Myoko-Kogen

We picked Myoko-Kogen as our ski destination this year mainly because we patronise Tomi Sushi a lot and their walls are filled with posters of monster snow capped mountains advertising Myoko-Kogen. And we were not disappointed! Snow was definitely not an issue, the slopes were dusted with new powder snow everyday!

Myoko-Kogen is made up of 4 ski areas: Suginosawa, Ikenotaira, Akakura Kanko & Akakura Onsen. The last 2 are connected by a small trail and there is a free shuttle bus linking each mountain. You can buy separate lift passes for each, a Big-4 pass for all or the Shin-Akakura Onsen pass which gives access to the last 2 mountains. We skied 3 days in Shin-Akakura and 1 day in Suginosawa. Though it looks close on the map, the shuttle bus took 30min to get to Suginosawa from Akakura Onsen, so set off early to make sure you have enough time to ski. Also, most of the bus time tables are in Japanese, it’s important to check the route as well as the correct departure and arrival venues. The shuttle bus we took went on a 15min loop around town, went back to the same place where we boarded before heading off to Suginosawa! At least we had a seat!

Most of the slopes are beginner to intermediate level – however Akakura Onsen is home to the steepest ski run in central Japan “The Wall” at 38° and getting down is a real challenge for an intermediate skier like me. H on the other hand is an expert and conquered it like a pro. The runs are generally very wide and on a clear sunny day, the 8.5km trip down the longest ski run in Japan on Suginohara’s mountain is extremely rewarding – the views are amazing!

Akakura Onsen is where the main village is, so that is the best bet for restaurants and hotels. Getting a hotel was not easy – I think alot of the hotels open their doors to students on school ski holidays so book early to secure something decent. Food wise I found the village offerings were rather basic when compared to our trip last year to Nozawa Onsen.

Getting there
Take the Shinkansen Asama from Tokyo to Nagano (90min) and change to a local JR line (JR Shinetsu) to Myoko-Kogen (40min). Train timings can be found at Hyperdia and it’s best to plan the best timings to avoid having to make more than 1 transfer.

Restaurants
Food is generally very basic and it is not that expensive to fill your stomach. Most places don’t speak much English, but should have an English menu. The point and order method always worked for us. A few things we enjoyed were Koyama’s yakiniku don, the udon at Udon no Fu, and the 2 crêperies we enjoyed were Parfait Crepe and Gelato Okura. Don’t forget to try the home made ice cream at Gelato Okura as well… Oishi!!

Where we stayed
We stayed at Refre Akakura, who only recently opened their doors this season. We had to book through Japan Snow Access and according to them, the Refre used to be a resort house of one of the biggest foodstuff company, but closed the business last season. They are off the main road and having only 9 rooms here guarantees that it is very quiet. There are indoor and outdoor onsens which were great if you didn’t managed to book one of the en-suite rooms. Their Japanese breakfast was a great way to fuel up for the day and their keiseki dinner though not extravagant was very warm and heartfelt. Yoshi and Reika were extremely helpful and friendly and made our stay very enjoyable. There is a short cut up the slope to get on the run down to the Chuo Triple lifts. There were 2 days where it snowed so much in the day that it was possible to ski right back down the slope to our front door! Ski in but not ski out!
¥9,400 per person a night for the combination en-suite room.

Refre Akakura
549-23 Akakura, Myoko-shi, Niigata-ken
Tel:+81(0)255-75-1230

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Sushi Sho

We allowed ourselves to splurge on one meal this trip to Tokyo and following my boss’s recommendation, we chose Sushi Sho. A relative unknown in the foreign guidebooks, it is well known among the locals. We were lucky to be able to get a dinner reservation despite a booking only a week in advance.

The small restaurant seats only 12, with 3 chefs behind the counter. 2 chefs prepare the sushi on each end and the middle chef assists both. Fish for the night are displayed in front on the counter so you have an idea of what’s coming despite it being an omakase dinner. I would have preferred the counter seating to be higher or the display boxes lower so I could have a better look at the chefs at work, but that is just a very minor detail.

The dinner started with some sashimi and then progressively moved to sushi. From the first dish, I knew we were in for a treat. The clams were extremely fresh and sweet. What followed was a succession of 24 different courses that kept our taste buds intrigued with different tastes, texture and temperatures. Each fish was paired with a different rice, some with brown rice, some with warmer rice. It was also the first time trying some of the fish we were served, which deviated from the usual otoro and uni served at most high end Japanese restaurants.

One of my favourite of the night was the last dish, an odd combination of uni-ika maki that brought 2 very different tastes and textures together that worked perfectly. I laughed out loud when he said “uni and ika… best friends”. So Jamie Olivier!

The chefs were very friendly and engaging despite only speaking a little English. The experience felt very comfortable, and we felt genuinely taken care of without the stuffiness.

Thanks to head chef Keiji Nakazawa for the best sushi meal of our life.

Dinner was ¥20,000/pax paired with 3 different types of sake.

1-11 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

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36 hours in Singapore

H has had many visitors over the past 7 years of staying in Singapore and I would say on average most of them are here on transit. The daunting tour guide responsibility falls on my local shoulders where I am tasked with showing them around my little island in 24-36 hours. Honestly there is not much sightseeing to do in my petit country, but I try my best to offer a true Singaporean experience, filled with local hideouts and flavours.

36 hours in Singapore

Start the day early with a local breakfast of kaya(coconut jam) toast, soft boiled eggs and local coffee or tea. My favourite is Killiney Kopitiam, but there are many alternatives like Ya Kun and Toast Box which are equally as good. Powered up for the day, take the MRT to Bayfront to start the day at the newly opened Gardens by the Bay before it gets too hot. Next, cross the bridge to Marina Bay Sands where a ticket to the SkyPark will give you unblocked views of the city. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see far past the city skyline into the residential area and the ocean littered with shipping vessels.

Take the MRT to Chinatown for some cultural immersion. Walk along the old shophouses and stop at the Chinatown Heritage Centre for a peak into the lives of Singaporean’s early immigrants. Pass by Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman Temple and admire its colourful architecture. Hungry? Stop for some Dim Sum at Yum Cha or walk further to Maxwell Food Centre to sample local cuisines. Tian Tian‘s Hainanese chicken rice is considered one of the best on the island. On the way back to the train station, pop into Mei Heong Yuen Dessert House for traditional Chinese desserts like mango pudding, mango sago, peanut soup, sesame paste…

Recharged and ready for another cultural experience? Take the MRT to Bugis and walk towards Arab street to visit the Kampong Glam district. This area in recent years has been sporting the “bohemian” vibe with the emergence of new restaurants, bars, cafes and independent fashion designers setting up shop along Haji Lane. To experience the traditional feel of the area, just walk across to the street parallel. Arab Street is lined with colourful fabric shops and the Sultan Mosque is considered one of the most important mosque in Singapore. If visiting at night, stop for a smoke at the many shisha bars or head to Blue Jazz for their live jazz band.

Tired? Head back to rest before dinner or use the time to pack in some shopping. The most common things that our visitors have bought are electronics like cameras, ipads and iphones as they are cheaper here than in Europe. Head to Sim Lim Square, Lucky Plaza or Funan DigitalLife Mall for electronic products but beware of touts that are out to cheat naive tourists (esp at Sim Lim and Lucky Plaza). Also note that Apple products are price controlled so just buy them from any Apple store. For the ladies, go shoe crazy at local brand Charles & Keith or Pedro. Comb Far East Plaza along Scotts Road for some cut-label designer clothes or just relax to get your nails done at the countless salons in the building. Along Orchard, most shops or clothes are imported so they will not be cheaper, but a few local standout brands to check out are M)phosis for casual comfortable wear, Alldressedup for fancy delicate dresses and Raoul for business smart shirts.

Have dinner at Newton Food Centre to sample the local staples. Chilli crab, sambal stingray, oyster omelette, bbq chicken wings, satay, hokkien noodles and popiah are must tries! Wash it all down with ice cold Singaporean Tiger beer and to end the meal on a sweet note, try the local deserts like ice kachang, bobo cha cha, tau suan.

Filled up and ready to party? Start the night with a few artisan cocktails at 28 Hong Kong Street or The Library or a slow beer along Emerald Hill or Duxton Hill. The night life starts to be happening around midnight so once you are ready head to Clark Quay for bar hopping or to Mink for some serious partying. If dancing is not your thing, The Vault offers a laid back venue for drinks without rubbing shoulders with sweaty people on the dance floor. There are plenty of venues to party the night away in Singapore, with most clubs closing at 3 or 4 in the morning. Take note that most bars and clubs have a dress code, and you will be denied entry even if they are Gucci flip flops and shorts.

If you are hungover the next day, I suggest putting on your aviators and heading to PS Cafe at Dempsey for a laid back brunch before heading to the airport. Try to sit outside facing the forest for some sun and mother’s nature remedy.

If you have more time in Singapore, here are my other suggestions:
Universal Studios at Sentosa– at least half a day
SEA Aquarium at Sentosa
The Zoo if you have young kids – at least half a day
Visit a local wet market, I suggest Tiong Bahru market or Chinatown market (only open in the mornings)
If you have time for another meal I suggest Jumbo Seafood for their chilli crab and black pepper crab. Don’t forget the fried buns to dip in the chilli crab sauce!

You’re dead tired and on the way to the airport but the past 36 hours have been worth it. You can sleep on the flight back!

Further details
Map of the MRT (metro)
-Taxis are cheap by European standards and are all metered
-Skypark visits are only at scheduled timings
-Maxwell Food Centre 1 Kadayanallur Street (Chinatown or Tanjong Pagar MRT)
-Blue Jazz Bar 11 Bali Lane
-Newton Food Centre 500 Clemenceau Ave North (Newton MRT) My favourite stalls are #66 Sin Sin Seafood BBQ for chilli crab and sambal stingray, #73 Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelette, #69 for fishball noodles, #72 for BBQ chicken wings and satay.
-The Library 47 Keong Seik Road
-Emerald Hill bars: No. 5 and Ice Cold (Somerset MRT)

For more local insights to Singapore please check out my other posts:
Singapore’s Local / Asian food scene
Singapore’s Western food scene
Singapore’s party scene

Phuket

We have been going to Phuket for the past 7 years in December to unwind and recharge after a long hard year at work. It is a short 2hr plane ride away and we love how convenient it is to get there. We have always avoided the Patong area, (ladyboys, drunken party goers are not really our thing) preferring to stay at Bangtao beach.

A collection of hotels make up Laguna Phuket and we’ve stayed at 3 over the past 7 years Best Western Allamanda, Angsana Laguna Phuket (formerly Sheraton) and Mövenpick Resort. Laguna is self sufficient but it is nice to have a car or scooter to explore other beaches or restaurants outside the Laguna area. Taxi prices are super inflated and I suspect there is a cartel (or mafia!) within the Laguna area. A trip to Patong would be ฿700 one way and you can either ask the driver to pick you up later (additional fee for waiting) or catch a taxi from Patong.

Places to eat

Lotus Restaurant
We think this is the best place to watch the sunset and have live seafood. Prices are roughly the same among the row of beachfront restaurants and we think this place has the best presentation and ambience. You can choose the live seafood from the tanks behind the restaurant. We end up eating here on most nights, and an added bonus is the view of fireworks or floating lanterns sold by beach peddlers. Provides free pick up in the Laguna area.
31/13 Banyan Tree Beachfront, Moo 4., Cherngtalay, Thalang

Toto Italian Restaurant
When we get sick of Thai food after eating it for consecutive days, we get our pasta and pizza fix from this Italian place. Portions are generous sized so you can share the antipasti, pastas or pizzas. We never had a problem with the service despite some bad reviews on Tripadvisor. Provides free pick up in the Laguna area.
24 Laguna Resort Entrance, Lagoon Road, Cherngtalay, Thalang

Flame, Pasta and Bake
These 3 outlets by the Twinpalms resort are beside each other at the entrance of Laguna. Flame is a rotisserie that serves chicken, kebabs, burgers, pizzas and wraps, Pasta serves well… pastas and Bake is a bakery and patisseries. This is the only bakery I am aware of that you can get freshly made pain au chocolate, croissants etc in the Laguna area other than hotels. They do not provide a pick up so the best way is to take the shuttle bus to the gates of Laguna and it is a 5min walk.
106/46 Moo 3, Surin Beach Road, Cherngtalay, Talang

Spas
If the hotel spas are too expensive, a good alternative is the Oasis Secret Garden Spa at the entrance of Laguna. They provide free pick up from the Laguna area but remember to book early as it is very popular and almost always full. Another alternative are the massage parlors outside the Laguna gates for a ฿400/hour foot or back rub.

Where we stayed
Mövenpick Resort Bangtao is right on the beach, perfect for lazy travellers like me who just want to roll out of bed and onto the beach. There is a beach area with umbrellas just for the hotel guest or if you prefer there is a regular sized swimming pool for the laps and pool bar for refreshments.
35 Moo 4, Cherngtalay, Thalang

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USA

We’ve been to USA twice together, once to the east coast for our honeymoon in 2007 and the west coast in 2010. Road trips are a great idea in the USA as the roads are wide and the highways are endless. Don’t stinge on renting a GPS, it will save you lots of time and energy quarrelling and getting lost.

East Coast
We drove Miami – Key West – Florida, and flight to New York

West Coast
We drove Las Vegas – LA – Carmel by the Sea – Napa Valley – San Francisco

Things to do

(Key West) Drive to Key West
The 150 mile drive from Miami to Key West on Highway 1 is scenic. It is a straight road of bridges with the longest at 7 mile, and at some point of the drive, the road seems endless, and you are surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see. Go on a sunset cruise while you are there and visit the Southernmost point of continental USA for a kick.

(Vegas) Visit the Grand Canyon by helicopter
What better way than helicopter to see one of the 7 wonders of the world? This was my second time visiting the canyon but seeing it from the air and landing in one of the canyons was an amazing experience. We sat right up with the pilot and the views are breathtaking. We landed in the canyon and had a picnic packed lunch.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters at $300/pax with pick up and return to your Vegas hotel

(Vegas) Be entertained in Vegas
Vegas does not sleep! Your senses are overwhelmed with endless entertainment choices other than parking your bum at the casinos. There are many Cirque du Soleil shows staged at different hotels, magic shows, theatre musicals, the list is endless! We watched O at the Bellagio in awe and Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian. We went out of our way to visit the Rio (not on the main strip) just to visit the WSOP site and buy some souvenirs.

(Los Angeles) Visit a movie studio
Take a tour of a movie studio while in Hollywood. We visited Warner Brothers Studio and they explained all the basics – movie and series making, onsite filming, screenwriters and the costumes. Each tour is different depending our your tour guide and which studios are free that day. We visited the old coffee house set of Friends and the office of The Mentalist. If you are lucky you might chance into a live filming of a series and see some actors.
Warner Brothers Studio VIP tour $48 /pax

(Orlando) Be a kid again
There is no shame behaving like a kid in Disney Land! I wanted to buy a Cinderella costume but it didn’t come in my size. If sugar and spice is not your thing, America is the land of amusement parks so you can take your pick from Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Sea World… there will be something for everyone of any age! We visited Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort in Florida but gave the two a miss when we were in California.

(Monterey) Take a 17 mile drive
Pebble Beach is famous for 2 things: golf and the 17 mile drive. The windy picturesque road starting from Carmel takes you through golf courses, huge mansions, the coasts, the beach and you end up in Monterey. Spare a few hours at Monterey Bay Aquarium – it’s a good way to spend a couple of hours, as there isn’t that much to do in Monterey anyway.

(San Francisco) Take a tour of Alcatraz & shop at the Farmers Market at the Ferry Plaza

(Napa) Try some American wines
Napa Valley is probably the most famous region for American wineries. Call in advance for wine tastings as most houses require advance bookings. We didn’t find anything particularly exciting about the wines and felt they were overpriced as they had the Napa brand. One winery we enjoyed was Honig, and it’s advisable to drink with your eyes closed to the price.
Honig Vineyard & Winery 850 Rutherford Road Rutherford, CA 94573

Shopping
Outlets in Orlando Premium Outlet at Vineland Ave, NY’s Woodbury Common and LA’s Desert Hills were the best. These were the outlets that had the most premium brands, and we bought the most in NY.

Food
We didn’t find American food particularly impressive and it’s definitely not healthy! Here are a few places that we liked

Pizza Mozza & Osteria Mozza
The pizzas here were awesome and we were thrilled to know they were opening a branch in Singapore. The potato pizza is surprisingly good – who thought carbs on carbs would work?! The Osteria next door is super packed and we star spotted Jack Black at the bar while waiting for our table.
641 North Highland Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90036

Bazaar by José Andrés
Hands down our best meal in the US
465 South La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Spargo
We initially wanted to try Cut in our hotel the Beverly Wilshire but it was fully booked out. The concierge suggested Spargo, the flagship fine dining restaurant by Wolfgang Puck. The 2 star restaurant served good food but it was nothing impressive. A bit biased but I find that no one can compete with the French for fine dining. The highlight of our dinner was a surprise visit by Wolfgang himself!
176 North Canon Drive Beverly Hills, CA 90210

COI Restaurant
Contemporary California cuisine that was heavily Japanese influenced. Tastes were very delicate on the palate and each dish was complex except one which was just an odd egg chawanmushi style.
373 Broadway San Francisco, CA 94133

Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th Street San Francisco, CA 94110
Caramel sea salt ice cream is to die for and they have a grocery store that sells quality produce which is well farmed

Bouchon Bistro
I tried every humanly possible means to get a reservation at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry but no luck – I had to content with a drive past and a walk around the restaurant. We settled for dinner at his bistro Bouchon down the road, and it was good casual bistro style food and service. Keller also has a bakery next door that had good pastries as well.
6534 Washington Street Yountville, CA 94599

Santorini

Santorini is postcard perfect. When we arrived at our hotel along the caldera and saw the view, it was so overwhelming that we needed time to soak it all in. The locals must be used to seeing dead weight tourist like us standing still, luggage in hand, with our mouths open just gawking. Everything is so peaceful and quiet, it is almost a shock to our rat race programmed system.

It is a beautiful place. We stayed in Imerovigli, a small village along the coast in between Fira and Oia and was a less touristy choice. A 45min leisure walk along a dirt path leads you from Imerovigli to Fira and we were rewarded with stunning views of the Mediterranean sea and the caldera along the way. The port is at Fira and the town was crowded with cruise ship tourists that docked for the day. Oia on the other end of the island is accessible by bus (too far to walk!) and is another tourist magnet and is touted as the best place on the island to see the sun set.

I strongly suggest taking a sunset cruise around the island and a half day cruise out at sea is more than enough. The view of the whole island is breathtaking when you see the cascading slopes of blue and white houses along the caldera. We enjoyed a half day cruise with Santorini Sailing Center which do semi-private cruises on their catamaran. They usually limit the number of customers to 10 but on our trip there was only us and another couple. It is slightly more expensive than other tour groups, but the little extra we paid was worth the exclusivity and personalized service we had.
Santorini Sailing Center Imerovigli Santorini

We rented a car for the day to drive around the island and visit some wineries. I suggest to give Greek wines a miss, and don’t even bother about visiting the wineries.

Where we stayed

Artemis Villa
Prices are ridiculously expensive for anything with a view and we found this very well priced small family run hotel. There were cheaper rooms but we took a superior studio with outdoor jacuzzi with a terrace at €205 a night, although I think we dipped our toes into the jacuzzi once just to say we used it. I suggest having breakfast on the terrace and the airport transfer. Angela and Chris were very friendly and we enjoyed our stay tremendously.
Imerovigli 84700

Getting there

At €215 return on Aegean, it’s pretty expensive for a short flight from Athens to Santorini. For budget flights, you can consider flying in from neighbouring countries, like from Italy via Easyjet.