Category Archives: Published Articles

Branson is Great for Families

Branson is great for families. When my boys were young, they loved going to Branson. What kid wouldn’t? Silver Dollar City, of course, is the big name in town, but they also couldn’t wait to drive their own go-carts back in the days before they had licenses, thrilled to the rush of water slides at White Water, enjoyed splashing into Table Rock Lake on a Ride the Ducks tour and even laughed themselves silly at the corny jokes that are often integral to Branson’s many shows.

Having recently visited Branson–this time with my parents and 99-year-old aunt in tow–I also saw that it’s a also great vacation spot for multi-generational families.

I’ve written five itineraries on Branson for Bindutrips, including this one for families.

Branson for Families

Visit my other itineraries for more information on what to do and see.

 

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Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul

The Japanese tea ceremony might seem like a simple thing, but as with most things Japanese, it is anything but. In fact, developed to free the mind and soul of worry and thought, it’s a highly choreographed ritual that takes years to learn. Samurai used it to clear their minds during long war campaigns. Aristocracy used it as a form of relaxation. Housewives learn it to round out their education. Businessmen take it up as a way to escape the rigors of business. Simply put, the Japanese tea ceremony soothes the soul, but it also demands patience, discipline and dedication. One of my first experiences with the seemingly simple procedure occurred years ago, when a woman I met at a budget Japanese inn asked whether she could serve me tea as a way to practice what she’d learned. As she went through the many steps, apologizing for being such an amateur, I asked how long she’d been studying. Only seven years, she replied. As far as she was concerned, she had much to learn.

Nothing is left to chance in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way the charcoal is lit, the placement of the tea utensils, the selection of the tea bowl based on the seasons, even the vocabulary–all is strictly proscribed. With time, the movements and the ceremony become fluid, allowing thoughts to flow freely from one step to the next.

Read more about how the Japanese Tea Ceremony soothes the soul in my article, Bucket List: Japanese Tea Ceremony, published July 2017 in Global Traveler.

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Ise-Shima Famous for Japan’s Most Revered Shrine and Female Divers

Ise Shima National Park2Ise-Shima National Park is home to Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, making it a top destination for Japanese for centuries. Its ragged coastline, protected bays and many islands make it also optimal for the cultivation of pearls and as a habitat for many sea creatures. Women living in fishing villages have been free-diving for edibles for centuries; some have opened rustic restaurants for visitors wishing to learn more about their lives. Easily reached from Osaka or Nagoya, Ise-Shima is worth getting off the beaten track for its beauty, history and attractions geared toward families.

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John Lennon in Karuizawa

Karuizawa's main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa’s main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa, nestled in wooded hills only an hour’s ride away from Tokyo, has a reputation as a destination for the wealthy, many of whom have summer homes and come to escape the capital’s sweltering heat. So during my trip there a few months ago, I was surprised to find Karuizawa laid back and rather unpretentious. There’s money there, of course, but in the same low-key way that there’s also money in Aspen or the Hamptons.

In any case, there was something about Karuizawa that attracted John Lennon, together

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon's favorite cafe

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon’s favorite cafe

with Yoko Ono and their son Sean, back year after year. Indeed, they spent the last four summers of John’s life in Karuizawa, ensconced in the historic but modest Mampei Hotel. I like to think he could spend his days like any other visitor, riding his bike to his favorite bakery, joining friends in Mampei’s bar, walking down Karuizawa’s main street unencumbered by adoring fans. Of course, just being a Westerner–and a tall one at that–would have made him hard to miss. But moneyed Japanese would have respected his privacy even if they knew who he was, just as they did with the many politicians, members of the Imperial family and other celebs in town.

One cafe is infamous for having refused to serve John Lennon, with word on the street that it was probably because the musician’s long hair made him look like a hippie. But maybe he got a kick out of that, too, being so anonymous that a waiter wouldn’t serve him. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates has a summer home here, too.

I wrote Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko, published in www.gonomad.com

Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko

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Hiraizumi 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

 

Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu, Hiraizumi is a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. It was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote for BBC.com/travel, A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery, tells why.

 

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Kume & Kobe Refound

Kume Island

Kume Island

Thanks to the Internet, I keep finding magazine and newspaper articles I wrote before the Internet was either born or publications didn’t publish additionally online. That’s fun, because those old clippings are yellow and worn, slowly changing to dust.

Kobe Reborn, published in The Rotarian in 2003 in advance of the Rotarian convention in Osaka, describes how Kobe had changed and grown since its horrific 1995 earthquake in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives.

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Kobe is one of Japan’s oldest international ports and most cosmopolitan cities

Japanese Island is Beauty of the Sea, published in the Los Angeles Times July 14 1985, is about Kume in the Okinawa archipelago, which I had the chance to revisit in 2008 ago and found remarkably still unchanged and undeveloped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the photographs I took for the article, which would have been slides I sent via snail mail.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

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Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

A couple of months ago I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to stay in two new properties that had opened in 2016. One was contemporary and the other very Japanese. You stay in them for completely different reasons.

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya Tokyo is Tokyo’s most posh Japanese inn, a modest-looking low-rise amidst the office high-rises of Otemachi not far from Tokyo Station. But inside it’s an oasis of calm tranquility, with soothing traditional decor like tatami flooring and shoji paper screens. On the roof is a hot-spring bath, a rarity in downtown Tokyo, while on each guest floor is a lounge where attendants pour tea, answer questions and provide individualized service. My room was

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

gigantic, with a raised platform bed, a table and chairs (where my wonderful Japanese breakfast was served) and a resting area. But because I could plainly see people in surrounding offices, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was assured that even though I could see them, my windows prevented them from seeing me. A shy exhibitionist’s fantasy, perhaps, but I opted to keep my shoji closed. Still, whereas you used to have to leave Tokyo to have a Japanese inn experience of this caliber, the Hoshinoya Tokyo now means you can be pampered in true Japanese fashion without leaving town.

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

What a change, then, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in Akasaka! Here it’s all about the views, with expansive windows from the lobby, the bar, restaurants and my room providing dreamy panoramas of the capital. My room faced over Akasaka Palace toward Shinjuku, with a window-side sofa where I drank coffee every morning. Because of a glass-walled bathroom, I could have looked at Tokyo even from my tub (I haven’t a clue why this architectural design is so popular nowadays), but of course I didn’t, instead opting for the button that made those glass walls opaque.

You can read more about these hotels in my reviews published in Global Traveler here:

Hoshinoya Tokyo and Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

 

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Colonia del Sacramento Preserves its Past in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento is one of those small towns with such a photogenic historic center and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, you feel instantly at home. Soon you find yourself imagining living there.

img_0831With a history stretching back more than 330 years and a well-preserved Barrio Histórico that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, Colonia owes its existence to its strategic location on the Uruguayan side of the wide Río de la Plata. Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Argentina’s Buenos Aires or a two-hour bus ride from Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the tidy town is an obvious top choice for a side trip from either capital. With its ancient architecture and right mix of museums, artisan shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, the town makes for a stress-free day or two of relaxation and exploration.

Although many travelers make the trip to Colonia just for the day, my travel companion and I opted to spend the night, which allowed time to walk virtually every cobbled street of the historic district, visit several museums and kick back at outdoor cafes and restaurants, giving us a more intimate connection to the city. If we had had more time, two nights would have been even better.

History of Colonia del Sacramento

Portuguese founded Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680, at a tip of a small peninsula on the opposite side of the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, which had been founded a century earlier by the Spanish. This did not sit well with the Spaniards, who promptly attacked the new settlement and threw the Portuguese out. Although a treaty signed in Lisbon restored the town to Portugal shortly thereafter, Colonia’s turbulent beginnings were just a shadow of more to come.

During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704-05, Colonia was attacked again by the Spanish and razed to the ground. It was returned to the Portuguese yet again in 1715, when it grew to more than 1,000 inhabitants and became a thriving commercial center. But a tug of war over Colonia continued over the next century, when it changed hands another seven times, mostly between Portugal and Spain but falling also to Brazil from 1822 to 1828, after which it became part of Uruguay.

Unsurprisingly, war and time destroyed some of Colonia’s earliest structures, including most of its fortifications and some houses. But otherwise the historic district remains remarkably intact, surrounded on three sides by the river and made up mostly of modest one-story buildings that reflect a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish colonial styles and are strung together along narrow cobblestone streets that spill open onto plazas rooted in the town’s founding. One of the most delightful things about Colonia is that you can walk virtually everywhere.

Impressions of Barrio Histórico

img_0865It was a slightly cool, sun-drenched winter’s afternoon when we arrived in Colonia’s historic district, which lent brilliance to the deep-blue sky, gaily painted homes and huge bougainvillea bursting forth in colors of fuchsia and deep orange. Narrow cobblestone lanes, which follow the contours of the land, are in some cases so ancient, uneven and roughly hewn that some of them are almost impossible to walk upon with any sense of decorum.

Nonetheless, we made our way to the wide Plaza de Armas Manual Lobo, shaded by

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

sycamores and anchored by the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, first erected when the town was founded but restored in the mid-1800s after being destroyed by lightning. Without any plan or direction, we wandered down lanes leading to the river, through a square noisy with brightly colored parakeets chirping from palm trees, and to the old wharf, where young locals meet to talk and share yerba mate tea in traditional cups. We saw dogs sleeping in shadows, gathering on grassy patches for play and socialization, and hanging out at open-air cafes hoping for a handout, making me envious of their carefree lifestyle.img_0881

It wasn’t long until we discovered the old city gate and Colonia’s most famous landmark, a lighthouse erected in 1857. To get the lay of the land, we climbed the many circular stairs to the lighthouse top, where we were rewarded with views over the old town, church spires and the never-ending Río de la Plata. At the base of the lighthouse are the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, destroyed by fire in 1704. World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; from one of them I bought a bracelet fashioned from black and neon-green fishing line. The smell of pot wafted faintly through the air. If I were a young traveler peddling wares, this would be as fine a spot as any for settling in while contemplating my next move.

There’s a definite hip vibe to old Colonia, from art galleries tucked away in courtyards toimg_0870 restaurants inhabiting rustic buildings and serving innovative cuisine, but one of the things I found most captivating about the old town were the many old vehicles left standing on its cobbled streets or plazas, as though they were conceptual pieces of art. We saw old VW bugs, a Chevrolet Bel Aire, jeeps, old Ford trucks and more, making the old picturesque town even more picturesquely old fashioned.

“Oh, my father put his old car out on the street,” a shopkeeper said ruefully when I remarked about the abundance of old cars. “I told him he shouldn’t do it, but now there are even more cars. People keep adding to them.”

Personally, I think the vintage cars are a nice touch, as though the streets of Colonia are awaiting a film crew or simply never caught up to the 21st century. In any case, they’re much more interesting than those huge painted cows, bears and other city mascots so popular around the world.

img_0876More Things to Do in Colonia

Surprising for a town this size but not considering its long history, Colonia has more than its fair share of museums relating to its architecture and past. Most comprehensive is the Municipal Museum, housed in an attractive stone building first erected in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. Displays relate the town’s many wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, along with local archaeological, geological, religious and cultural artifacts. Colonial-era furniture, dinosaur fossils, military costumes and an array of mounted local birds and other animals are spread throughout several floors.

We also toured Nacarello’s House, dating from 1790 and simplistic with its couple of smallimg_0880 rooms and Portuguese furnishings of the time. Other museums include the Portuguese Museum in an 18th-century stone building and with an impressive display of maps; a Spanish Museum, first constructed in 1720 and rebuilt in 1840; and the Indigenous Museum with items belonging to the Charrua and other indigenous tribes of the area. An 1880 rambling building that variously housed a glue and soap factory, a laundry for wool, and a tannery is now the Centro Cultural Bastion del Carmen, with art exhibits, musical and theatrical events and good views of sunsets from its park-like grounds.

But while Colonia del Sacramento is largely a sleepy little town when not bombarded by tourists, the bird that woke me up during the night seemed to be single-handedly trying to rouse everyone to action. Its call was the same as I’d heard in Buenos Aires, so when I visited the Municipal Museum and wondered which of the many birds in the natural history display might be the culprit, I mimicked the sound for the bemused women at the admission desk.

“Whoo Whoo! Whoo Whoo!” I gave it my best shot.

“It’s an owl,” they agreed.

I conceded that that’s what it sounded like, but in the middle of Buenos Aires? What struck me was that the hoot of the Colonia owl differed slightly from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, which puzzled me until a fanatic birder I know confirmed that birds can acquire different accents according to where they live. But of course! The Colonia owl sounded gentler, less strident than the owl over in Buenos Aires, as though it, too, knew it had a good thing going.

[For a slightly longer version of this article, see my published feature in gonomad.com.

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Hotel Reviews in Forbes Travel Guide

Imperial Hotel

Imperial Hotel

I don’t even want to think about how many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in and/or inspected during my decades writing guide books. With time, it becomes hard to come up with yet another way to describe a Japanese business hotel or nondescript motel, so when a property stands out in some way–even a bad way–the writing is much easier. Like the Japanese hotel with hallway carpeting so outrageously colorful I suggested it might be worth springing for a room on the more subdued executive floor. Or the hotel elevator with such psychedelic wallpaper that I surmised it might give some guests a flashback.

But then there are hotels like the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, which stand out for other reasons, including great rooms, impeccable service and great locactions. I’ve covered both hotels for years in my Frommer’s guides. Recently, I also wrote reviews of the Imperial and the spa at the Four Seasons for Forbes Travel Guide.

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Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi

What I find most interesting about the Imperial is its long history, first built in 1890 to accommodate foreign visitors and redesigned in 1923 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Regrettably, the entire hotel was demolished and rebuilt in 1970, with a 31-story tower added in 1983. Now you have to go to the architectural museum Meiji Mura, located outside Nagoya, to see the facade and lobby of Wright’s handsome brick hotel. But the Imperial has a great location, near the Imperial Palace and Ginza and across from leafy Hibiya Park. And although it’s a rather large hotel, with more than 1,000 rooms, its staff is one of the best around. The lobby can buzz with groups and activity, but the concierge does a great job answering questions, making dinner reservations and helping wayward souls.

In contrast, the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi is an intimate property, with only 57 rooms and a spa that offers a traditional hot-spring bath and two treatment rooms with a surprising number of options. Its location is also superb, between Tokyo Station and Ginza.

You can’t go wrong staying at either hotel. In fact, Tokyo has so many great hotels, I wish I could try all of them.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

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Stanley, Hong Kong

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Stanley waterfront

Almost every time I’ve been in Hong Kong–and I can’t even count how many that would be over the past 30-some years–I’ve spent at least part of a day in Stanley, on the south end of Hong Kong Island. It’s

Entrance to Stanley Market

Entrance to Stanley Market

long been known for its market, meaning, of course, that it’s no longer the place to go for bargains. In fact, whereas years ago the market dealt only in clothing, over the past couple of decades souvenirs have crept into the mix–which can only mean one thing: tourists.

But although Stanley Market has changed, I still love going there. PartIMG_4661 of it has to do with the wild ride to get there, best done in a double-decker bus that careens around corners and races over hills, gradually revealing glimpses of the South China Sea. The village of Stanley, long a popular enclave for expats, is laid-back and trendy, with good restaurants and a beach popular with families.

For more on Stanley, see this article in Global Traveler:

http://www.globaltravelerusa.com/stanley-hong-kong/

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Escape Macau’s Sensory Overload in Coloane

Chapel of St. Francis Xavier in Coloane Village

Chapel of St. Francis Xavier in Coloane Village

I’ve long been writing about how much Macau has changed since I first stepped ashore here in the 1980s. One place that has resisted change, however, is the island of Coloane. Not that Coloane has escaped completely unscathed, especially since it was joined to the island of Taipa in order to create reclaimed land that’s now home to mega resorts, shopping malls and casinos. You can, however, escape Macau’s sensory overload in Coloane.

Coloane remains the green lungs of the fast-growing city, home to beaches, hiking trails, a park with resident pandas, and a low-key village famous for its al-fresco restaurants. This article I wrote for travel2next.com, called Coloane Macau–Old-World Charm, extols the island’s virtues and explains why I’ve long found it ideal for a weekend escape.

Macau Giant Panda Pavilion copy

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Falling for Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

Iguazu Falls border Argentina and Brazil

I’ve seen numerous waterfalls, but nothing prepared me for Iguazu Falls. In fact, I was totally blown away. Describing the experience doesn’t come close to conveying what it was like to actually be there.

View from the plane

View from the plane

Iguazu Falls isn’t just one waterfall but rather a series of many spanning about 1.6 miles, so huge and overpowering that gazing at them made me feel as insignificant as when I look upon the stars. The Iguazu River, which flows about 820 miles mostly through Brazil before hooking up with the Parana River, flows over numerous falls–about 275 of them, some as high as 240 feet. Iguazu gets its name, in fact, comes from the Guarani native language meaning “great waters.” That seems like an understatement.

IMG_0756The most magnificent viewpoint is via a relaxing open-car train ride and then a series of catwalks to Devil’s Throat, where you can peer over a massive U-shaped cascade that roars with fury and shoots up so much white mist that you can’t see the bottom of the abyss, though the mist is a great canvas for many colorful rainbows. Certainly nature at its most glorious and a reminder of how powerful nature can be.

No wonder Iguazu Falls is a World Heritage Site. For a more detailed explanation of my trip and impressions of Iguazu National Park, see my article, A Detour to the Jaw-Dropping Iguazu Falls, published in goNOMAD Travel.

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A series of catwalks hopscotch across islands on its way to Devil’s Throat

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The approach to Devil’s Throat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doing the tourist thing at Devil's Throat

Doing the tourist thing at Devil’s Throat

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Walking Tours through Macau’s Historic Districts

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A-Ma Temple has good feng shui

I feel sorry for day-trippers arriving in Macau by ferry from Hong Kong without a clue what to do. True, there was a time when Macau was smaller (literally so, before reclamation filled in the Outer Harbour and created Cotai with its many resorts and casinos) and just striking out toward the old town would bring you to its historic center with its slow pace of life and cafes. There was only one museum (The Maritime Museum), and the dozen or so casinos in town were hidden away in hotels.

IMG_3532Nowadays traffic congests streets, there’s continual construction of new hotels, casinos and shopping malls, and there are so many different destinations vying for your time that you have to be very focused to concentrate on the places or subjects that interest you. My interest lies in history, as well as neighborhoods, food and other aspects of travel that root me in the here and now, so my favorite haunts are the older neighborhoods in the historic center of Macau, concentrated mostly on Penha Peninsula and around the ruins of St. Paul.

This article I wrote for travel2next, Macau Map and Walking Tour of Penha

Lilau Square

Lilau Square

Peninsula, takes in Macau’s oldest temple, a Chinese mansion that I consider an absolute must-see, churches, historic squares and other favorite spots on a walk from A-Ma Temple to Senado Square. My second walking tour for travel2next, A Walk Around St. Paul’s Ruins, takes readers from Senado Square to the Ruins of St. Paul’s and Camoes Garden, with many stops in between.

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Portuguese folkdancing in front of St. Paul’s Ruins

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Rua Felicidad

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St. Augustine’s Square

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Osaka is No Tokyo, and Doesn’t Want to Be

Osaka Castle is the city's most iconic landmark

Osaka Castle is the city’s most iconic landmark

It’s no secret that there’s a long-standing rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. In fact, after hearing people debate which city is better, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Rather, I like to think both cities and their inhabitants have their unique selling points. It’s like comparing New York to LA. What’s the point?

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

In recent years, Osaka has been spiffing up its image and its urban landscape, most notably around Osaka Station and the Tennoji/Abeno districts. This article I wrote for Global Traveler, Discover the Hip Business Ambience of Modern Osaka, describes some of these recent developments, as well as some of the most notable differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Most peculiar: Tokyoites stand on the left side of a moving escalator while Osakans queue on the right. In fact, so much is this difference ingrained in the national psyche, that The Japan Times ran an article on April 1, 2015, about a new city ordinance that would require all Osakans to stand on the left to avoid confusion.

It was, of course, an April Fool’s Joke. Osakans wouldn’t stand for it.

Japan's tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

Japan’s tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

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Oklahoma is Oil Country

It’s easy to rave against oil in today’s world–it pollutes, our dependency on it keeps us from developing more environmentally friendly resources, etc.–but the simple fact is that we largely depend on it. While I am hopeful that we can eventually be weaned off oil, it’s useful to remember how it was in the beginning, long before we knew what we know now. It is, after all, a part of our history.

The story of oil in Oklahoma is a good place to start, for it was oil that literally put the region on the map and helped gain OK its statehood. This article I wrote, The Oil Legacy: Oklahoma’s Oil History and Wealth,  for www.gonomad.com is about the northeastern region of the state, where two big names in oil–Frank Phillips and E.W. Marland–struck it rich and built unimaginably huge empires. But as the article shows, success stories don’t always end in happiness.

 

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