Tokyo, Japan

TOKYO, Japan: serene + frenetic, old + new, day + night…

Left to Right: Imperial Palace; Tsukiji Fish Market; Sushi at Nadaman. Photo by Catherine Tse.

I arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in the heat of s ummer with my carry-on, hotel reservations and little else—no itinerary, no bucket list, no restaurant reservations. When a city has earned a reputation like Tokyo’s—efficient, safe, vibrant, cultural—it’s hardly a risk to go without set plans.

My first hotel is in Chiyoda, considered the political and spiritual heart of Tokyo. It’s home to the Imperial Palace, the Prime Minister’s official residence and landmarks such as Yasukuni Shrine. Chiyoda is also the location of Tokyo Station, a major rail and metro hub (including the Shinkansen high-speed trains) servicing over 3,000 trains each day. The metro and train systems form the backbone of Japan and everyone uses it to move around, making Chiyoda an excellent starting point.

It’s an easy subway ride from the airport and I feel like a local right away. With a transit pass (Pasmo or Suica) instead of individual tickets, it’s the most efficient way to move around Tokyo’s metro system (avoid rush hours unless you want to experience a Tokyo transit crush).

The Imperial Palace, where the royal family resides, is a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station. Its inner grounds are only accessible via tour so I just walk through the exterior parklands and along its moats to get a good sense of its grandeur. As the former site of the Edo Castle (dating back to 1457), it’s a stunning juxtaposition to the modern city surrounding it.

I take advantage of my jetlag and go to Tsukiji Fish Market early morning to watch the famous tuna auction. Lineups start forming at 3am for access inside the world’s largest fish and seafood market where massive tunafish and other seafood are auctioned off. Tuna is the prize item and can weigh several hundred kilograms. I walk amongst the wholesale dealers, who work swiftly with their long, thin knives and bandsaws to break down whole fish into clean, packaged portions. In the outer market, I find the much-hyped Sushi Dai, where lineups start forming at 3am. 3am. I keep going in search of other sushi spots…the farther out I go, the shorter the lineup and cheaper it gets.

Left to Right: Vintage obis at a market; Secret Ginza back-alley bar. Photo by Catherine Tse.

My next stay: Ginza for shopping and entertainment. Here, jetlag continues to serve me as Ginza by night opens up a labyrinth of back-alleys that are eclipsed during the day. Follow your ears down an alley and look for narrow doors leading to narrower staircases where at the top (or bottom) you’ll likely find a craft bar that locals would prefer to keep a secret. I did and promised not to tell…

Left to Right: Tokyo skyline ; Prada building; Meiji Shrine. Photo by Catherine Tse.

A not-so-secret neighbourhood for fashion mavens is Harajuku. Takeshita Street is impossible to miss, lined with cat cafés, bunny cafés (just what they sound like: cafés where you sit with furry patrons) and all the trendy costume-like clothing stores to make any young fashionista’s heart melt. But a few streets over is Omotesando, known as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées with all the designer labels that made my heart melt. The Prada building (designed by Herzog and de Meuron) is stunning with its scale-like concave glass tiles. And the Dior building (designed by SANNA) is best viewed at night when it comes lit from within, looking like a glorious ombre cake.

Nearby is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, Meiji Shrine, offering a sensory relief from frenetic Harajuku. Frequented by tourists and locals alike, it’s an ancient, wooded oasis that feels as if it could be from another time. I watch women dressed in traditional kimonos or yukatas (summer-weight kimonos) stroll the grounds and think of yin-yang. Tokyo is one of the few cities that seems to have successfully developed an elegant culture honouring its past while also leading into a bright future. Who needs an itinerary for that ride? — Catherine Tse

 For more, check out gotokyo.org/en/.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

AMSTERDAM, in the Netherlands, has a certain reputation (which is part of its charm) but it’s the bikes, art, beer…and ducks…that demand attention.

Left to Right: Poffertjes; Bikes and canals in abundance. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

The first lesson you learn when you set foot in Amsterdam: watch where you walk. There are 880,000 bicycles in this city (more bikes than people!), and it’s clear from the moment we step out of Centraal train station and see the crammed four-level bike park that cyclists rule here. Yet later on, gazing at an adorably tilted canal house, I miss the ‘ding’ of an oncoming bell and narrowly avoid being mowed down—by an entire family on a single bike; kids tucked behind handlebars and the day’s groceries on a wooden barrow up front. It’s all part of the Dutch capital’s charm.

Visitors can rent their own two-wheeled transport for touring (bikeisready.com). But it’s best to start on the water. Amsterdam is home to a 17th-century network of canals that ring the city centre, fanning to the outer boroughs. We orient with an hour-long cruise, putt-putting under arched bridges and among bobbing houseboats as a sonorous-but-informative guide points out the major ’hoods, plus landmarks like Golden Age gabled houses; Westerkerk, the city’s tallest church, and the 1655 Royal Palace. Then there’s Anne Frank House, where the young diarist lived in hiding 1942–1944; now a must-see museum (annefrank.org).

Clockwise: Rijksmuseum; Muscovy duck in Amstelpark; Lowlander beer sampling. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

Hopping off the boat, we turn to gallery hopping. The gothic-castle-like Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) houses thousands of works by Dutch masters, the most gawped-at being Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, Vermeer’s 1657 “The Milkmaid” and Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece “The Night Watch.” Our group snags a Night Watch study sheet and joins the clutch of tourists examining the 1642 painting for details that reveal the artist’s mastery of light, shadow and three-dimensional rendering.

Farther along the grassy Museumplein, or Museum Square, lie The Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk modern art museum. But Moco Museum,
a private gallery opened last year in a 1904 townhouse, offers a quirky counterpoint to the big institutions, showcasing what it calls “the rock stars of art.” The big draw these days is Banksy—90-plus pieces by the enigmatic UK street artist, including his famed “Girl with a Balloon” (until May 31; mocomuseum.com).

By now, stomachs are growling. Dutch delicacies like pickled raw herring and poffertjes, chubby mini-pancakes dusted with icing sugar, only get you so far. Fortunately, the city is a hot-pot of cuisine from around the world. Its Indonesian food scene—a byproduct of Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia—is feast-worthy. Tomorrow we’ll try a rijsttafel, or “rice table,” a Dutch-Indonesian spread of small plates and rice, at Sampurna (sampurna.com), near the flower market, or Restaurant Blauw (restaurantblauw.nl), west of Vondelpark.

But we’re headed to Amstelpark, a south-side oasis with meandering walking paths, willow-lined ponds, gardens and wandering Muscovy ducks. It’s also the site of Taste of Amsterdam, an annual food fest that brings a sea of food trucks and tasting tents, along with celebrity chefs, cooking classes and demos (June 2–5; en.tasteofamsterdam.com). We start by devouring organic salad wraps, then get straight to sipping: cold Batavia Dutch coffee and genever, a Dutch precursor to gin, from local distiller Hoog Houdt. Then it’s on to Lowlander Beer; brewed with botanicals like chamomile and coriander. We raise our cups, toast the day and promise to step carefully on the way home. — Kirsten Rodenhizer

For more, check out iamsterdam.com.

Portland

PORTLAND, Oregon, has serious cool factor—and great food. Instead of sitting on its hipster laurels, this PNW city keeps pushing palates…eat it up!

portland6Portland is still the new frontier. Here, amidst the tattooed, bearded, thick-framed-glasses-wearing crowd—it’s as if this Pacific Northwest city, tucked under Mt. Hood, is a homing beacon for hipsters—there’s the warm embrace of creative types with some robust entrepreneurial spirit. “Keep Portland weird,” states a legendary mural (and adopted city slogan of sorts). Another long-standing emblematic sign: the neon white stag. And this odd factor is just plain charming—with some rather tasty side dishes.

portland2Because this oft-satirized hipster-haven is the happening food-and-drink hub of the PNW—think farm-to-fork, branch-to-bottle, leaf-to-cup. From ramen bowls at Noraneko (where you can also have a soju chuhai, the Japanese version of an after-work cocktail) to doughnuts (skip the line at Voodoo for a Dirty Wu at Pip’s), Portland puts on an unrivalled culinary show of which the following is just a small sample…

EAST BY WEST The Southeast Asian street-food cuisine of Pok Pok blew open a burgeoning Asian-fare scene in Portland (and now has recent Brooklyn and LA outposts beyond its PDX birthplace). There’s also Han Oak (named for traditional Korean “hanok” homes), Langbaan (a culinary speakeasy that means “back of the house” in Thai), Hat Yai (Langbaan’s counter-service off-shoot) and the first North American locations of Marukin and Afuri, Tokyo ramen houses with a cult following.

SAMPLE: Korean bibimbap (“mixed rice”) and steamed buns at Kim Jong Smokehouse, a collaboration between a few of Portland’s hottest chefs housed in the new Pine Street Market food hall.

DRINK ME Like the Alice in Wonderland directive, Portland encourages serious sipping. Besides the well-known coffee scene—this is the home of Stumptown Roasters, after all (also a moniker for the city itself)—there’s also a tea movement. This is where Tazo tea started, the founder of which went on to quietly create Smith Teamaker—the best in America, some say. There’s also, of course, kombucha (try Brew Dr.) and distilled tea spirits (at Thomas and Sons Distillery), made with varieties like pine-smoked Lapsang Souchong, that simply don’t fit neatly into any existing category—much like PDX itself. SAMPLE: The new fernet-style digestif by Thomas and Sons Distillery, redolent with local ingredients of Douglas Fir, Willamette Hops and birch bark.

POD CAST Portland was an early adopter of food trucks or carts. And with more than 600 citywide, from Viking Soul Food (lefse and gravlax) to newer kid-on-the-block Chicken and Guns (oak-fired Latin chicken), the options are limitless. Which is why this Portland particularity makes perfect sense: food-cart pods. Clustered in empty lots, the congregations of carts become al fresco dining and community spaces, PDX style. Cartlandia is a “super pod” of some 30 carts (featuring fare from 15 countries) and a full-on bar (with 18 beers and ciders on tap). Cartopia has outdoor movie screenings and is a late-night stop, while Tidbit, the newest pod, goes beyond the food and drink with pretty lights, picnic tables, a fire pit and Airstream boutique.

SAMPLE: A Smaaken waffle sandwich (made with local, organic, heirloom varietal wheat, of course)—try the bacon-forward Van Gogh or the veggie Popeye—at the Tidbit pod.

portland3And, now, after all that feasting, “go by bike,” as they say in Portlandia. — Barb Sligl

For more on all the weird and wonderful things to do and sample in Portland, go to travelportland.com.