Toronto

Summer rooftop greenery

Summer rooftop greenery

Some of you might know that I am now in Toronto, visiting my family and friends, while showing my Australian boyfriend what Canada is like in the summer time, a really beautiful place. Upon my return I have been overwhelmed with everything a big city has to offer, as Toronto seems like it is booming with a new building slowly towering on every corner. Not to mention, there seems to be events every weekend, with a handful of events celebrated this past weekend alone, including World Pride, there just is not enough time to celebrate everything. But like any trip “home” I find myself craving familiar favourites, as I begin to explore all the new hot spots. Here is a guide to some of my favourite spots, along with a few more recent recommendations from my family (thanks Cameron) and friends.

My family and I at O&B Canteen after a theatre show

My family and I at O&B Canteen after a theatre show

Food
Crepes a GoGo – Yorkville: Quietly tucked away serving sweet and savoury crepes with one of my favourite thirst quenchers, Limonana.
Pho Hung Vietnamese Restaurant – Chinatown: I went to this restaurant’s previous location across from the ROM at least once a week when I worked at the ROM, needless to say it brings back good memories.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka – Dundas Square: An authentic Japanese ramen restaurant, which brought me back to my travels in Japan.
Playa Cabana Hacienda – Yorkville: Great Mexican food in a fun atmosphere.
Guu Sakabar – Bloor West: A fun Japanese izakaya bar, just be ready for lots of yelling.
Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants – various locations: With at least eight different restaurants under the company, all offering consistent, unique Canadian meals.
Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill – Distillery District: I love going to the historic Distillery District on a summer night for oysters and drinks on the patio.
Mercatto – three locations Downtown: Consistently good Italian food.
Richmond Station Restaurant – Financial District: Fresh ingredient focused menu with a theme that celebrates the city of Toronto.
Gusto 101 – King Street West: Rooftop dining and drinking with decent wine on tap, believe it or not.
Hey Lucy – three locations Downtown: The best place to hit for a mid-week pick me up, Martini Wednesdays.
Real Sports Bar and Grill – Habourfront: For the man in your life, this is a sports fan dream come true.

Bannock's Roast Duck Poutine Pizza

Bannock’s Roast Duck Poutine Pizza

Shopping
Don Mills Shops: Worth the trip from downtown for an outdoor mall with some of my favourite shops.
Queen West: All the brands intermixed with unique boutique shops make this street a fun shopping experience.
Yorkville: You’ll find all the high-end shops here, and possibly a celebrity or two.

View from the CN Tower

View from the CN Tower

Shows
Second City: A Toronto institution, where most famous Canadian comedians got their start, performing sketch comedy shows night after night.
Concerts: Summer is a great time for concerts with big names performing almost every week; make sure to check out Drake’s OVO Fest closing out Caribana.
Theatre: Believe it or not, but Toronto does get many of the shows from New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, so get those tickets when in town.

Canada vs. Scotland Rugby at BMO Field

Canada vs. Scotland Rugby at BMO Field

Sports
BMO Field: Home to the Toronto Football Club, this outdoor field in the heart of downtown offers red and white fun all summer long.
Skydome (aka the Rogers Centre): Another Toronto institution that brings me back to my childhood when the Blue Jays actually won the World Series, twice in a row.
Air Canada Centre (aka ACC): For those die-hard Maple Leafs fans, or even Raptors fans, not a bad seat in the house.

Raptors game at the ACC

Raptors game at the ACC

Museums and Galleries
Royal Ontario Museum (aka ROM): My old stomping grounds, with blockbuster exhibitions circulating all year-long and now Friday Night Live; exploring natural history and world cultures in the famous ‘Crystal’ has never been better.
Art Gallery of Ontario (aka AGO): For anything art in Frank Gehry’s redesigned building, along with a long list of public programs for any age.
The Bata Shoe Museum: A popular, quirky museum that features anything about shoes, obviously a good choice for many women.

Dinosaurs at the ROM

Dinosaurs at the ROM

Other Attractions
When visiting Toronto, most tourists hit the CN Tower and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Though these are good Toronto institutions, there are a few more popular attractions to give one a better sense of this city. In terms of markets, the classics are the St. Lawrence Market, just east of the Financial District, for anything food, and Kensington Market, just north of Chinatown, for vintage clothing galore. Just take note, these are more like store fronts and not tented stands. Then there are neighbourhoods worth browsing, such as Leslieville and the Beach (yes, Toronto has a beach, just don’t swim in the water), and on the other side of town, Bloor West Village and the Junction. But what I enjoy most about Toronto is getting outdoors in the summertime, hopping from one neighbourhood park to the other, as High Park is Toronto’s version of London’s Hyde Park.

View downtown from Queens Park

View downtown from Queens Park

P.S. Happy Canada Day!

Tokyo, Japan Part 2

Now for the rest of my adventure in Tokyo, as I navigated through the busy subway to all the best districts, enjoying yummy treats along the way.

Shibuya crossing

Shibuya crossing

Districts
Shibuya
It is famous for the world’s busiest crossing at the Hachiko Exit (make sure to find Hachiko’s statue) of the subway. It is worth the visit, along with wandering the streets for shops during the day and bars at night.

Calico Cat Cafe

Calico Cat Cafe

Shinjuku
This is famous the for world’s busiest subway station. But if you can navigate your way out of the underground, you will experience a sensory overload, as skyscrapers covered in neon light advertisements tower above. I went to the Calico Cat Café here, an experience I thought I would not get anywhere else (cat cafes are now opening in major cities around the world), but really I could not get out of the café and area quick enough. I also strongly recommend not visiting this area at night, as we were refused entry to many places for not being Japanese.

Shibuya side streets

Shibuya side streets

Roppongi
I would have liked to see more of this area, as it seems like “new Tokyo” to me. It has a great nightlife, where foreigners are graciously accepted at its many bars.

Knife engraver at Tsukiji Fish Market

Knife engraver at Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market
A must do in Tokyo, even though it means waking up at 4am to catch the tuna auction. This is where our concierge let us down and we did not do enough research ourselves. I was naïve in thinking this is just a big market and did not believe I had to watch out for my safety. They only admit 120 visitors at day to the tuna auction, with the line up beginning well before 5am at Kachidoki Gate. If you do not make the cut, you can grab something to eat at the little sashimi restaurants near the Main Gate and wander the outside market (best for kitchen supplies), as tourists are not allowed to enter the fish market unaccompanied by a guide before 9am. We might have broken this rule in our sleepy haze. It is important to note that this is a business area, so we kept our wits about us as we navigated around the trucks, forklifts, and scooters, especially watching out for the giant saws that cut the biggest frozen tuna we have ever seen.

Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market

Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market

Food
In a big city like Tokyo, it is easy to grab good food wherever you wander. We enjoyed picking up treats and snacks from the vendors at Harajuku, Asakusa, Tsukiji Fish Market, and the lower levels of any department store. But a few restaurants are worth the visit.
Gonpachi Nishiazabu: The restaurant that inspired the famous fight scene in Kill Bill offered a fun atmosphere and good quality food in Roppongi.
Ginza Tatsutano (across from Yamaha Ginza): My mother and I stopped here for lunch during our shopping trip in Ginza. Sitting at the window bar, overlooking the busy street below with warm rice bowls made our day.
Sunday Jam: Located in Harajuku, an area famous for street crepes, this is a little café to sit down and try sweet and savoury pancakes.
New York Grill: We went here on our last night in town, as a last resort for a night without dinner reservations. We had no idea that this was where Lost in Translation was filmed with the most amazing view of the city and expensive meals to match. It was a bit of a headache to find in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, but well worth it.

Gonpachi Nishiazabu

Gonpachi Nishiazabu

Transport
The subway is the best way to get around Tokyo; you just have to stay aware for your stop and the right exit from that station. I never got lost or confused on the subway, but I did get frustrated by the multiple tickets I had to get to travel on the various subway lines owned by separate companies. When in doubt I always asked for guidance from the information booths at most stations, they were more than willing to help me (if they understood my tourist hand gestures and butchered Japanese), especially pointing me to the right exit at stations, which is probably the most important thing to keep in mind.
Taxis were not as reliable as the subway. We found ourselves going around in circles a few times with taxi drivers that did not know their way. This is a time when having someone to translate is very useful, so make sure to clarify this with your hotel concierge.

Dinner at New York Grill

Dinner at New York Grill

Hands Free

 

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Along with the right luggage while traveling, the right handbag is just as necessary. I find it is best to keep your hands free with cross body straps, along with ensuring the security of your belongings with zippers and flaps. These handbags capture these features best, with my favourite leather in neutral colours so not to attract attention but to stay stylish.

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Tokyo, Japan Part 1

Asakusa side street

Asakusa side street

After our ski trip to Niseko, we all headed to Tokyo for another adventure. I have never wanted to return to a city more than I have with Tokyo. I couldn’t get enough of it, from the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market and Shibuya crossing to a tea ceremony and Imperial Palace East Gardens. Around every corner, we were captivated by what we discovered, making us crave more of this astounding city, so much so I have to divide my Tokyo travel journal into two posts.

First blossoms at Happo-en

First blossoms at Happo-en

Accommodation
We were lucky enough to stay at the Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo, a short walk to Shinagawa station, one of the largest subway stations in Tokyo, which made it easy to get around. I already mentioned my admiration of the hotel décor and the attention to detail in this post. Did I mention we counted three different styles of bathrobes in our room? We were also lucky enough to have the buffet breakfasts every morning, which was such a nice way to start our days, especially with the green smoothies. However, the one downside of the hotel was the concierge service. We were let down a few times by the concierge who was not prepared, unable to recommend restaurants and give exact directions.

My mother and I with the Tea Master at Happo-en

My mother and I with the Tea Master at Happo-en

Sights and Activities
Happo-en Tea Ceremony
As soon as we arrived in Tokyo, my mother and I booked a tea ceremony. This was the best decision we made on our trip to Tokyo, as the tea ceremony offered the perfect introduction to Japanese custom and culture for a reasonable price. As soon as we arrived at Happo-en, an events venue to the rich and famous of Tokyo, we were escorted to the traditional teahouse in the Japanese Garden. Our tea master was so friendly, guiding us through the tradition of matcha (Japanese powdered green tea). We learnt so much from her that this deserves its own post (coming soon). This casual ceremony took about 30 minutes (we asked a lot of questions), and afterwards, we toured the garden, a small treasure in the heart of Tokyo. In addition to our fantastic experience, the concierge personally escorted us to the subway station nearby.

Busy streets of Ginza

Busy streets of Ginza

Shopping
Ginza
Unfortunately, my mother and I only gave ourselves an afternoon of shopping in Ginza, the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo. This was the best shopping I have ever experienced, better than London, Paris, and New York. Our first stop was Uniqlo, Japan’s version of the Gap, with a twelve-story shop, complete with on site seamstresses to personalise your purchases. Zara also blew us away, as it felt like the couture version of the popular brand, with perfectly placed garments not available anywhere else. We wish we had more time, as we only covered a few blocks in one afternoon.

Nakamise street at Asakusa

Nakamise street at Asakusa

Harajuku
For boutique shopping, Harajuku is the place. Although it is famous for youth street fashion, its unique boutiques juxtapose popular brand name shops, making it my preferred shopping area.

Sensoji Shrine at Asakusa

Sensoji Shrine at Asakusa

Asakusa
Known as “old Tokyo”, it is the place to collect all those Japanese souvenirs, especially along Nakamise Street, leading up to Sensoji Temple. But the side streets, offer another dynamic. We also heard so much about Japanese department stores, that we got all our food and drink souvenirs from Matsuya Department Store (lower levels) here.

Entrance to the Imperial Palace East Gardens

Entrance to the Imperial Palace East Gardens

Akihabara
Everything electronic is found here. I did not venture here myself, but the men I was travelling with made this their first destination in Tokyo.

Hand washing station at entrance to Meiji Shrine

Hand washing station at entrance to Meiji Shrine

Gardens, Temples, and Shrines
Imperial Palace East Gardens
A nice central city park with a bit of history scattered throughout. We thought we were a bit early in the year to experience the full bloom of the gardens. But the few early blossoms we caught were a nice backdrop to our walk.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Sensoji
This is Tokyo’s most popular and oldest Buddhist temple. Located in Asakusa, it adds a colourful backdrop to the “old town”.

Prayer offerings at Meiji Shrine

Prayer offerings at Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine
This was my favourite, as the walk through the tall tree-lined path from Harajuku set the tranquillity for the Shinto shrine. From washing our hands upon entering to reading the little prayer offerings, it was an incredibly peaceful way to end our time in Tokyo.

Sake offerings at Meiji Shrine

Sake offerings at Meiji Shrine

Trip Advisor

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When planning a trip, there is always one place I begin, Trip Advisor. I use this website similar to Wikipedia, as a starting point. By simply searching a city, region, or country, Trip Advisor can guide one in the general direction of good hotels, restaurants, and attractions. But it is important to take the many recommendations with a grain of salt. Usually if the first page is mostly recent, positive reviews, the place in question is probably a good choice. However, I usually read any negative reviews on the first page, as they are telling of important drawbacks to a place. Just be aware of picky reviewers, as these people are inclined to always look at the negative. And when you return from a trip, do not forget to add your review about the hotels, restaurants, and attractions you experienced!