Category Archives: All Postings

Japan’s Top World Heritage Sites

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

I haven’t been to all of Japan’s 21 UNESCO World Heritage sites, but they’re on my list. Kyoto, of course, is king, with an astounding 17 locations that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. But Japan’s World Heritage sites are varied and vast, with a list that includes villages, islands, ancient shrines and temples, mountains, a castle, a silver mine and even a bombed-out shell of a building that serves as a somber reminder of Hiroshima’s 1945 atomic blast. What follows are my reviews of Japan’s top World Heritage sites, based on my 30-some years traveling around Japan as author of various Frommer’s guides, including Frommer’s Japan. Whereas some sites are worth seeing if you’re in the vicinity (such as Tokyo’s Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier and added to the list in 2016), most are worth going out of your way for. And some are so spectacular they’re worth the trip to Japan just to see them.

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Hakone Best Overnight Excursion from Tokyo

Mt. Fuji

Hakone is my favorite overnight trip outside Tokyo, but it’s also a great destination if you’re looking for something to do between Tokyo and Kyoto. Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, it’s a well-trodden path for the fearful, yet just adventuresome enough for the intrepid. Traveling Hakone by mountain tram, cable car, ropeway and boat, the journey has everything you might wish for: beautiful mountain scenery, historic sites, great museums, kitsch, and hot-spring resorts. In fact, the entire circular trip is so much fun, I’ve probably traveled this route more a dozen times over the past 30-some years. Sometimes if I’m lucky, I even catch glimpses of Mt. Fuji.

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Places to Visit Between Tokyo and Kyoto

PLACES TO VISIT BETWEEN TOKYO AND KYOTO

You can zip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train in about 2 ½ hours. But if you have more time on your hands, there are several places to visit between Tokyo and Kyoto that make for easy day or overnight trips along the way. Depending on your interest, you can see castles, shrines, gardens, hot-spring baths, panoramic views of Mt. Fuji, and museums showcasing everything from samurai armor and decorative arts to century-old architecture.

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Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park: Gateway to a national park at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Odawara is where you disembark the bullet train for a delightful circuitous route via mountain railway, cable car, ropeway and sightseeing bus through verdant mountainous countryside. Along the way you can visit a reconstructed castle, soak in hot springs (Hakone Kowakien Yunessun offers outdoor and indoor baths), ramble the landscaped grounds of the Hakone Open-Air Museum with its 400-some sculptures, and learn how restrictive travel was during the days of the shogun at Hakone Check Point by visiting a reconstructed guardhouse. Although you could conceivably complete the journey in a long day, you’ll get more from the experience if you stay overnight in one of Hakone’s many Japanese inns or in the majestic Fujiya Hotel, established in 1878. In clear weather, you might even be able to see Mt. Fuji.

Atami: This seaside town makes for a relaxing day trip, especially if your goal is the beach and boardwalk just a 15-minute walk from the station. There are, however, a few sightseeing options, including the hilltop MOA Art Museum with panoramic views, woodblock prints, Chinese ceramics, lacquerware and other Asian art, and Kiunkaku, a 1919 villa with a mix of Japanese and Western architecture. If you time your visit on a Saturday or Sunday, you can also see geisha performing traditional dance at Atami Geiga Kenban theater and even have your photo taken with one of the performers.

Nagoya: Japan’s fourth-largest city was largely destroyed during World War II, but its castle figures so prominently in history, it was resurrected almost exactly as it was and houses feudal-era swords, flintlocks, paintings on sliding doors and screens and other treasures. Other major draws include the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium and the Tokugawa Art Museum with its samurai gear, decorative arts and other objects that once belonged to the first Tokugawa shogun, plus its Tokugawaen Japanese garden. The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology depicts the historic progression of the company’s automobile and textile production. If time allows, visit the Museum Meiji Mura with its 60-some buildings and structures from the Meiji Period (1868-1912), including Western- and Japanese-style homes, government buildings, churches, a kabuki theater and the original façade and lobby of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, Museum Meiji Mura is one of my favorite museums in Japan.

 

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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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Mexico’s Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende

It seems like many Americans go to Mexico to party on its beaches, which is reason enough to head somewhere else. I’m drawn to Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, two colonial towns in central Mexico that are quite possibly the most beautiful in the country. They owe their wealth in architecture and art to silver, mined in surrounding hills beginning in the 16th century by the Spanish. Churches, pastel-colored mansions, grand plazas, cobbled streets and even universities are proof of their affluent past, but it’s the vibe on the streets that captures my attention.

San Miguel de Allende

Both Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, only an hour or so apart, have striking similarities. They are about the same size, with urban populations of about 80,000 and students making up as much as a fourth of the total. And both are beguilingly attractive, which, coupled with their history, earns them status as UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are walking towns, making it easy to become intimately acquainted.

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In Kentucky, It’s all About Horses and Bourbon

I didn’t know much about Kentucky other than a vague school-days’ recollection that it was Daniel Boone country. But then my son graduated from college and took his first job at Eastern Kentucky University, south of Lexington. I’ve visited him several times and am struck by the state’s natural beauty. But what mostly caught my attention is that in Kentucky, it’s all about horses and bourbon.

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Buenos Aires Loves its Dogs

I consider myself a rather lazy dog owner, because all I have to do when business calls is let Greta out my back door to my fenced-in yard. The park is a short block away. No elevators, no long walks through city streets to a spot of green. But that doesn’t stop the porteños of Buenos Aires. Oh, no. Buenos Aires loves its dogs. In fact, it may have more dogs per capita than any other city in Latin America.

Palermo, perhaps because of its many parks and the fact that the neighborhood is quickly becoming super trendy, has more than its fair share of dogs. It’s quite a sight to see professional dog walkers, with six or more canines under their charge walking in complete synchronicity. But what would you expect in the country of tango? There are dogs on balconies, there are dogs barking at night. Shops and restaurants place water bowls outside for their furry friends. I’ve seen hooks beside doors so owners can park their pooches while they shop inside. Even market vendors have gotten into the game, offering dog vests, leashes and all the accoutrements a dog might need.

But not my little Greta. She won’t be wearing a fur-lined jacket or a jewel-encrusted collar any time soon. And unlike those many dog owners in Buenos Aires, I actually clean up after my dog on our daily walk.

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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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Legs Inn a Must for its quirky architecture, Polish food and Lake Michigan Views

You don’t just happen to be driving by Legs Inn and decide spontaneously to pop in for Polish sausage. That’s not to say the restaurant doesn’t catch your eye. The unusual stone  structure is renowned for its rows of upended cast-iron stove legs that serve as a kind of rooftop railing (hence it’s name). But Legs Inn is so off Michigan’s beaten path, that unless you’re also visiting Mackinac Island, driving the nearby scenic  “Tunnel of Trees” or heading to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, you probably won’t be passing through the tiny community of Cross Village. Unless, of course, Legs Inn is your destination, which applies to almost everyone who comes here to dine.

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Why I Live in Lawrence KS

I was asked to write about my hometown for the Explore Lawrence website. We moved here from Florida when I was 10 because my father accepted a job at the University of Kansas. He promised we’d stay only two years. You can see how that went. I was bitten by the travel bug when I was very young, probably when I learned my grandmother was born in Austria and I started learning German. I also spent countless hours pouring over issues of National Geographic, always thinking “I want to go there!” In any case, I saw early on that there was a big world out there. My first international trip was when I was 16, courtesy of the Girl Scouts, when I spent a month in Sweden and learned to my delight that scouting was co-ed. I then spent my middle university year abroad in Germany, followed by another year while in graduate school. After a year working as a newspaper reporter in a small Kansas town, I quit and moved back to Germany to begin my career as a travel writer. I’ve been travel writing ever since. As a freelancer, I can live pretty much anywhere, but I moved back to Lawrence many years ago. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t live in another country again someday, but Lawrence will always be my hometown. The link below is what I wrote for why I live in Lawrence KS.

 

I grew up in Lawrence, but typical of restless teenagers, I couldn’t wait to get away. After living most of my twenties and early thirties in Germany and Japan as a freelance travel writer, however, I decided that Lawrence was where I wanted to be. We have wetlands, easy access to lakes and hiking trails, diverse neighborhoods, unique museums, an ever-growing roster of ethnic restaurants and a wide range of festivals and entertainment, making Lawrence pretty much the perfect college town. I’ve been a volunteer at the Lawrence Visitor Center for more than 20 years, which I enjoy because I get to meet people from all over the world and answer questions. You never know what they’re going to ask, which keeps me on my toes. I always recommend the free movie we show at the visitor center about the founding of Lawrence and Quantrill’s raid. I also take my out-of-town guests to the Oread Hotel’s rooftop for the view (our dense canopy of trees makes it look like we’re a people of the woods). I love living only a five-minute walk from downtown, in a 127-year-old house where I can also satisfy my inner urban farmer with a garden and chickens. And when the travel writing life calls, Kansas City International Airport is only a 50-minute drive away. Why would I live anywhere else? Lawrence, after all, really is the center of Google Earth. – Beth #nttw17

A post shared by eXplore Lawrence (@explorelawrence) on

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Pisac’s Market More than I Bargained for

One of my favorite things to do in any city or village is to visit the local market, whether it’s a wet market in Hong Kong or the Feria de Mataderos in Buenos Aires. In Peru, I was most taken with Pisac’s Market in the Sacred Valley. We got rooms in a hostal right on the main square (named, as always, Plaza des Armas), with windows providing colorful views. But although Sunday is Pisac’s most famous market day, attracting busloads of tourists, my two sons and I missed it. On the other hand, if we hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have stayed five nights. I’ve never observed the workings of a market this close for this many days.  I didn’t buy much, but Pisac’s Market offered more than I bargained for.

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Machu Picchu Better than Imagined

DSCN0103-1Machu Picchu is probably on every traveler’s bucket list, and with good reason. Built by the Incas around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later, and brought to the world’s attention in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is quite simply an architectural masterpiece. Although there are many traces of the Incas remaining in Peru, none offer such breathtakingly irrefutable proof of their brilliancy. For that and many reasons, I found Machu Picchu remarkably better than imagined.

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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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Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Every first-timer to Japan should see Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to explore. From the beaches of Okinawa to the rugged mountains of Hokkaido’s national parks, Japan has enough to keep travelers busy for a lifetime. I myself have been traveling around Japan for more than 30 years and have been to more than 60 cities and towns, mostly while writing and updating Frommer’s Japan. But there are countless places I haven’t yet seen.

I have, however, visited all the destinations cited in this advertorial I wrote on Japan that appeared in the March issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Even so, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Conde Nast Advertorial

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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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