Day 2 in Tokyo Enjoying the mix of fun, fashion and serenity of Meiji Shrine

One of the big draws for me to visit Tokyo was getting some peace from the beautiful scenes and parks the city is renowned for so the Shibuya district was at the top of my list.  On my second day in Tokyo my quest lead me to Shibuya and the Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine to take a walk in the park if you will.  Often my travels are about seeing all I can see but crossing a city off your travel list does not have to be what wanderlust is all about.  Coming off the death of my grandmother, my motivation for traveling to Tokyo was just to take a break and appreciate my blessings and nature is one of the best spaces in which life is put into perspective for me.

Meiji Shrine is a huge area encompassing the temple area, covered walk ways and bridges, museums and historical buildings.  Unfortunately for us the access to the Treasure Museum is limited to the weekends, however the grounds in themselves are a looking glass into the world of ancient Japan.  During your stroll to the Temple you get to enjoy the tree lined walk ways and trails.  From the old wine barrel displays to the bonsai garden you have a sense of reverence for the history that is contained within the park area.

As we approached Meiji Shrine you are reminded that despite it begin a tourist attraction it is a place of worship for many as well. From the ritual cleansing of the face and hands instructions at the entrance to the shrine and prayer area there is a real sense of peace in watching others celebrate their beliefs.  I was lucky enough to even see a wedding processional solemnly parade through the courtyard.  This temple also did a great job of giving some explanations to the ceremonies and celebrations that were ongoing in the space.  During my visit I saw the harvest festival which used elaborate fruit offerings as a celebration of blessings.

Outside of the Temple the park is an explorer’s paradise. The grounds allow you to visit several historical buildings or just relax in the grass and enjoy the peace and beauty of it all.  Outside of the temple, however, the city is still bustling all around.  We decide to just wander our way to our next destination, even passing some comforts of home such as Garrets Popcorn.  We grabbed lunch just blocks away at the Omotesando Hills.  This is a go to destination for premium luxury brands, but as usual there was just food on the brain.  After a tour of the ten restaurants and their menus we settled on a small restaurant doing what Japan does best when it comes to food, showcasing simple ingredients in an exceptional way.  Even with my simple order of chicken the barrage of colors and sauces and flavors on my dish made it one of the most memorable meals I had in Japan.

While luxury brands were not my cup of tea this trip I am always interested in exploring local shops so we headed deeper into Shibuya to see what we could find. This is a huge area for shops and stores, most that are original to Japan.  After a long day of walking and exploring we headed back towards our train stop but the relaxing tour of the Meiji Shrine stayed with us as a sense of appreciation for the beauty found all around us that is celebrated in Japan.

Balanced traveling: Putting rest and relaxation into making big moves

International travel often demands you spend your time on the move, but sometimes you just have to know how to sit back and relax too to get the most out of a vacation. As I hit the hotel room in Tokyo after a couple of days’ worth of traveling I knew that my normal hitting the road was not going to work. I needed rest and relaxation and with the Peninsula giving me some amazing five star luxury I was in the right place to make that happen.

Usually there are two separate but equal trains of thought on travelling: those who hit the destination all in, soaking all the fun they can out of it and those who have R & R on the brain and plan to lay back and take a mellow break from their everyday life. Admittantly the first one is usually my go to, but I learned an important lesson on balance in my Tokyo trip.  Spending time recharging at your hotel is not only a great way to not come back from your trip needing a vacation from your vacation but it is a good way to get your money’s worth when booking luxury travel.  I now consider it mandatory getting my money’s worth time.  Enjoy the plush robe and slippers, soak your stress away in the tub, and ponder life outside the phenomenal view of your window.  All these things help define the vacation separate from the ripping and running that probably occupy your normal life.

So as much as I like this balance sitting still too long will never be up my alley. But exploring will always be a passion of mine so why not start the exploration at the hotel.  Great hotels are typically prepared for wandering spirits and have great amenities.  The pool and spa facilities at the Peninsula were exceptional.  As with most things very orderly (there was instructions on pool routine, swim, and then sauna then swim).  With the incredible views of Ginza and invigorating hot tub it did a great job of unwinding both my body and mind.  Lesson learned for me though that exploring a new city can start first with your hotel as you balance your quest for adventure with a desire to re-invigorate yourself.

Day One in Tokyo – Asakusa history, beauty and fun

Getting a real vibe for a new city usually means getting emerging yourself in that culture so getting hands on in Tokyo will probably lead you to the Asakusa area.  This was the top recommendation from the hotel concierge when we checked on what to do in Tokyo so we gathered our city and train station maps and set out to see what all of the fuss was about.  One of the things I love most about Tokyo is their train system.  Admittantly I got a little flustered when I could not get my credit card to work but after exchanging some cash the English prompts and signs made it easy to get around the city not to mention the price was right.  With Asakusa just eight stops down from the Ginza district we were off for some Tokyo exploration.

While the train offers English prompts everywhere, the streets signs from Tokyo do not so getting your bearings quickly is an important tool in making it around town. As maps have never been my strength, I had to rely on my following skills by pegging other visitors and following behind others who seemed to have a sense of where we were going.  As I began to see more and more stores and shops pop up I knew we were in a visitor friendly part of town and learned what we were in the Nakamise shopping area.  These rows of shopping streets have everything from Japanese snacks to souvenirs in every shape, size, and form.  It is a great place to find something for friends and family at home as there are offers from the very cheap fans and cards to luxury kimonos and swords in between the open air market and store front areas.  As we hit the Kaminari Gate it truly struck me of the majesty, beauty and history that was sure to make the trip one of a lifetime.

After some wandering around we got to the main attraction for Asakusa, the Sensoji Temple.  This Buddhist temple built over thirteen hundred years ago is a great introduction to some beautiful Buddhist traditions. From the handwashing station to the prayer walls it was a great place to gain some reverence for a culture not your own.   This is definitely one of the places I wish I hired an English tour guide to give me a true understanding of some traditions that I stumbled through by watching others.  The temple and surrounding gardens are a great place to wander around and just take in some of the beauty.  As my trip was in the fall the leaves were falling and it was a great place to sit and relax or have a leaf throwing party that really just reminds you what a blessing it is just to be alive.  Either way the beauty of the city quickly welcomes you in making the city seem a lot less foreign in a lot less time.

With all the things to see in Asakura what went from a planned stopped turned into an all-day affair. From my daughters quest to try new favors at the food vendors to my kimono instructional there is so much to do and learn in the Asakusa area.  If the walking of the day has you pooped you can also hop in a water taxi or a ricksaw to cap off a day of exploration the beautiful and historic Asakusa area.

The Peninsula Tokyo: Kon’nichiwa luxury!

When in a strange land, having some place comfortable and safe to lay your head can give you real peace of mind and when that place is crazy luxurious you may have found yourself in the Peninsula Tokyo.  Set in the business district of Ginza the hotel offers class beyond compare, a central location, transit options from within the hotel, and impeccable service.  My initial Tokyo plans did not include the Peninsula, however with the 4th night free offer with the AMEX Fine Hotels I thought it would be a great addition to what was sure to be a great trip.  When I read you could also access the train from the basement of the hotel while also being just minutes from the Imperial Palace the scales tipped in the Peninsulas favor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I am a big fan of the Peninsula Chicago for their lovely high tea service, this was my first time staying at the Peninsula hotel. After some sickness on the plane and an hour ride from the airport, the welcoming staff was definitely a site for sore eyes.  As expected the lobby areas were beautiful, although much more compact from the sprawling Peninsula Chicago that I was used to.  After moving up to my room, however, I could care less what was the lobby dimensions as the room was simply amazing.  From the large walk-in closet and dressing area to the opulent bathroom to the huge master suite and sitting area with expansive views of the city around I was in love.  I would be doing a disservice if I did not mention my favorite part, the toilet.  No bidets are not the rage in America, but this one was something special.  I have seen nice ones, but a toilet that automatically lifts the seat when you walk in, has a warmer, spray settings for both front and back targets and even a dryer (Yes a dryer) literally blew me away.

As with most great hotels the extras are where you lose any lingering regrets you may have about the price. Including simple amenities that are a lot more important when you are far away from home like Q-tips and slippers, tvs and radios in the bathroom, Oscar De La Renta soaps and shower gels all add to a wonderful and luxury experience at a hotel.  These things you can’t qualify but also can’t duplicate at a hotel that is not on par.  For instance after noticing one guest was a mini, we came back to the room with a special baby basket and kids robe and slippers for my one year old Bronx.  Now this is class at its finest.

My next biggest concern with a hotel is always location as I like to hit the pavement in a new city no matter where that is in the world. The hotel is centrally located and close to the shopping in Ginza, the Imperial Palace by foot and the incredibly efficient train stations to get you to most of the highlights in Tokyo with ease.  The staff did a great job in arming us with site and transit maps before we headed out on our way.  The one drawback for me was in reading about the transportation options online before arriving.  When we went to book the basic car service I thought would be a free, first come first serve service, we were told it was only associated with suites in the hotel and could not be accessed.  As the trains were so convenient it wasn’t a sticking point, but some places such as Tokyo Tower, are still a bit cumbersome to get to with the transit system.

Without question the comfort and luxury found in the Peninsula hotel could have you spend your entire vacation in the 500 sq. ft. of a room and love every second of it.

Tackling Honolulu in 24 hours with Waikiki beach fun

Yes when you get news you have a long layover in Honolulu Hawaii of all places it is like you stepped out of a nightmare and right into a dream. My path to Honolulu was definitely not blue skies as there are few things worst then being told you won’t make a leg of an international trip.  So after a night of being puked on by a baby and a couple of hours sleep in LA I was stood at a counter close to tears about my flight to Tokyo.  Luckily an unexpected blessing was coming my way as although there were no flights to Tokyo in the next 2 days out of LA I could connect in Hawaii for a long layover.  No question my answer was yes!!!

 

So what do you do in Honolulu with just a day there and no real preparation for your trip? Well that’s easy.  First is just to remember there is always a silver lining and just be grateful.  After that immediately book a hotel room around Waikiki, buy some flip flops, and go flying towards the beach.   Just to highlight all the wrongs made a right on this trip for me a rainbow popped up to highlight my great luck.  The Waikiki beach and sunset is nothing short of amazing.  It is a great time to give pause to just what a blessing life is.  And as things are looking up there is still a ton to do in Honolulu once you get your beach time in.

The Waikiki beach area has really built itself up with great shopping and restaurants all within an easy walking distance. With their late night hours and busy walking traffic you almost get a baby Vegas strip vibe.  We set off to do a little shopping and fill our bellies as we took on the 24 hour Hawaii challenge.   The only downside of a very commercial build up is that you can lose some of the more authentic stores that are a real refection on Hawaii.  So after popping in a couple of Urban Outfitters and other stores we decided that food was the new top priority.  To start Hawaiian shaved ice!!! Okay I had a mild obsession while I was pregnant but my love did not prepare me at all to an authentic Hawaiian twist.  At Island Vintage Coffee Shave Ice they had fresh favors and Hawaiian ingredients that were one of a kind.  Not to mention how amazingly light the ice was.  It was a great warm up for what was to come.

We took some good advice from a stranger also scarfing down shaved ice and wandered into a newly renovated shopping center, the International Market Place.  In addition to some great luxury shopping options the third floor is dedicated to some great eats and good times.  On the weekends they have live entertainment and the band that was rocking 80’s music and 70’s funk had my son getting his serious grove on.  At the Eating House 1849, the food was an eclectic mix of Asian Hawaiian influences and the 1849 Spicy Ramen Bowl and Tavern Style Fried Chicken were a perfect cap to a long day.

Up in the morning and while my mind is on Tokyo there is still time for some final Hawaiian moments. We heard that the Island Vintage coffee company with their honey latte was the place to be and the long line we faced confirmed the recommendation.  With a gorgeous grassy area and great view of the boulevard it is a great way to wake up your day in Hawaii.  It is a great reminder that the best memories happen in a moment.    You don’t always have to have an extended stay, just a fabulous location with the ones you love can give you the opportunity to make memories that last a lifetime.

AMEX Business Platinum the go to for rewards travel

American Express Business Platinum just took points credit cards to a whole new level with 50% points refunds on flights. Without question I am a travel points fanatic.  The benefit is a key component to my travel agenda, using it everywhere from booking rooms to flights.  Combining great cards with strong points earning capability is a great way to add more options into when and how you book.  One of the best cards in my arsenal, the American Express Business Platinum, just got a whole lot better with the offering for flights and it is just too good to not share.  The AMEX Business Platinum was already a go to of mine because it is benefit packed.  For instance, they frequently offer special offers that you can enroll in for discounts and rebates on purchases at stores and restaurants you already visit.  Additional card holder benefits include access to the Centurion Lounge when you travel, reimbursement for TSA pre-check enrollment, and a refund of discretionary charges at your airline of choice.  When you use them all of these benefits quickly add up above and beyond your annual fee. Before the new flight bonus it was a toss-up if it made more sense to transfer my points to United and book reward travel or purchase a ticket with points on the AMEX website.  Now there is no question booking with points gets you flying at essentially half the price.

Now if this is sounding too good to be true, I understand as I nervously waited after my first booking to see if a refund would indeed happen. I learned though that the points refund happens about 24 hours after booking, probably in line with their 24 hour free cancellation policy, and then voila the points are back in your account.  There are of course a couple of drawbacks, as nothing in life is perfect.  First you need the available funds in the account as the flight is first charged and the points are used to pay on your credit account after booking.  The second is that you need points and lots of them.  Using the card for purchases and then transferring the payment immediately has worked for me as the card is not a revolving account so it could result with a very sad billing statement if you don’t do some checks and balances on your spending.  Lastly the bonus is on your airline of choice that you enroll with AMEX either at activation or annually so choose wisely on an airline that is convenient for your city.  All in all though the points bonus is the truth and really gives you more for less.

Buckle your seatbeat! My guide to traveling with young children

One of the question I am most frequently asked about my travel plans is how do I successfully travel with a young child. Well I am not sure how successfully I do it as I have endured pee, pooh, puke and screaming in my adventures in traveling with my son but travel we do as we are 2 continents and five countries down as we celebrate his 18th month.  While I am no expert in how to do it without tears, and I mean my own tears not his, I have learned some tips to survive the journey.

1 – Study your child’s habits and proceed accordingly: Knowing what your child’s daily habits are an important way to cut down on surprises during a trip. If they nap every day at noon, you wanting to see a landmark on a given day does not change that habit for them. As best you can keeping with a child’s normal schedule helps cut down on them acting out of character. This means even testing what they do if they are off schedule so you can know how bad it can get. While I do not suggest you plan a whole vacation around your child’s home schedule knowing what you are in for helps you keep calm when they are not their normal sunshine state. Please note if your child is typically a wild child or requires bribing to get them on track this will not change and you should still proceed accordingly (vacations do not make angels out of children, especially small ones

2 – Plan Smart: From travel gear to snacks on hand, there is a lot that preparation can do to keep you relaxed and your kids happen. One of the best decisions I made was investing in a small stroller/car seat combo that makes the transition from plane to walking to car a breeze. This doesn’t mean try to bring your house with you because that is stressful in other ways. Just pack 3 to 4 essentials and realize that sometimes nothing will make your kid happy so you have to keep it moving. When it comes to fights a lot of great planning can come in your seat selection. This of course takes planning or surcharged rates but being close to loved ones, bathrooms or even, crib accessibility on overnight flights can be key to a win.

3 -Shit happens: Literally and figuratively shit happens. Knowing the unexpected will happen gives you a chance to make peace with it. So if you pull the unlucky card to have the stomach sickness inflight with a small child you can do what you can and forget about the rest. Place your bet on the fact that your child won’t be a perfect angel and you can be responsive to the things that don’t go as smoothly as you would hope.

4 – Get over yourself: Part of the concern we have is what others will think of us when our kids are not perfect travel buddies. Yes you will get the annoyed glares when you walk on the plane but don’t take it so personal. Most of us have travelled with and without children so we know both sides of the coin.   Children are as much a part of plane expectations as people stealing your armrest and the occasion passenger with BO. Swallowing your pride, offering an occasional apology when it is due, and working to make your child comfortable and no menace to others is the best you can do, getting worked up about falling short of perfection will only stress you and your child.

Squeezing in the fun with two days in Chicago

At least once a year I try to make it my business to visit my favorite US city, Chicago, for a whirl of fun, friends, family and of course food. My most recent trip afforded me 2 days to get all the fun I could squeeze out of Chicago with my two favorite travelers, my kids, in tow.  With a weekend base camp of the Hard Rock Hotel on the Magnificent Mile I took off right away to get reacquainted with a city I adore.

It’s hard to tell if it’s my loved ones that make the city fun for me or if my friends and family there embody the spirit of the city, explaining my love for both. Chicago is brazen and busy and metropolitan but it still has woven in it the love of life that appreciates art and food and friends that keep me coming back for more.  Automatically at the top of my agenda is to connect with people, but there is no reason that cannot be combined with some other city highlights.  Of course food is supreme in Chicago so be it brunch at Yolk or a deep dish Pizza at Giordano’s there are some things that are undeniably often imitated and rarely duplicated on the Chicago food scene.

My top highlights from the trip, however, were not my usual food fest. Instead something old and something new took the cake.  On the something old side a walking tour of the Magnificent Mile area always does my heart good.  Coming from Houston where walking is rare I love how easy the city is to maneuver by foot and all the possibilities at hand.  In an afternoon of walking you can explore Millennium Park and its art installations, meet new friends for you kids, wander in and out of shops, and get some great live street entertainment.  All these things make Chicago the constant top pick for US city.  On the new side I was able to do something that has escaped me before, Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula.  From first stepping into the hotel I knew it was something magical and afternoon tea was a great mix of prim and proper with smiles and giggles from the opportunity to spend great time with great friends.  The champagne that comes with tea doesn’t hurt either.  All in all Chicago gives you a chance to do almost anything under the sun, even in a pop in pop out weekend.

Off to the races with the TL Charity Polo Match

Almost any reason to dress up and wear a hat is a good one but when it adds in charity, polo, and picnic you have a first class reason to pull out all the stops. At the Tomorrows Luminaries Charity Polo Match at the Chukkar Farm Polo Club you get a great day time party, polo match, and some of the best dressed in Atlanta all in one place.  One of the things I love best about events where you dress to the nines is that looking great puts people in a great mood.  When you are feeling your best you can’t help but smile and the feelings and great vibes are contagious.  So despite the heat everyone was grinning from ear to ear as the Hendrick’s poured and the music enticed you to move to the beat.

The event is located in Alpharetta, Georgia and from someone who is not from Atlanta that means it is really far. As we took off on the really long ride that we were really late heading out for I began to wonder if it would be worth it.  We had to pack our own picnic, dress our own table, and make it all the way to the country to attend.  But as soon as we arrived and took in all the fabulousness at hand we knew the answer was absolutely yes!  We made our own spread of everything we liked but the guests around us were friendly and more than willing to share and point out some things that shouldn’t be missed.  Of course this included the Hendricks stations pouring up the one and only gin I will drink in some cocktails perfect for the occasion.  While you sit perched high upon a hill with a lovely polo match in play you realize this is one of the moments where being grown up and being able to appreciate new experiences is so great.  As the day moved on the great live band and subsequent friends and friends shots that continued made it truly and event and a day to remember.

A-Town Birthday Showdown

I love celebrating life so when a good friend calls with birthday plans in Atlanta chances are I’m going to try and join in on the good times.  My most recent trip to Atlanta was a great weekend getaway to celebrate friends, fun, and oh so many laughs.  Of course with a trip with 5 ladies there are going to be some standard checks on the things to do list, eat, shop, and party so away we went to paint the town red in Atlanta.

As a foodie, getting a taste of a city is always at the top of my list and no restaurant did it better for me on this trip to Atlanta than Serpas.  The restaurant does serve American food but with such an edgy twist on classics it leaves you wondering exactly where it came from and how you can get more.  The national acclaims have come flowing in and every bit of praise is completely worth it.  I had the Stuffed Airline Chicken and after my foodgasm I was pretty sure it was the chef’s way to ask me to marry him.  The chicken was both juicy and crunchy with a stuffing that made you lick your spoon stopping only long enough to stuff some savory mashed potatoes in your mouth.  Hmmm hmmm hmnmm, this restaurant will make you want to change your weekend plans.

Outside of food the question becomes where will you get all of your shopping and fun done in the city.  We just Buckhead as our base location because how close it is in the vicinity of great food and shopping.  When traveling with a group of five it is important to make things convenient enough for everyone to have their own freedom in doing things.  This way you don’t end up want to strangle someone for taking too long to get dressed or not wanting to stick to the pace you are on.  Although Buckhead is a great shopping location, there are few better central locations to party than downtown Atlanta.  The variety of clubs makes popping around a breeze so you can get everyone pumped based on their preference and ensure a good time is had by all!  The variation in the trip was key to ensuring we all got to celebrate as a group and do the things we enjoy individually as well.

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