Postcard from Kyoto

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My last postcard was from Tokyo, the buzzing, neon epicenter of Japan. Think of Kyoto as the serene, ancient version. Unlike Tokyo, this feels like the East. There aren’t signs in English everywhere, and credit card acceptance is patchy; you must use the Yen.

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The essence of Kyoto is in the ancient beauty of it. Shinto temples, arched bridges over ponds bursting with koi, and geisha darting by in the night. Unlike the skyscrapers of Tokyo, try to stay in  a ryokan – small, Japanese style inns with tatami floor mats, sliding doors and spare wooden rooms overseeing a Japanese garden. It’s the stuff spa music is made of.

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If you are fascinated by geisha, visit the Gion district, preferably at dusk. During the day it’s a tourist trap, and you’ll be elbowed by packs of miserable Russian women. They’re wealthy and paying top dollar to be dressed and photographed as geisha. I can see why the locals take advantage of the fantasy, but these ladies are thirsty. Hovering over their phones and draping themselves over bridge railings;  it’s an embarrassing sight to behold. Instead, go at sundown to see the working geisha rushing to real appointments. Look in the windows to see elaborate tea ceremonies. Hear them playing the shamisen for their guests. In fact, you can go to a tea ceremony and performance yourself!

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the real deal

Like Tokyo, take to the alleys! That’s where all the great shopping is, and be sure to have a pocketful of yen. While Tokyo has a trove of hidden Izakaya spots to grab a bite, Kyoto is filled with artisans. Out of tiny homes, a simple canvas flap separates the sidewalk from a dimly-lit den, where Japanese artists sell their wares. From handmade jewelry to candies, it’s perfect for souvenirs and afternoon snacks. I stocked up on the lightest, most delicate rice crackers, or senbei. Some featured nori, some had a hint of fish, and some were spicy yet sweet. Just thinking bout them gives me cravings!

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yakitori + jetlag = our first night

I didn’t get a chance to see the Fushimi Inari shrine, but if you see photos of it, you’ll know why I recommend it. It gives me good reason to come back! Kyoto is magic.

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The Kamo-gawa river winds past ancient wood buildings in Kyoto

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Postcard from Tokyo

This advice for Tokyo is the same advice I’ll give anyone visiting Japan. Explore the alleys! That’s where all the treasures are hidden. From little Izakaya shops with just four chairs on a counter, you will find exquisite ramen. You’ll find hidden courtyards with Shinto temples that are over a thousand years old. Homemade candy shops, innovative playgrounds and sushi meccas are tucked away in these little alleys. Some highlights from Tokyo:

Robot Restaurant

Prepare for sensory overload, as lasers, disco balls and neon lights create a dizzying show of battling robots, ninja warriors and psychedelic costumed characters. It’s too over-the-top to put into words. The show sells out way in advance, so be sure to book before your trip!

Cherry Blossoms

Make sure to go in the spring to take in the heady, romantic views of cherry trees blossoming in white and pink. Unlike the delicate cherry blossom trees in the states (such as DC) the trees in Japan are beyond mature. They seem ancient, with heavy, twisting trunks people can climb. If you can’t make it in the spring, come in the fall, when the Japanese maples come alive in fiery colors. Click here for the best places to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo.

This is Harajuku, close to Shibuya

Shibuya Crossing

Yes, it is home to the busiest intersection in the word, with thousands of people criss-crossing the multiple corners for each red light. It’s a sight to behold, and film with your camera as you weave through a sea of faces. But beyond that is a vibrant night scene. I got street food at midnight – unbelievable Kobe beef on a stick. I got sushi served to me by bullet train when ordered on a computer screen. I explored adorable boutiques and saw a statue dedicated to Hachi.

Japanese pancakes

There are plenty of places to get these fluffy masterpieces. About an inch thick and custardy on the inside, they melt in your mouth and are piled high with fun toppings. From hazelnut chocolate and bananas, to whipped cream and strawberry compote. Just don’t go to Burn Side St Cafe, because there is a miserable server there who takes away the experience. There are plenty of options!

Tokyo Tower!

Speaking of plenty of options, there is so much more to discover than what I mentioned.  So consider this a jumping-off point. And most importantly, don’t forget to explore those alleys!

 

Living that Estate Life

Though only 20 miles from downtown Richmond, Dover Hall feels worlds away. The Tudor-style mansion even transports you to a different time.  The rolling hills and hedges resemble an estate in the English countryside, where at any moment, Richard III could roll up in his carriage.

Dover Hall contains over 8 million dollars in art and antiques. Since it was built as a home, there are too many entrances and exits for insurance companies to even consider covering it as a museum. The taxidermy is unbelievable, the chandeliers range from elk horns to glittering crystal, and the sun room overlooking the yard is the perfect setting for a love scene in a Jane Austen novel.

One would never believe that the house was built in 1996. Designed from scratch, the builders avoided the cheap pitfalls of drywall and wall-to-wall carpeting. Instead, Dover Hall features exposed stone, wood beams and Gothic fabric-covered walls. It’s filled with beautiful things, but isn’t cluttered. It’s decorated with a range of treasures, from an authentic Native American teepee to Victorian antiques, but the house still feels cohesive.

Luckily, Dover Hall is no longer a private home, and serves as a bed and breakfast. A romantic weekend getaway would be unforgettable. One can even rent the place (or certain areas) for events such as weddings, charities and parties. With innovative cuisine and wine curated by the chefs, and lush furnishings acquired from around the world, Dover Hall is a crown jewel in Richmond, and a must-visit for les bon vivants!

 

Smokey Mountain High

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Nothing can disrupt the serenity of a misty mountaintop like a big, loud Arab family. We likely scared the deer and complicated hunting season in the Smokey Mountains.

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If a mansion and a cabin had a baby, it would be our grand lodge, which housed multiple generations of our family, and comfortably. There was an indoor pool, hot tubs overlooking the Smokey Mountains, a game room and movie theatre.

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If those walls could talk, our names would come up often. We had gambling marathons that went into the wee hours of the morning. There were pancake and mimosa-laden brunches. There was a rather intense Newlywed Game (none of the couples were newly-wed) that ended with an uncle who literally took a pie to the face.

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Best of all, we had long talks and belly-aching laughter on those wrap-around porches. We had three stories of porches to choose from. Sometimes on the top level, the boomers shared childhood memories of Ramallah, while on the ground floor, tween cousins told ghost stories.  Whether sipping morning coffee and reminiscing, or sloshing bourbon at midnight while running away from an errant raccoon, the mountaintop views kept us on those rocking chairs outside.

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I walked away thinking about how every generation improves from the last one. When my father’s side of the family emigrated from Palestine to Chicago, they had nothing. Like most of the immigrant stories you’ve heard, they worked hard so that their kids could get a formal education and a better life. We delivered on that; it’s the least we could do. To think they went from washing dishes in Cicero dives because they couldn’t speak English, to comfortable grandparents, watching multiple generations luxuriate in such accommodations.  They felt proud, we felt lucky, and the youngest generation? We’ll see about them.

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Top 10 Things to Do in Berlin

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Me, an unabashed tourist

 

Berlin is not your Busch Gardens Germany. Forget Oktoberfest with its lederhosen and buxom beer maids. Punk rock meets Eastern Bloc: that’s Berlin.

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What wasn’t bombed is beautiful

#1 Bomb accommodations – pun intended

Half of Berlin features centuries-old architecture, and the other half, blown up in 1945 by heavy bombing in World War II, had been replaced by solemn communist buildings reminiscent of East Germany. Try to stay in a place with some history. We stayed in a restored palace, with grand doors the height of the ceiling and frescoes adorning the walls.

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#2 Nazi History

As much as Berlin’s art and fashion scene has taken center stage in recent years, there is no denying that it was the epicenter of Nazi Germany, where the movement started. It’s a great place to see infamous history in 3D, such as visiting Hitler’s bunker.

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Checkpoint Charlie and a piece of the Berlin Wall

3. The Berlin Wall

Even after Germany was defeated in World War II, it was split between East and West, with the Berlin Wall going up to divide the country. Tales of intrigue have surrounded us for decades, regarding the Stasi and German spies. In the 80s we watched in delight as the Berlin Wall fell, to unite a country. Make a point to visit the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.

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#4 A must-dine destination

Dine where Beethoven and Napoleon dined, sit on wood-carved thrones and most importantly, enjoy delicious food. Zur Letzen Istanz serves a cuisine that’s hearty and traditional, yet somehow cutting edge. Everything was delectable.

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#5 Brandenburg Gate

Take in the views at Brandenburg Gate. Built in the 1700s, it’s an architectural marvel and the site endless history. Built on orders from the Prussian King Frederick, it used to be the entrance to Berlin when it was a small, walled city. Both Napoleon and the Nazis stormed the gates, among many others.

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#6 Alexanderplasse

Don’t miss Alexanderplasse, the large, open-air gathering place that goes beyond the local stores. There are outdoor beer gardens serving a wide variety of ales and booth vendors offering exquisite samples of homemade cheese and sausages. There are rides for adults and children alike, and are sturdier and more beautifully lit than the pack-and-go carnival variety. The strong immigrant population is a boon to the area, and highly evident at their booths, where they sell their native wares, from spice mixes to handmade leather shoes.

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#7 Modern Berlin

Though I must admit not having much time to do this, be sure to check out the galleries and boutiques of Berlin’s burgeoning art and fashion scene. This article will help steer you in the right direction.

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#8 SPEED!

I’d say this no matter WHAT city in Germany you’re in, but my advice would be to GET OUT. Rent a car and drive on the Autobahn to live out your childhood fantasy.

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Rochsburg Castle

#9 Castles, because Germany

And while we’re on the subject of leaving Berlin, I must mention that Saxony is nearby. Take a day trip to the countryside, and better yet, castles! What’s a trip to Germany without taking in a good castle? We went to Rochsburg, and it did not disappoint.

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#10 Exploring the outskirts

And don’t underestimate the amazing countryside outside Berlin where you can visit tiny country hamlets. The ancient buildings, the curious neighbors that all know one another, and the wonderful regional dishes they offer. And I’m not above a clown-shaped bologna!

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How could we not? It was delicious.

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Don’t take for grated the variety of beer
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Shout out to Gerd & Gabriela – our German friends & partners in crime!

The Portable Pool Party

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Rule number one: A portable pool party cannot be a success if the actual pool is portable. That would be one sad party.

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My friend Flor, a scientist / party girl from Argentina, was having a daughter. But she didn’t want a frilly, pink celebration over it.  She said she wanted to get out of town, just for a day. She loves to swim and tan under the sun, so I threw a portable pool party.

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Luckily our friend had a time share just an hour outside town, with a luxury pool, (indoor and outdoor), lazy river and hot tubs.

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When doing a day trip, always stop for brunch along the way. It’s a fortifying luxury and will allow your party to snack on lighter dishes from the cooler all day.

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Then, bring all the accoutrements that any girl would enjoy by the pool. I brought magazines, nail kits, a deck of cards. I made sure to stock up on sunscreen and bug spray for the girls.

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Under the hot sun, it’s refreshing to eat light food, such as cold cucumber slices dusted with chile y limon. There was heirloom cantaloupe, sliced cheese, truffle potato chips, and guajillo chile porch chop and arugula sandwiches. For dessert there were coconut biscuits and Belgian chocolates. I snuck in spiked strawberry lemonade for the girls, and a Tom Collins for Flor.

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Even with SPF 50, we all started the season with a deep base tan and plenty of Vitamin D. We sipped cocktails in the shallow end, dozed off in the lazy river, and laughed all day. It was a baby shower that didn’t just pamper the mom-to-be, but felt like a reward to everyone who came.

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Postcard from Chicago!

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room with a view, and a full moon

When I was a kid, my grandmother owned an apartment building by Wrigley Field in Chicago. Back in the 80s Wrigleyville was a little rough, and we loved it. We were from the suburbs and sheltered, so our idea of fun was to sit  on the front stoop and take in the sounds of domestic violence, set against the white noise backdrop of screaming crowds at Wrigley Field. The couple across the street fought viciously with their windows open.  We never saw their faces but we heard them year after year, screaming every combination of filth imaginable. Annually, we’d ask our cousins, “Are they divorced yet?” But to our amusement, they were inseparable. Sometimes we’d get cocky on the stoop and imitate them, shouting up at their window. Sometimes they’d yell, “Hey F*** YOU kids!” and we’d scramble inside the building.

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the view

We also marveled at the idea of a candy store just sitting across the street from where my grandmother lived. Except it was a liquor store. They were all liquor stores, but we kept our eyes on the prize. Our parents handing us a dollar and waving us off seemed unreal. Without an adult driver, we had no access to candy in Annandale, Virginia. We shrieked and darted into to the liquor store. Our Chicago cousins shrugged us off as amateurs.

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hotel-hopping for brunch

Then things changed. My grandmother sold the building and moved into a modest home in the suburbs, and the rest of the family followed. As I got older and visited for weddings, Chicago became a blur of suburban hotel chains and stadium-sized banquet halls.

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white pumpkins

For the latest wedding, I decided we were going to see Chicago in style. I wanted to experience the city the way I did as a child. When the evening skyline made me breathless. When we found a 24-hour White Castle for a midnight snack.  We stayed in the Magnificent Mile. In the heart of downtown off Michigan Avenue, we chose the historic Warwick Allerton, built in the roaring 20s. While a skyscrapaer, it had all the trappings of a boutique hotel. We were upgraded to a giant suite that oversaw Michigan Avenue, glittering below us.

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magnificent urns

It was just a short walk to the John Hancock building, and Lake Michigan, which locals like to call “the beach.” I kicked off my shoes and took a long walk in the sand. There were actual waves! I marveled at the skyline, and the gorgeous floral arrangements at the luxury hotels.

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no hotel could touch The Drake

The Drake was by far the most striking hotel, and I fell in love with the architecture (pictured above). Though built in the Italian Renaissance style, it screamed Art Deco to me.

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barefoot stroll by Lake Michigan

It was nice to be back into the fold of classic Chicago, with the skyscrapers larger than life. The air smoky with Polish sausage vendors. I can’t wait for the next wedding.

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Chicago weddings