better.

1. What’s with the Maria Theresa posters?

If you’ve heard of the Habsburgs, this should be a breeze. Maria Theresa was the only female ruler in the Habsburg dynasty. She and her son Joseph (who’s sculpture you’d see in front of the National Museum riding a horse) are credited with numerous reforms that were received well by the people. And so they are very famous and well respected. Incidentally, Joseph was the first one who decided that Sundays would be complete no-work days for all Viennese. So if you end up in Vienna on a Sunday and find more than half the shops/cafes closed, you know who to blame.
Another Habsburg, Franz Joseph, is tagged one of the factors responsible for WWI when he declared war against Serbia. In his defense, he did not really foresee what effects this little action of his would have, and he did think that the Serbians were responsible for murdering his nephew. Doesn’t reduce the impact of the war in any way, but an interesting thing to remember when visiting Vienna and seeing his name pop up in Schönbrunn Palace.

 

2. Why is everything closed?

Probably because it is a Sunday (read above). Well. Tough luck. All the options you have now are general sightseeing. You can still enjoy the day. Go to Schönbrunn Palace, hire a boat in Alte Donau (last I saw the hourly rates were on an average of 18 per hour for four people) or walk around Donaiunsel (and feel incredibly you- old watching the teenage crowd). Completely viable options. For your sake though, I hope you have another say in the city so you can see other places as well – like roam in Nashcmarkt, the food market, or check out the shopping scene in Mariahilfer Strasse or do everyday grocery shopping (even most supermarkets are closed on Sundays).

Walking in Donauinsel
Sunset in Donauinsel
Walking around

3. Is Schonbrunn worth it?

In one word. Yes. The major types of tickets available are (all of which include an interesting audio guide):

  • Imperial Tour (€14,20) – Access to a few Castle rooms
  • Grand Tour (€17,50) – Access to inner Castle rooms in addition to Imperial Tour
  • Classic Tour (€24,00) – Castle rooms and other attraction in the garden (like the maze)

The Schonbrunn Palace is really beautiful. While the Imperial Tour covers the grandiose hall of the palace, there are many beautiful rooms which it does not allow access to like the black lacquer room which Maria Theresa had gotten designed in the memory of her late husband (a favorite). So I’ll recommend getting the Grand Tour at the least, if you hold even a teeny tiny interest in architecture or beautiful walls really. Oh and entrance to most of the garden area is free.

Schonbrunn Gardens

 

4. Coffee Kaffee

If you have coffee on your to do list, I’m proud of you. Vienna is well known for its coffee houses and rightfully so . They are the traditional socialization venues. You must try Melange here – espresso with skimmed and foam milk. It sounds similar to Latte but is incredibly smooth and really yum. If you’re a purist, I’d recommend Jonas Reindl. It has great coffee but not many options to eat except a few cakes. So if you need a plethora of snacks with your coffee, not your kind of place. In general, it’s hard to go wrong with the coffee houses in Vienna.

 

5. Which brings us to.. ice cream!

Yes they are worth it. And wonderful. And I would highly recommend Tichy. I was lucky enough to stay near the place on my visit and they completely justify the people crowded there at almost every hour of the day. Specially the fruit flavors (strawberry, blueberry) and coffee. It can get a bit far from the city center, but if you have a subway pass, enough time to spare or consider yourself an ice cream fan, do visit here.

 

6 Umm… Sacher Cake Torte?

Sacher Torte sits on the to-do list of many visitors to Vienna. And most of them end up at Hotel Sacher to have their first taste of the dessert. And it is good business for the hotel. Any hotel. So good that the Supreme court had to get involved in the debate of who can call their Sacher torte as the original Shacher Torte. Now Hotel Schaher might have gained the favor of the court, but if you want a more pocket friendly version, I found the ones sold at Demel pretty good too. I’ve heard Heiner has good ones as well so you might give them a shot too.

 

7. Opera?

This is a bit tricky. I have realized, after much denial and as much as I like it, that opera is not for everyone. And giving it a shot for the first time can be a daring choice. Why? Because it’s costly af. If you’re a first timer, you can try getting standing tickets in Vienna Staatsoper (the major opera house in Vienna). They usually cost €7-10, but are sold out quickly. This way you can get a taste of the show without putting much at stake. If you’re feet hurt too much or you find you’re not interested, you can just leave. You can check out Theater an der Wien also, which is pretty good. It has comparatively cheaper tickets (if you don’t like the idea of standing) and there is a higher probability of actually getting tickets here (Staatsoper tends to get sold out really really fast).

Ceiling of Theater an der Wien

 

8. Getting to all these places?

I’ve found the Vienna Subway passes to be a good deal. There are 24, 48 and 72 hour variants. They are approximately worth three trips on the subway and are applicable for all forms of public transport inside of Vienna. If you plan on using public transport, then this app on Play Store – Vienna Subways and buses – is very helpful. The best part is that it also works offline.

 

No matter where you end up going, Vienna remains a wonderful treat.

Remembrance for victims of Nazi Propaganda
Plague Column featuring Angels, the Devil and a World Map
St Stephen’s Cathedral


Walking around in Osaka

In most travel guides, Osaka starts with the Glico figure. And if I am really honest, what pulled me there was…

More specifically…

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Wizarding World in USJ

But the city itself is a lot of fun. To me, it was a kinder, friendlier Tokyo. And that is what most of the Kansai region is known for, the friendly folks and food. Being a vegetarian, I couldn’t delve into the cusine much. But the people.. right from our host to random people I met on the streets, they were wonderful. And made the trip all the more fun.

So I like wandering on streets. Walking actually lets you explore a city like roaming around in buses and metro cannot. And in areas like Dotonburi and Namba, the streets are so colorful that it’s fascinating. I chose to live near the Dobutsuen-mae station so these areas were at a walk-able distance. And boy, did I walk.

The first day on the way to Dotonburi, I stumbled upon an Animate! My first Animate! Animate is a chain of stores in Japan dedicated to anime and manga. They are huge stores with entire floors dedicated to manga (Japanese comics), cosplay items, figurines and other merchandise. Animate stays open later than the other local shops, and I was walking really late. I had gone to Nara for a day trip and came back late at night, but I was so excited about getting to know Osaka that I decided to take an after dinner walk.

Now I am an anime (and manga buff). And the street leading to Animate also had a few local anime shops and of course I spent time in those as well. The figurines they were selling were really cheap now that I look back to it. But since it was my first city trip in Japan, I didn’t realize they were (and so missed the opportunity).

I just bought one tiny Luffy.

Luffy figurine

(Still proud of him)

Other kinds of places that were open then were eateries and book shops. More like.. porn shops? Okay hear me out. Japan has a very different (weird?) culture about these. It is usual to find such magazines in convenience stores (konbini) so I had just learned to avoid those sections. And they don’t just have books lying around.. no. That would have been relatively normal. It is very common to find middle aged men standing near these stands reading those books. I kid you not. Maybe I should have taken my lesson from the konbini, but I can’t resist myself when I see a book store. So it took me entering half a dozen stores and finding a number of mostly nude (animated) girls staring back at me to decide that I’m not stepping into any other local bookstore in Osaka. Ever. So consider yourself informed (to whatever end).

The second day I took a day trip to *drumrolls* Universal…! (I should just say Hogwarts). And the third day to Mount Koya (more about that here). All the time getting to see Osaka only at night. But the fourth day.. that was when me and Osaka finally had time alone together. And I packed my bags with my meager vegetarian snacks and headed off to… where else? Dotonburi!

Walking around in Osaka
Walking around in Osaka

I did find some odd snacks here and there. Okay. I just found one.  Never thought I’d spent 200 yens on a chocolate sprinkly banana which looked more than a little weird. Oh well.

While walking around I also stumbled upon this beautiful and quiet shrine in the middle of nowhere. A few locals came to worship here while I was standing there, and it felt completely serene standing just a few meters away from the busiest street in Osaka.

Trinkets like these are what make walking around worth it.

I also bought some clothes from local stores, and somehow stopped myself from getting a really expensive (but cool) hat (phew). For the next day I went to see the puppet show at the National Bunraku Theatre and roamed around in that area (it is a great experience for any theatre lover).

Osaka is a city easy to fall in love with – be it because of the strangers on the street who’ll give you a high five just because you seem a bit down or the beautiful shrines that will peep at you from some corner of the street, or maybe some other secret you might uncover on your trip. If I had stayed for more days, I’m sure I would have found other lovely corners in the streets.

Indian Curry Joint
Look what else I found

 

More on Japan

A Guide to booking Opera tickets in Europe

Palais Garnier in Paris

Booking Opera tickets can become a pretty hefty process, especially for newbies. What with looking up good theatres, finding the right websites to book from and then the right dates, seats, and what not. So here’s a handy list to get you started.

One key word here is advance planning. And advance in two senses – planning your itinerary and booking your tickets. If you want to watch an opera, you can’t count on it being staged on the exact days of your stay in that particular city. So it helps to check the dates in advance and tweak the order of your cities to match the opera dates. Once you’re done with the planning, it’s good to get the tickets booked too. If you wait too long, they’d either be sold out, or only the costlier ones will remain. The cheaper tickets tend to sell out faster, and while these might not offer a great view of the stage they have very good acoustics (sometimes better than center theater).

I prefer booking directly from the opera houses’ website. They are reliable and their information cannot be faulted. Often they offer the best prices as well. There are many websites which offer the same tickets at higher prices by buying at better rates earlier. They are actually good for last minute planners, as they might have a chance of finding tickets here even if the show is unavailable at the opera house’s website. Just make sure they are authorized dealers before booking from third party sites.

Here is a list of websites you can consult for your opera planning across different cities.

1. Prague – The National Theatre, The Estates Theatre, The New Stage and the State Opera
The Estates Theatre, Prague
Image Credits

Prague has a remarkable collection of opera houses. Among these,  The Estates theatre is one of the oldest performing theatres in Europe, preserved in its almost original state after having survived World War 2. Though I’d say all of the theatres are in par, and fairly light on the pocket (as compared to other cities).

The booking experience is also very smooth with their official website. While booking do pay attention to the type of show you’re booking for as they stage opera, ballets, musicals, concerts and laterna magica (traditional Czech show involving image projections).

You can find the program schedule here.

2. Vienna – Vienna State Opera
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
Image Credits

The Vienna State Opera needs no introduction. While it was not so lucky as The Estates Theater in regards to the War, it is no doubt a magnificent building. You can find the schedule for the current season in their website here. The ticket bookings can be done through the same link.

The Vienna State Opera also offers around 40-minute guided tours of their opera house at a reasonable cost of € 7.5 a lot of which focuses on working behind the scenes during an opera performance. So even if you’re travelling with people not much into opera itself, the tour might still be interesting for them. The booking for the tour is done through the ticket office in front of the opera but you can get a rough idea of the schedules from their website here.

Another website viennaconcerts.com lists different concerts in Vienna including performances scheduled in the State Opera (in case you’re not lucky with ticket availability on the official website). It also has a great range of Salzburg events which you can check out if you plan a visit to the society.

3. Paris – Palais Garnier
Palais Garnier in Paris
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I believe the Palais Garnier deserves a visit whether or not you’re into opera. With its grand staircase, ornate art and rich history (it was the setting of The Phantom of the Opera), it is not to be missed. So it’s not a wonder that they provide visits to the opera house at specific days priced at € 7-10. You can check the schedules and book the ticket here.

For the opera performance tickets, you can check the schedule and book tickets at their website here. You need to create an account to book tickets through the website, which might be a hassle, but totally worth it in the end.

4. Milan – La Scala
La Scala, Milan
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La Scala is one of the most popular opera houses in Europe. It has a chequered history. In the old days it was usual for trading activities to be carried here alongside the opera, which roughened the experience for the average opera lover. Nonetheless, La Scala is connected with many world famous artists which have either debuted here or have graced the theatre’s stage atleast once in their careers. The tickets can be booked at their website here. The theatre also opens for visits and guided tours are available through third party operators.

5. Venice – Teatro la Fenice
Teatro La Fenice in Venice
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There is no theatre which has seen more disputes over each of its reconstructions (the most recent being in 2001) than Teatro La Fenice. Still, it is a spectacular opera house and acclaimed worldwide. Tickets can be booked at their website here. You’ll have to do a calendar search to see what’s on during your visit. They have different types of tours available, the standard one being with an audio guide for €10 per person. There is no advance booking option but you can check out the schedule and types of tours here.

One Piece Museum Tokyo – My Experience

The Strawhats celebrating around a table with Nami sitting holding a beer mug, Luffy and Usopp dancing around and Robin sitting and looking at them fooling around

Let me warn you first. There is a huge side effect of visiting the One Piece Tower. And that is a strong unbeatable urge to rewatch the entire damn series from episode 1. If you are a One Piece fan, you would know how dangerous this could be for your social life. I couldn’t fight it and now I’m stuck in Baratie waiting for Enies Lobby to happen and all those feels to hit again. So, consider yourself warned.

Getting there

  • If you’re travelling on a Tokyo Metro pass, you can take the Hibiya Line to Kamiyachou station and then walk towards the Tokyo Tower (700 meter walk). The red tower is really easy to spot so you wouldn’t have much trouble.
  • Alternatively, if Toei line works too, you can take the Toei Mita line to Onarimon station (850 meter walk to Tokyo Tower) or the Toei Oedo Line to Akananebashi Station (650 meter walk after that).

Tips before you go

  • Try and get the tickets online here if you want to save on the 200 yen.
  • If you can, take atleast one person with you so you don’t have to randomly ask strangers to get that pic with Law. Go on a One Piece fan hunt if you have to. Going alone is not that bad either, just a little inconvenient
  • Check the timing of the live show when you reach and keep it in mind so you don’t miss it. There are machines near the entrance of the show where you can get tickets in advance and you need those tickets to get in. On a day with more rush, don’t forget to get those tickets as soon as you reach.

The Experience

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I cannot begin to describe what the One Piece tower meant to me. It was an afternoon of wonder and pleasant surprises. There are a lot of activities so maybe going in a group will help. But if the group is devoid of One Piece fans, you’ll find yourself in many awkward overexcited situations with your companions giving you a blank look probably rethinking your friendship.

The one piece segment spans three floors of the Tokyo Tower. The entrance ticket costs JPY3000 if you get it online and JPY3200 on spot. It is a horde of picture points and games. The picture spots made me regret going there alone a little but it was a successful visit nonetheless. There was one game for every member of the crew and also, a live show.

Highlights

The Entrance

As soon as you enter, after watching a 360 degree theater with heartfelt scenes from across all seasons of the series, you end up in a dark room with the Strawhats lurking in every corner. The figurines are so realistic I almost lost my mind.

Zoro’s Soul of Edge

The entrance to the attraction is an exhibition of all kinds of katana’s. You’d waste no time in spotting Mihawk’s huge sword hanging down the wall to your right as you go in. The line leads you into a small booth where they give you one (unreal) katana and make you stand facing a screen. You then have to fight a pacifista and random cannon balls as the software registers your real life moves. When the pacifista shows up, you have to get into a particular stance which is also the time when they take a sneaky little pic you can buy later for a 1000 yen. I didn’t have that much money so I just took a pic of the pic but I encourage you to make a decisive and amazingly Zoro like one so you are proud of yourself instead of laughing maniacally and spoiling the pic.

A huge sword with blade black as night and a golden hilt hung at the center of the wall; Dracule Mihawk's cross necklace is hung to the right
Yoru – Mihawk’s sword

Robin’s Finding Poneglyph

Here they give you a real talking denden mushi. You heard it. A.real.talking.Denden Mushi. And you know who is talking from the other side? Can you guess? It’s Robin. Robin. She was talking in Japanese so I didn’t understand shit but I think I can rest in peace now.

The game itself is about finding hidden poneglyph marks all over the place, scanning it with the denden mushi and finding more of them. I drifted into all sorts of dark and probably non-visitor places in the amusement park carrying it, so the game can be a bit dangerous for overexcited people with no sense of social boundaries. While the game itself is pretty enjoyable, you feel like a stalker sometimes when you follow other groups with a denden mushi hoping they’d lead you to other poneglyphs. There are also nicer people who’d tell you where they found the hidden symbols themselves so you do not have to resort to your baser instinct. I turned out to be pretty bad with this though with a measly 56% of the poneglyphs found.

Brook’s Horror House

The name says it all. For me the funniest part of this attraction was the family in front of me. In particular, the son in the family in front of me. It was like a comedy skit. The boy was so scared of the house that he ran out of the place and then came to tell me it was too scary for him and that I should leave too. Two seconds later, his mom came rushing out looking for him trying to take him back in. Seeing her brother get all this attention, the little girl stomped out of the house and away from the attraction followed by her father asking her to come back. Somehow the entire family gathered and went back into the house, before the boy apparently decided he really couldn’t take it, got out again and walked towards the exit from the outside to wait for his family.

The horror house was not really scary (‘You’re a scaredy cat, little boy’), and if I’m saying it’s not scary, you can probably skip through it taunting all the wannabe demons. It was an alright attraction. The best part was catching a glimpse of the ghost woman, Perona.

Chopper Southend sunny issue Exploration

You have to go here. Actually there will be so much time you’ll probably go to all the attractions but I really took my time with this one. It had Sanji and the kitchen, Nami’s and Robin’s room with their cabinet and clothes and little animation snippets with Chopper and Brook.

Luffy’s Endless Adventure

A life sized figurine of luffy's back as he walks forward

Can I just say this is the best part? It is like an interactive animation of the entire series and a retelling of the precious moments of all the Strawhats. I almost cried here. There was Shanks giving Luffy the hat, the Enies Lobby scene with Robin, a model of Nami’s map room at Arlong’s that Luffy destroyed and… Ace. It was like a tribute to all that has happened in the series till now. They played little parts of the movie on a huge screen at the end too.

The Live animation

Frankly, this was not as interesting as I thought it would be no matter what the pictures make you think. Infact it was a bit funny and kiddish at some points because the characters’ faces did not really match with the characters. A great experience nonetheless.

Mugiwara and Tongari store

The Tongari store is inside the amusement park. The best thing I found there was the Franky hand pillow (you heard it). The mugiwara store on the ground floor of the Tokyo Tower has a huge collection. The best part is the One piece soundtrack playing in the background while you shop.

I think that the One Piece Tower is a place all One Piece fans will enjoy. It is a half day in Tokyo you would never forget.

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studio-ghibli-museum Winter-Illuminations

An evening in the Ghibli Museum

Laputa robot at Ghibli Museum

Laputa robot at Ghibli Museum

True I had been super excited to visit the Ghibli museum.
True I had expected it to be amazing (unsuccessfully trying not to get my hopes too high).
True I had been waiting for the originality and beauty of all those movies to flood my brain again.
But I was still unprepared. I had still undermined how perfect it could be.

With breathtaking manuscripts of stop motion animation, oil paintings that looked like windows to other worlds that I know all too well, little unexpected animated features and reels and reels of film, they flaunted their skills unabashedly. And I could only stand and watch, trying not to gape.

Getting There

  1. I would suggest taking the JR Chuo line to Kichijoji Station and then walking to the museum through Inokashira Park. It’s not too far and the park is beautiful enough to make you forget about the distance.
  2. Alternatively, take the JR Chuo line to Mitaka Station and the bus to Ghibli Museum

 

Tips before going

  • Tickets! Ghibli museum requires tickets to be booked one month in advance, so this needs to be planned. You can get them here.
  • If you get the 4 pm slot, keep in mind that the museum closes exactly at 6, and you might not be able to see the remaining parts of the museum after that. You might also want to get to the Laputa robot before it gets dark, as there is not much lighting around it, so put that first.
  • Brace yourself for the feels.

 

The Experience

First, is the way to the museum itself. I had a 4 pm entry pass, but I left at 2 from Shinjuku station so that I would have a one hour margin. Though I had taken the ticket to Mikata, I got off one station before at Kichijoji, just because I could see a huge park in the maps on the walk from Kichijoji to Ghibli Museum. Retrospectively, this has been one of my best decisions of the trip. The Inokashira pond and the park enclosing it is a feast for the eyes. And as I was going to the Ghibli museum, the park and the autumn splendor really set the mood for it. It was a relatively peaceful place blanketed by shed leaves and dotted with  numerous park benches. Here and there, you could spot students trying to capture the beautiful scenes in their drawing pads (I gave it a shot too, but the results weren’t exactly flattering). I spent an hour in the place, sitting and drawing and looking around, and almost got late to the museum. If I had any inkling about how pretty it could have been, I would have went with more time to spare.

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You could imagine my excitement as I rushed to the museum. This could be the highlight of my trip to Japan. It was the first thing I had marked on the map when it was finally decided that I was going to Japan. Ghibli, and specially Miyazaki’s, movies have meant so much to me through all these years. They have been my inspiration, my solace, my musical haven and my friends during the shittiest moments of my life.

Inside the museum, I rushed to the Laputa robot at the rooftop as it was getting dark. The only way to access the rooftop is a spiral staircase which was a nice touch. Inside the museum, there are many rooms dedicated to the creation of Ghibli movies. The animation studio has wonderful live stop motion features that look magical even in real life. Then there is a catbus room where you can look through different models and sit in a life sized model of the bus from My Neighbour Totoro. My personal favourite was a room where original paintings and drafts by ghibli artists were pasted all over the walls. I was mesmerized by the level of detail that goes into each panel. The watercolors looked beautiful but the oil paintings were on another level completely. At first, I was sure they were photos and not real paintings. I could not imagine the skills, devotion, love and respect that went into each of them. And for the first time I felt as if the movies did not do enough justice to the quality of the artwork of Ghibli.

In addition, there is a shop, a cafe and many other rooms in the museum. They also showed a cute little motion picture about a dog, Koro, in the museum which was around a 15 minute short story. There were no Engllish subtitles when I saw it, but there was not much being said in the movie and the story was pretty simple to follow. I could not get any pictures in the museum as it was not allowed >.< But take my word for it, it feels like an escapade into the Ghibli world, the most beautiful there can be.

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The museum closes exactly at 6, so I did not have much time. Leaving was much harder than I had expected, and I felt a little jealous of the people working there (though I guess dealing with ghibli crazed fans who did not want to understand that 6 is the closing time no matter what could be a pain). Even if I had not been a fan of ghibli movies before coming to the museum (in some impossible parallel world), I would become one yet again after a visit here. I believe that it is a must for all those who’ve been grateful to studio ghibli ever in their lives.

PS – While I loved the experience completely, I do wish there was something about ghibli music too at the museum. They covered just the animation part. For me the music, especially by Joe Hisaishi, is as wonderful as the animation and story in the movies.

 

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