Moving to a New City

Last year my family moved to Toronto because my husband got a great new job up here. I was thrilled at the idea of living in a fun new city, that I had never even visited before. I even arranged for a limo for Toronto to pick us up and bring us to our new home. My kids however were less than enthused.

My youngest was heartbroken at having to leave all his friends behind in the town he grew up in. My older daughter was inconsolable. She was a junior in high school and had a serious boyfriend and I felt like the biggest monster in the world for tearing her away from all that. She put a brave face on and told me that she understood that we were doing what was best for our future but the mature way she handled it only made me feel worse. (more…)

I Wanted to Have the Best Plan to Impress Her

At no time during my first 10 years of dating, had I tried to go above and beyond when taking someone on a date. I wasn’t being thoughtless, I just went out for the usual dinners and drinks that most people do. One day, I met a woman who I asked out, and I wanted to pull out all the stops for her. I was shocked at my sudden urge to do this. She said yes to a date, so I scrambled around thinking of how to surprise her. Calling for limo party bus service for Toronto people, led to me renting the actual vehicle I would use for the date transportation.

It took me awhile to figure out what my plan was once I rented the limo. I even briefly thought of canceling it because maybe that wouldn’t be a good plan at all. I called the company to ask them how soon in advance I would need to cancel, if that was what I decided to do. (more…)

Iconic India – When it comes to memorable experiences, few destinations can compare to India.

It hardly bears saying, but India is a million miles from your average vacation destination. Multidimensional and ambitious, the subcontinent bamboozles, frustrates and entrances in equal measure with its cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells and experiences.

Of course, there are semblances of conventionality to be found. Fast-moving cities such as New Delhi, Bangalore and (especially) Mumbai are developing at breakneck pace. In these urban centers, you’ll find towering chrome and glass skyscrapers, chi-chi restaurants, luxury hotels and glamorous young things that square with the image of the modern, prosperous country India aspires to be.

Other aspects of the destination easily digestible for American tastes include the beach enclave of Goa, where a blissed-out hippy vibe is increasingly being sidelined by the advent of expansive resorts and mass tourism. There’s also Kerala, where a cruise through the state’s network of inland lakes and waterways on sumptuous houseboats is a pursuit worthy of all bucket lists.

Yet beyond these tourist touchstones lies an alternate reality that gathers into its enigmatic realm everything from spiritual sustenance and historical manna to snow-dusted mountains and deep jungle where tigers still stake out their turf.

As with every rollercoaster there are downsides to India’s wild ride comes with poverty, heat and overcrowding. That’s India though. You’ll love it, yyou’ll hate it, but you’ll never get bored of it.

Hit the heights in Ladakh

It’s easy to see why Ladakh is often called India’s final frontier. Almost completely cut off between November and May due to freezing winter conditions, and only reachable in the summer months via the world’s highest mountain passes, it’s a distinct and mystical destination.

Explore India

The Tibetan influence is strong here. The area is home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, and the rugged moonscapes characterizing the region are dotted with colorful prayer flags and temples. Islam has also exerted a major influence, thanks to the region’s proximity to Muslim Kashmir, and Xingjiang in China, but the main tourist sights are concentrated in the mostly Buddhist east.

The first stop on most itineraries is the town of Leh. On one hand, the settlement is like many other Indian tourist towns, with pizza restaurants and internet cafes. But on the other hand, the town’s location at 1,1500ft above sea level, amid Himalayan grandeur, makes it a special place to kick off an adventure. For most, this involves trekking. Although far less geared for walking than Nepal, Ladakh is moving into vogue for intrepid travelers – its cool, blue lakes, jagged mountains and deep river valleys provide a remarkable backdrop to a mission on foot. A sample itinerary to this range would be a 20-day trekking expedition to Ladakh.

Royal relics and desert majesty
India offers so many evocative regions, it’s hard to pick out just one. But for sheer drama, romance and history Rajasthan is tough to beat. The onetime home of the fearsome Rajput warrior clans is an exercise in contrasts. Cities such as Jaipur and Jodhpur are color-charged hubs of activity; their modern energy augmented by reminders of the region’s rich past in forts and palaces.

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In the western extremities of the country, the desert takes over, it sun-kissed splendor punctuated by oasis towns such as Jaisalmer. Here, where the Great Thar Desert blurs the line between India and Pakistan, it’s possible to ride a camel out into the dunes or savor the wonder of the town’s sandstone havelis (mansions).

A highlight of Rajasthan is the romantic city of Udaipur – the ‘Venice of the East’ – which seduces with havelis (temples). The most famous of these, the floating Lake Palace on Lake Pichola, appeared in the Bond movie Octopussy. Given its arid nature, the region’s wildlife is surprisingly abundant, while colorful saris, towering turbans and superb cuisine add further luster to a glittering prize. When visiting this region consider a 10-day Golden Triangle tour, including all hotel accommodation, private vehicle for the whole tour and English-speaking guide. Your tours should take in the major attractions of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Samode.

See the jungle book come to life
Most tourists tend to neglect the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, catching only glimpses en route between Delhi and the south. This is understandable on many levels. The lack of coastline doesn’t help, while the holy cities and temples reward domestic travelers more than they do casual vacationers.

There are, however, several compelling reasons to spend some quality time here if you’re a nature lover. The two states – formerly a single entity before they were partitioned in 2000 – are blessed with some of India’s best National Parks. Indeed, if you’re looking to catch sight of the king of the Indian jungle, the tiger, this is undoubtedly the best place to come.

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In common with many developing countries, wildlife preservation has been problematic in India. However, conservation efforts seem be working well in central India, and the chances of a tiger sighting in National Parks such as Kanha and Bandhavgarh are good. It’s not all about tigers, though, as these tracts of wilderness – famously the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s _ e Jungle Book – are also home to leopards, elephants, jackals, gaurs and sambars.

Ride the train

With so many sights scattered over a vast area, it’s impractical to cover India by car while too many internal flights can be a bore. Indian Railways has one of the world’s largest networks and is a popular if earthy way of touring the country. But today, some trains don’t merely take the strain. A few special services have emerged in recent years as ‘land-cruises’, with luxury and convenience blended into one seamless journey with halts at some of India’s stellar attractions. The ‘Palace on Wheels’ is arguably the granddaddy of them all with an excellent itinerary covering most of Rajasthan’s highlights, from the state capital Jaipur and the remote desert fortress-town of Jaisalmer to the ‘Lake City’ of Udaipur and the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

A few special services have emerged in recent years as ‘land-cruises’, with luxury and convenience blended into one seamless journey

The Indian Maharaja covers some of the same ground on a Delhi-Mumbai itinerary, as does the Maharajas’ Express, which also journeys east towards Varanasi. The Golden Chariot operates in the south with a route taking in some lesser known though equally spectacular sights. These trains are very comfortable, for even the most discerning of travelers, with en suite restrooms, showers, chintzy dining and bar cars. Meals are served by turbaned waiters with sashes, passengers have their own butlers, and, on some trains, there’s even small spas and gyms.

CLIMATE: Mid-September to April is ideal for most parts of India, with warm-to-hot sunshine and little, if any, rain. The Himalayan regions are generally best from April to June, and September to November, except for Ladakh, whose season runs from June to September.

CURRENCY: Indian rupee.

TIME: GMT +5h30m.

GETTING THERE: Airlines flying direct to India are Air India (Newark to Mumbai and New York to Delhi), Continental (Newark to Mumbai) and Jet Airways (Chicago to Delhi).

GETTING AROUND: Distances are huge and many visitors take internal flights. India’s celebrated train network is continually being upgraded and, for some visitors, is part of the Indian experience — air-conditioned and first-class travel is comfortable and generally reliable. The expanding highway network has shortened many inter-city journeys, though traffic generally tends to be hectic. Chauffeured cars are a popular and flexible option.

Thailand’s Not-So-Secret Secret Beaches

Thailand draws more visitors than any other country in Southeast Asia, and it’s easy to see why. From the shrine-studded mountains of Mae Hong Son and the lush islands of the Andaman Sea, to the pulsing dance clubs of Bangkok and the tranquil villages along the Mekong River, Thailand is a feast for travelers, satiating all forms of wanderlust. Yet the one aspect that attracts the most people from around the world to visit the shores of Thailand are, well, the shores of Thailand.

Thailand Beaches

With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture and great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers the world over.

With its extensive coastlines, numerous islands and tropical waters, the country is a haven for the Beach Blanket Bingo set. In fact, the beaches are so attractive, so idyllic, that everyone started going there. Once they arrived, they quickly wanted to escape the throngs of tourist and find a secluded, isolated beach of their own.

In Search of ‘The Perfect Beach’
This dogged pursuit for the perfect, secluded beach is a fascinating quest many enjoy undertaking, especially in a coastal playground such as Thailand. It even prompted a best-selling novel—Alex Garland’s The Beach, published in 1997 and later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The book traces the fate of a small, loose-knit commune of international drifters who establish their own beach paradise on an island in Thailand’s Ang Thong National Marine Park.

To reach the beach in the novel, the backpackers had to obtain a secret map, swim across shark-infested waters in the middle of the night from one island to another and cliff-dive off a 50-foot waterfall. There’s a simpler way to finding Thailand’s more remote beaches: ask a travel agent. Finding a beach for your own spoils in Thailand that no other tourist has visited is unrealistic; however, a good travel agent can easily set you up on a remote shore, far away from the hectic beaches on the package-tour circuit.

For travel agents know the two essential rules for finding remote beaches in Thailand. Rule number one: stay as far away from airports as possible. Many travelers choose the closest beach, so further trekking improves your chances of finding a remote one exponentially. Rule number two: forget about palm trees. Many tourists associate palm trees with the exotic, so they fill up Thailand’s numerous palm-fringed beaches. Yet the beaches lined with casuarinas or sea pines are so bare and laid back, you just might have to pack your own lunch.

Thailand Phuket BeachKoh Chang, aka Elephant Island
An island that exemplifies both rules is Koh Chang, where paradise has set up permanent residency. Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is the second largest island in Thailand and the largest of the 52-island Koh Chang Marine National Park, all of which are virtually untouched by modernization with their abundant natural resources blissfully intact. With no towns, few roads and 70 percent of the island covered in rainforests, Koh Chang is a true island hideaway—undeveloped, untouched and left idle for decades—which many feel is a blessing in disguise.

A blessing in your eyes is what some may call Nai Yang beach on the island of Phuket. It would seem impossible to find a haven on Phuket, one of the most famous island resorts in the world, not bursting at the seams with tourists. But Nai Yang developed as a wildlife preserve, and now it’s a stunning isolated beach and snorkeling mecca. Nai Yang does enjoy some developed attractions, such as the Pearl Village Beach Hotel, where you can ride an elephant into the surf.

Beaches in ThailandKoh Samui
There are no elephants on Mae Nam beach on the island of Koh Samui. Quiet and calm, with just a few hotels and small bungalow resorts, Mae Nam is four kilometers of sandy beach tranquility. The water is calm, perfect for swimming, and families enjoy strolling past the small shops and restaurants set along main street before returning to the eastern end of the beach each evening to witness a magnificent sunset ignite the calm ocean waters with gentle orange flames.

Ignite your next vacation by asking your travel agent to find you the perfect remote beach in beautiful Thailand. Some of the most travel-wise people in the world, travel agents can connect all the dots—from your home to Bangkok to your transport to the marina and your ferry ride to your island paradise of choice, until your room key is in your pocket and a tropical drink is in your hand as you lie on the beach watching the sun set over the islands.


Temple Trekking in Cambodia

Pang, a 17th-century Cambodian poet, in a tribute to the ancient temples that dwell in the jungles of his country, wrote that visitors gazing upon the ancient ruins will be filled “with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart sated!” You don’t have to be a poet to enjoy Cambodia’s temples, but as you gaze upon these vast cities of the past, you might become one.

Cambodia’s volatility, which once prompted travel warnings, has waned significantly, and the country is enjoying peace and prosperity under a stabilized government. Thankfully much of the country’s cultural heritage survived the Khmer Rouge’s destructive regime of the 1970s, including the temples of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 13th centuries, near present day Siem Reap.

Glorifying a grand succession of Khmer kings, the temples now stand as testaments to one of the world’s greatest civilizations. Photographic treasure hunters, amateur Indiana Jones’s and all sightseers inspired by beauty enjoy exploring these highly decorative strongholds of stone deep in the jungles, where more than 100 Angkor temples still loom. Before embarking on such a quest, trekkers should first visit a skilled travel agent to devise a master plan, for travel agents know which temples are ruined piles of rock and which ones are ruins that simply rock.

Angkor Wat TempleAngkor Wat
Of all of the temples in Angkor, and possibly the world, Angkor Wat is the most impressive. Rivaling the Great Pyramids in scope and the Taj Mahal in artistry, the celebrated temples of Angkor Wat are the largest of the Angkor group and arguably the best preserved. Simply put, Angkor Wat is one of the greatest man-made creations on Earth.

Built as a miniature replica of the universe, the site consists of elevated towers, covered galleries, decorated chambers and statue-studded courtyards. A giant wall covered in elaborate bas-reliefs depicting an exotic morality tale filled with monsters and dancing angels surrounds the intricately-designed structures, while a moat encompasses the entire complex, including the small group of shaven-headed monks in saffron robes that maintain the temple grounds.

Angkor Thorn and the Terrace of Elephants
After Angkor Wat, the most celebrated temple is Angkor Thom, home to the giant, smiling faces on the temple Bayon and the renowned Terrace of the Elephants. Once the residence of the king’s family, Angkor Thom is protected by an eight-meter high wall and a 100-meter wide moat. Visitors enter over five great causeways lined with 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right, each holding the body of a serpent to form a balustrade.

Borobudur TempleSticking to the numeric motif, Angkor Thom’s central temple, Bayon, a visitor favorite, has 54 towers covered in massive stone faces. Some believe the four faces on each tower are images of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, signifying the omnipresence of the king. The faces may just be trying to catch a glimpse of the Terrace of the Elephants, a 1,000 foot long terrace edged with balustrades and flanked by 3-headed elephants gathering lotus flowers with their trunks.

Ta Prohm, the ‘Jungle Temple’
Real elephants could not walk through the tangled maze at the present day site of Ta Prohm. Known as the “Jungle Temple,” Ta Prohm has been relatively untouched by archeologists, leaving in tact the epic battle of nature versus temple. Gigantic roots of fig, banyan and kapok trees spread over the stones, probing walls and pushing terraces apart, as their branches intertwine to form roofs over some of the structures. The resulting beauty is ethereal, and your friends back home may not believe what they’re seeing when they view your incredible photos.

Gate around Angkor WatYou’ll snap even more photos at the little jewel of Bantaey Srei, the Citadel of Woman, for many refer to this richly detailed shrine as the most beautiful of all the Angkor temples. Set in the heart of an immense forest as if out of a fairy tale, Bantaey Srei is renowned for the intricate carvings on hard, fine-grained pink sandstone that cover the walls like tapestries.

In 1924, P. Jennerat de Beerski wrote, “Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams.” Cambodia’s temples create a mesmerizing destination for travelers of all types, and all types of travelers will benefit greatly by consulting a travel agent to help plan the adventure. Travel agents will set up an ideal itinerary and centralize your hotel, so you can easily discover the best ruins without needing a machete to hack through the underbrush.

South Korea’s Hidden Treasures

South Korea has a divine culture that has flourished for thousands of years, filled with countless legends of tradition, honor and hope. Similar to many other Asian cultures, it continues a great history of storytelling that has become a way of life for generation after generation.

Ancient stories of both historical figures and mythological characters have been told for centuries in South Korea, shaping the beliefs and virtues of the people. These legends encompass the very heart of South Korea’s history and integrate magic and mystery into its culture. Discover the stories of early inhabitants, soldiers and gods whose legends are far from forgotten. You’ll be captivated as you surround yourself in the sights and sounds that South Koreans regard as their heritage.

Korean temple surrounded by palm treesJeju: See Magical Myths and Legends Unfold
Start your journey in Jeju City at the Chilmeori Shrine, which is located just a few minutes from the Jeju International Airport. If you have the opportunity to travel in February, you’ll be able to enjoy the ritual shaman performance, which represents the proverbial myth of 18,000 gods. As one of the most highly recognized practices on the island, the people of Jeju believe these demonstrations rid the world of evil and injustice.

Next, immerse yourself in the story of the three founding demi-gods at the Samseonghyeol Shrine, their birthplace. You’ll come across the burial altars and ring of stones created in their honor during the Ancient Tamna Kingdom in the 1500s, where celebratory rituals are still held each spring and fall. A little further down the same route is Tamna Mokseokwon, a provincial monument showcasing the unusual beauty of 20 natural trees befitting to their characteristics (such as Gosamok, the “Dead Tree”), 500 pieces of rock in the shape of a human head and other distinctive stones generally found around the island.

Mount Halla is another major landmark you won’t want to miss during your stay on Jeju Island. Learn about the time-honored legend of Grandmother Seolmundae, the mystical founder of Jeju, and the 500 Generals. Jeju Stone Culture ParkAlong your walking journey on the Yeongsil trail, you’ll see a long line of vertical pillar rocks spread out along the mountain, bringing the story to life of how the 500 generals wept for their deceased mother. Jeju Stone Culture Park features outdoor displays of stone cultures from prehistoric dynasties and traditional thatched-roof houses. You’ll come across exhibits honoring Grandmother Seolmundae, artifacts relating to the life and death of Jeju residents and also the Bangsatap, a stone tower constructed to protect islanders from evil.

Travel further east to the Seongeup Folk Village where you’ll find a small Jeju community still filled with many cultural treasures of traditional folk songs, authentic foods and historic zelkhova trees. During the rest of your trip, you won’t want to miss

The Korean Confucian temples — these long-established philosophical monuments are a colossal part of the history of the country (as well as the rest of Asia). Located in the southwestern part of Jeju, the Daejeong Hanggyo temple is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture that dates back to 1653. The Yakcheon Temple is famous for its display of the largest Buddhist statue in Asia. The name of the temple translates as the “temple where medicinal water flows.” A place of hope and renewed spirit for many Buddhists, the Yakcheon Temple is widely renowned for mystical stories about the medicinal water, which many people still drink when they are here.

If you’re looking for other ways to immerse yourself in Jeju’s traditions, here are a few highly celebrated festivals you can plan your trip around:

First Full Moon Fire Festival (Jeongwol Daeboreum): The annual festival is held on the weekend before the full moon of the Lunar New Year. During this traditional ritual, they set Saebyeol Oreum ablaze in the hopes of receiving a year of abundance and exterminating harmful insects from the fields.

Sacrificial Ritual (Samseonghyeol Chunkidaeje): This traditional ceremony is a veneration of the three demi-gods who founded the ancient kingdom of Tamna.

Seogwipo Seven Fairies Festival: See a reenactment of the legendary story of the seven fairies at the “Pond of Heaven” (Cheonjeyeon).

Tamna Cultural Festival: Just in time for the tangerines to ripen, this event draws you into the spirit of South Korean traditional music, theater, and a special sacrificial rite for Mount Halla.

South KoreaExperience Tradition in South Korea
Without a doubt, your vacation memories will be so much richer as you begin to appreciate how South Koreans once lived and the incredible stories that made their culture a unique and influential part of Asia. While there are many regions that offer an authentic experience of South Korea, Seoul and Gyeongju are two major cities abounding with preserved traditions of their distinct way of life.

The city of Seoul features several cultural attractions, making it the Republic of Korea’s number one destination for foreign visitors and the appropriate starting place for an ambitious exploration of the country. This adventure begins at the Changdeokgung Palace, an exceptional display of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design from the 15th century. Nearby, you’ll find the South KoreaChongmyo Shrine set in wooded grounds, containing the ancestral tablets of the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty that bring luck and stability to the rulers of the country.

Adjacent to the City Hall, the Toksugung Palace holds the former royal villa of Prince Wolsan. Translated as the “Palace of Virtuous Long Life,” it is considered the largest and most beautiful temple in terms of its architectural style in Seoul. Originally constructed in 1394, the Gyongbokgung Palace is a spectacular site that contains many symbolical and mythical objects like the Ten Symbols of Longevity, which tell much about the ideals that the Korean forefathers considered important for the prosperity of the country and dynasty. At the Suwon Korean Folk Village, take pleasure in tasting exotic Korean food at the traditional marketplace, finding a variety of shops selling exquisite handicrafts and witnessing customary performances and ceremonies.

Known as Korea’s “museum without walls,” Gyeongju is a repository of ancient Korean history and Buddhist culture and has been designated as one of the world’s 10 most historically significant sites. At the Tumuli Park, you’ll find more than 20 tomb mounds of kings and court officials of the Shilla Dynasty. Learn about the legend of the Chukhyonnung (or “Bamboo Soldier Tomb”), which tells of soldiers with bamboo leaves in their ears emerging from the tomb of King Mich’u to repel his enemies. A few minutes away, you’ll come across the Cheomsongdae, a seventh-century astronomical observatory that ranks among the oldest in Asia. The tower is built of 362 pieces of cut granite, which some claim represent the 362 days of the lunar year.

Travel a little south to the Gyeongju National Museum and see more than 80,000 treasures from the Shilla period, including golden crowns excavated from the tombs. Spaced around the museum grounds are various recovered pieces of statues, temple ornaments, bridges, stupas and other monuments. In the area, you’ll be able to enjoy walking through the Anapji Pond and Gardens, a reconstructed pleasure garden complete with pavilions. The surrounding hills are dotted with ancient monuments and temples and laced with scenic hiking trails.

South KoreaBe sure to stop over at the Bulguksa Temple, where you’ll immediately be drawn by its beautiful architecture and stone pagodas. Originally built in 528, the temple compound houses a number of national treasures, including the Blue Cloud Bridge and White Cloud Bridge, which bear spiritual significance for Buddhists as they enter into the temple through the Golden Purple Gate. High on the mountain above Bulguksa is the fascinating Sokkuram Grotto, an ancient and highly complex cave-like structure containing a large granite Buddha and wall carvings of guardian deities. At the heart of the Kayasan National Park is the Haeinsa, Korea’s best known temple. You’ll be inspired to see the extraordinary Tripitaka Koreana, a set of over 80,000 wooden printing blocks engraved with the complete Buddhist scriptures, still in perfect condition since 1252.

Trust a professional travel agent to plan the perfect vacation to some of South Korea’s most picturesque sceneries and historical spots. An agent can help you find great accommodations, recommend the area’s best restaurants and shopping as well as book special tours, giving you an unforgettable experience of Korean culture.

Japan: An Experience of the Body, Mind and Spirit

Escape to Japan, an extraordinary destination where you’ll become a part of its admirable culture and realize the most treasured legacies that are still alive in today’s modern world. Absorb the peaceful surroundings and remnants of its heritage built on the canons of humanity and spirituality in many of the ancient streets, shrines and temples, stroll gardens, mountainsides and hot springs. During your journey, you’ll encounter the country’s strong Zen Buddhism and Shinto influences that have permeated the daily lives of the Japanese, passing valuable teachings through the generations.

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Become a part of their proud traditions that have significantly impacted the rest of the world. Savor the unique smells and tastes of authentic sushi, sashimi, soba noodles, tempura and Gyoza. Learn about definitive cultural activities such as sumo wrestling, annual festivals, traditional tea ceremonies and martial arts. Cross paths with a real Geisha, a delicate female entertainer commonly dressed in expensive silks and white make-up. As soon as you arrive, you’ll find that the colorful sights and sounds, vibrant celebrations and magical stories will immediately captivate your mind and heart. For the complete experience of Japan’s intriguing history, visit the spectacular places in Kyoto and Tokyo, two very different cities that will take you through Japan’s celebrated past and flourishing future.

If you seek an intimate exploration of the destination, there are a variety of specialty tours that enable you to immerse into Japanese customs. You could stay in a traditional village inn, ride in a rickshaw (man-pulled carriage), take part in a ritual tea ceremony, see the cherry blossoms in early bloom around popular viewing areas and much more. Check with an ASTA travel agent to personalize your vacation with all of the special arrangements that will help you make the most of your time in Japan.

Kyoto: The Heart of Traditional Japan
The original capital and very heart of historic Japan, Kyoto displays incredible sights that are remnant of Japanese power, culture and religion as they have persisted over time. Dare to be inspired on the grounds of more than 200 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that have survived over the centuries. All of these sites were designed to offer tranquility and deep meaning to those who lay their eyes upon them. Thousands of people are drawn to Ryoanji Temple, the “Temple of the Peaceful Dragon,” seeking a spiritual message in its mysterious rock garden. The garden consists of raked gravel and 15 moss-covered boulders, and every element was designed to obtain optical illusions that offer a spiritual connection for many observers. The magical, seemingly unending path of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that winds through the hills and towards the Fushimi Inari Shrine will immediately catch your eye. A widespread symbol of prosperity and good fortune all over Japan, the torii is a traditional gate at the entry of a shrine, which, according to custom, allows visitors to purify themselves before walking into a sacred place for prayer.

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For the true culinary treat, stop by the delectable Nishiki Food Market, a narrow shopping street lined by more than 100 shops known as the “kitchen of Kyoto.” You’ll come across neighborhood noodle shops, Franco-Japanese fusion cuisine and Kaiseki-ryori, an artistic seasonal dish often declared the ultimate food experience in Japan. Wander through other local food markets and specialty shops and find a variety of Japanese hand-painted ceramics, tofu, miso, noodles, tea, sweets and sake. You may also decide to try your hand in the kitchen with the assistance of a local chef, which is commonly offered with Kyoto restaurants and cooking schools.

If you’re visiting in late March or April, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing the cherry blossoms in full bloom, one of the most celebrated events of the year in Japan. As you make your way around Kyoto, you’ll notice large gatherings of people in parks commemorating the occasion with good food, sake, beer and music. Some of the best spots for viewing the cherry blossoms are along the banks of the Kamogawa River, near the Heianjingu Shrine and on the hanmoku path between Kitayama and Kitaoji. Walk along the Path of Philosophy, where rows of cherry trees line the small canal, forming a tunnel of cherry blossoms overhead. During your time here, you will easily be seized by the serene atmosphere.

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Tokyo: A Modern City on the Rise
Once a small castle town in the 16th century, Tokyo has grown into one of the world’s most populous regions. The capital of Japan and bustling metropolis of more than 12 million people, it embraces the time-honored traditions of Japan’s past with the energetic wave of the future. Spend some quality time at the sacred Imperial Palace, the current residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Surrounded by deep moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, the palace and inner gardens are open to the public for New Year’s Day (January 2) and the Emperor’s birthday (December 23). Walking along the palace grounds, you’ll see the remaining buildings and guardhouses, Imperial Palace East Gardens and Water Fountain Park. The paths leading through the gardens wind past formal shrubberies and wild plantings, which are older and more natural than those found in formal Japanese gardens.

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Ueno Park, a local favorite spot located in Tokyo’s merchant district, is rich in historical, cultural and religious sites of interest. With over 1,000 cherry blossom trees blooming in the spring and lotuses flowering in the summer, the park offers a leisurely afternoon of enjoyment for all travelers. Indulge the poet inside of you at Rikugien, the “six poems garden.” Spend an hour weaving up and down the garden’s pathways and admire the pond, islands, forested areas, hills and teahouses that combine to create 88 miniature scenes from famous poems. Near Tokyo Bay, you’ll find Hama Rikyu, a beautiful garden surrounded by the Sumida River. The 300-year old oasis is the perfect retreat with seawater ponds, forests, a traditional teahouse as well as a spectacular view of the progressive business district, Shiodome, and its skyscrapers.

For a taste of Tokyo’s cutting edge, tour the Shinjuku district by foot. With streams of neon colors and soaring skyscrapers, this industrious business area is packed with millions of people from day until night.  On the east side, you’ll discover its devotion to shopping and nightlife, which includes the city’s largest red-light district, Kabukicho. Make your next stop Daiba, an extravagant locality that has developed into a dynamic shopping and entertainment area filled with futuristic architecture and a variety of stores, theme parks and museums. Go on a culinary adventure through food theme parks, each allowing tourists to taste various versions of a single dish, scattered all over Tokyo. Some of the parks include the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, Ikebukaro Gyoza Stadium, Ice Cream City, Jiyugaoka Sweets Forest, Yokohama Daisekai and Daiba Little Hong Kong.

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Are you ready for an unforgettable cultural experience in Japan? An ASTA travel agent has years of experience, established global connections and the devotion to create the ultimate cultural vacation you’ve been looking for. By becoming familiar with Japanese customs and proper etiquette and participating in personalized tours, you’ll gain a close look inside their way of life. Find an ASTA agent near you to discover the multitude of travel options available to make your vacation to Japan far beyond what you’d expect.