The Art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

I was traveling to Japan for the second time. Having never left Tokyo on my first visit, I wanted to explore more and chose Kyoto. Traveling alone and speaking no Japanese, I decided to hire a driver. I found Hiro. I had no idea what I should be seeing in Kyoto so Hiro asked me one simple question: “What are you interested in?” I’m not sure even he knew what he had done. But by avoiding the more common tourist question, “What do you want to see?” he uncovered what I wanted to learn while in Kyoto and was able to craft a unique travel experience suited specifically to me.

“The Japanese tea ceremony!” was my answer. Admittedly, I had no idea what I was asking. Only after an entire day of visiting shrines and temples and tea shops did I find myself coming away with more questions than answers. Hiro crafted an expert day which started at the Rakusai Bamboo Park. With bamboo playing such a critical role in the crafting of Japanese tea, this visit provided a strong grounding in the actual making of the tea. From there we visited Kosanji Temple where the first tea leaves were brought to Japan. Then we went on to Ryoanji Temple and the Daitokuji Temple where it is said the tea ceremony originated. Our last stop before our lesson was Ippodo tea shop where their tea lessons reminded me more of a wine tasting, not that there is anything wrong with that. By the way, if you don’t have plans to visit Japan, you can stop by Ippodo’s NYC location for a taste of Kyoto.

I was introduced to the way of tea, ironically, by Canadian transplant, Randy Channell at Ranhotei in Kyoto. I’ll admit, I thought attending a Japanese tea ceremony would be similar to afternoon tea at the Savoy Hotel in London, with a few more rules. When Hiro asked me what level I was, I knew I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Despite all of that, attending a beginner lesson on the tea ceremony is a must do if you’re in Japan, especially Kyoto where it all started. Randy just scratched the surface for us in terms of the flow of a traditional tea ceremony and how to properly make a cup of green tea (which in Japan is really matcha, what we in America traditionally think of as green tea is something completely different). He introduced to the lifestyle of the tea ceremony. He explains it in detail in his book, “The Book of Chanoyu Tea the Master Key to Japanese Culture.” Randy explains it best in an interview with the Japan Times, “ To unlock is not so difficult. After unlocking the difficulty would depend on how far one wants to enter. “Oku ga fukai,” which means “the back is deep,” is a phrase that is often used when speaking of tea and other Japanese cultural arts. There are so many “ways” to go and the path to mastery of each one is deep.” I would have to say, I’m in deep.

Cuban Artist Marlon Portales on display at Galeria Galiano in La Habana











A highlight of my trip to Cuba was meeting the artist, Marlon Portales. Enchanted by the idea of owning a painting of a Cuban beach scene by a Cuban artist, I asked Marlon what the beach was in this painting. “Miami Beach,” he replied. I quickly appreciated the irony of owning a painting of an American beach, by a Cuban artist. If you happen to be in La Habana on Thursday, check him out.

Stronger Together

These glasses represent a group of friends at The Peninsula Bangkok after visiting Thailand to help Pencils for Kids deliver school supplies to children in the Golden Triange.

Travel Inspirations

Sydney Opera House at Dusk

It really doesn’t matter how many times you see this building, it always displays something new and unique.  Truly amazing.


The beautiful Blue Mountains of Australia


The Ultimate Martini – Shaken or Stirred

So bear with me, this is more a test than a true “vlog” post.  Please let me know what you think!!

“We were supposed to be going to the beach!”

It’s “I Have a Dream” weekend 2013 and LivingSocial has once again selected our destination!  After Paris and Amsterdam we had been longing for a warm weather getaway and doing some research on Turks & Caicos.  But it was the LivingSocial deal for the Ice Hotel in Quebec City that caught our eye.  So rather than lounging in the Caribbean sea, we found ourselves chilling in the hot tub in -24C!  Yikes!

But true to form IHAD2013 was an experience for the books (for my new followers, my friends and I take off each year for the Martin Luther King holiday for our “I Have a Dream” getaway – we visit a place where we haven’t been or long to go back to and jumpstart the new year with an adventure).  I’ll tell you more about the “Hotel de Glace” in my next post but, as usual, we landed and hit the ground running.

We made an impression immediately.  The four of us each stood before one of the four immigration officers at the airport who all asked us where we would be staying in Quebec.  When we told them the Ice Hotel, without exception they all responded, “That will be cold”.  You know you’re in trouble when even the locals raise their eyebrows.  The trouble continued as the taxi drivers stood perplexed wondering how to get all four of us and our suitcases into one small sedan.  It was never clear why the mini-van a few vehicles back was not available to us.  As we left the airport looking like a bunch of clowns, we learned that the Ice Hotel is actually located on the site of the old zoo.  So actually, we were staying in the zoo, which seemed appropriate.

After checking into the hotel and assessing the lay of the snow, we were glad that we had made a dinner reservation at a nice warm restaurant in Old Quebec!  Panache is located in the old port area and actually situated in an old riverside warehouse.  The restaurant décor is built around the structure rather than vice versa.  That means the old stone walls are proudly exposed and the tables are fit in around the lofty wooden beams and the staircase that leads to a second level of the restaurant.  Honestly, we would have been happy with just a nice fireplace and a full bodied red to warm our bellies.  What we got was one of the most exceptional dinners any of us had ever had (and yes, in case you’re wondering, I have been to Per Se).

Throughout the Quebecois province, the food is very local.  They are proud of their gaming and fishing history and put what they call a “quebecois” twist on all their dishes.  At Panache that meant pine needles with the Nova Scotia lobster and a blueberry glaze on the Saint Apollinaire duckling.  They are not looking to follow the latest trend, they celebrate their region’s traditions.

I’m sure when we sat down the waiter was expecting this table of four professional women to be high maintenance – sharing entrees, splitting the bill, etc.  What he got was cocktails before the meal, a bottle of red and a bottle of white since we had ordered practically one of everything on the menu and needed both for appropriate pairings, ice wine for dessert along with a brilliant negotiation to purchase four of the custom Panache wine glasses (which, by the way, are not for sale).  I think ultimately they really just took pity on us for the fact that we were soon to be heading back to the Ice Hotel to freeze our tooshes off all evening.  No one missed an opportunity to remind us that it was the coldest night of the year so far!

We finally pulled ourselves away from our warm, cozy table and the four of us, with our four wine glasses, headed back to the Hotel de Glace.

The adventure will continue in the next post!

If Obama went to the Westin Lake Las Vegas for seclusion, I suspect he found it!

On my way to CES 2013 I arrived a day early and decided to stay at the Westin Lake Las Vegas.  I wanted to spend a night away from the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the strip, which tends to get on my nerves after about 15 minutes.  Well, if quiet solitude was what I was looking for, I found it!

My first clue should have been when I told my taxi driver where I was going he said, “I thought they went bankrupt”.  It wasn’t until I assured him that I had a confirmation email from the hotel that he agreed to take me.  The second clue was as we pulled into the area known as Lake Las Vegas to be greeted by old, deserted golf courses brown as the desert.

I’ve never found Las Vegas to be an authentic place but I never imagined that the inauthenticity would spill off of the strip into the city’s neighborhoods.  Lake Las Vegas appears to have been built as an homage to the Romanesque era, complete with canals and gondola rides.  Unfortunately, it was so authentic that it too fell.  If I had been in snow capped mountains instead of the desert I would have felt like I was in The Shining.  The Westin Lake Las Vegas has had a specially bumpy history. In fact, it’s been a Westin for less than one year.  It was originally built as a Hyatt Regency and transitioned to the Loew’s chain before Starwood picked it up.

The staff is very warm and earnest, doing their best to make you feel welcome.  I was given a room upgrade and late checkout.  But none of the restaurants were open for lunch, the spa was closed, much to the surprise of even the hotel staff and I found myself eating dinner by myself.  Literally, I was the only person in the restaurant.

The upside of the emptiness was the concierge sent me over the Ravella Spa. The Ravella exhibited similar fall of the Roman Empire qualities but I was able to get lunch at the bar/cafe (and there were even two other guests sitting at the bar) and the spa was fabulous.  The Ravella was built as a Ritz-Carlton and you can tell. The spa was like any other Ritz-Carlton spa I’ve ever been in, but that’s not a bad thing.  I had a fantastic massage with Petra who listened to where my trouble spots were and dug right in (literally!).  I only wish I could visit her every week.  The best part was my massage/manicure treatments came to only $130 including tip!

Now, in all fairness, I’m here in January.  Certainly not high season for Las Vegas.  I will say, the hotel is nice, it’s clean, the staff is very friendly and helpful.  There is an adult only pool with beautiful secluded cabanas you can rent.  There is a casino in the village so if you want to visit Las Vegas without the craziness of the strip,  I imagine when the hotel is bustling it is lovely.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to feel like I’m in a Monet painting or in Hawaii.

A Day in the Life in Alex



As we pulled up on our bikes to hear the laughter of kids playing in the local daycare center, the laughter soon turned to singing. Singing Happy Birthday! It wasn’t my birthday, I had just met my travel companions four days earlier, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of their birthday’s either. For the kids in the school in Alexander Township in Johannesburg, it was probably the only English song they knew!

My first trip to South Africa was for my husband’s 50th birthday. We did the typical safari/Cape Town/wine country tour. All of that was exciting and different and beautiful. But the most lasting image for me was the ride through a township south of Cape Town, on our way down to the Cape of Good Hope. We had driven by townships on our way out of Joburg, and we saw more after our arrival in Cape Town. From the outside you see despair, poverty and living conditions that as an American you just can’t fathom. But once you get inside you see people, you see life, you see hope. That was the Africa I wanted to see more of when I decided to join AFAR Experiences in Johannesburg.

One of the amazing parts of visiting Joburg with AFAR Experiences was the opportunity to see the city from many different angles. From the affluence of Nelson Mandela’s home to the squalor of the downtown business district.  And on the last day, we visited Alexander Township. “Alex”, as its known to the natives. We were there for a bike tour hosted by Jeff Mulaudzi. In 2010, Jeff started Mulaudzi Tours to take visitors on a bike tour of his township. Alexander on Wheels is housed in the front yard of one of the many concrete homes on one of the many paved streets in Alex. After grabbing one of the twenty or thirty bikes in the yard we were off with Jeff and a couple of his friends, or colleagues. Our first stop was, well I’m not really sure where we were. We stopped in front of one of the many concrete structures we had passed within the paved section of Alex. The guys pulled out a couple of benches for us to sit down on and despite the fact that it was barely 10am (and many of us had barely stopped drinking from the night before) we learned that we were there to taste their very own locally brewed beer. The beer is made from what is basically banana juice so we first tried the plain juice. We were tasting it out of a hollowed out gourd that looked like it could have been as old as Jeffrey himself. It basically tasted like a melted banana pop, not bad. Sipping it from a ladle along with 8 of my travel mates was probably not the most sanitary thing in the world, but we all lived. Next came the taste of the actual beer. It was definitely fermented but I’m not sure I would call it beer. We were all gracious guests, however, and indulged in the tasting. After greeting us with a beverage, it was time to show off their town.

We visited the daycare center, went to a church and a high school. It was clear that Jeffrey wanted us to see that despite their poverty life was well, wonderful. They value education, they have built up an economic structure with stores, restaurants, hair salons and even tour companies.  Much of the township has paved roads, strong, concrete homes, albeit one room. But at the top of the hill, in the higher part of town, that’s when we started to see real poverty. The streets were barely wide enough for our bikes to get through, the corrugated steel walls were leaned together above us like a house of cards. It’s seeing this squalor that makes you wonder if democracy can succeed there after all.

One of the big controversies in the country today is the revelation that the new home the president is building will cost over $200MM. When we asked one of the kids if he was going to vote ANC in the upcoming election he said, “They’re all the same, it doesn’t matter. Look around you, and they’re spending $200MM on one home, they’re all the same.” We’ve been at this democracy thing for almost 250 years in America and we’re facing similar problems. I hope South Africa finds some better solutions.