Sunday, 31 January 2010

Meet the Interpretation and Guiding Club

Having recently been in Morocco I'm on my guard when someone approaches me close to a tourist attraction offering some sort of deal or service. I've met my fair share of fake tour guides - usually young teenagers, wanting to take you around the sight and ripping you off at the end of the tour. "Please, just look. One or two pieces. For the pleasure of your eyes," is still my favourite invitation to date.

So, having just arrived in Kyoto (and dropped bags off at Mrs Hashimoto's quaint little ryokan) and then walking up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) to the famous Kiyomizu Temple, it was somewhat unexpected to be approached by a smiling young Japanese girl on the temple's steps. This is after all the land of being reserved and extremely polite.

"Do you want a guide? It's free!"

My North African scepticism kicked in telling me this smelt fishy, like sushi going off in the sun. But, I hadn't even had the chance to even (politely) decline, when five other rather geeky and timid looking teenagers rocked up behind her saying they were also part of the tour.

I thought to myself, "Hello Kitty, this is definitely the ultimate Japanese Tour Temple Scam!"

Mr Aventures wasn't much assistance at this point either.

But within seconds our fears were allayed as the 6 member tour guide team started introducing themselves - this was the real deal.

Yoko, Yui, Yuto, Akihiro, Natsuki and Manami turned out to be members of the Interpretation and Guiding Club of Kansai Gaidai University. They'd come up to Kyoto for the day and all they wanted to do is to practice their English. A few of them already had fairly good conversational English, but for the others, you could immediately see that they were trying very hard to work on their language skills and in their own time.

So off we went to visit Kiyomuzi - the pure water temple.

Our young student guides all clutched colourful note pads and followed the directions of Yoko, their energetic instructor. On Yoko's cue the guides gave a short presentation at each point of cultural or historical significance. Some were very insightful, others were... well, they need a bit more practice - though their enthusiasm made up for any deficiency in delivery.

I must say, I learned a lot about temple rituals. For instance, you have to wash your hands before entering the temple. Not only that, the left hand must be washed first. And I think there was something about the left hand symbolizing worldly matters and the right being more spiritual.

Along the way our young guides patiently explained all the tiny shrines where you can determine your luck in life, health and love - we tried them all! And while the last time around I was given bad fortune, this year is looking surprisingly good.

In the eye of rush hour at Shinjuku station

Every day around 3 million people pass through 新宿駅 - Shinjuku station, making it one of the busiest in the world. The JR, Toei, Odakyu and Keio lines, plus the subway all cross here pouring out every minute more commuters into the labyrinth of Tokyo's underbelly.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Lifting the veil of Marrakech

It's the second time I travelled to Marrakech. Twelve years ago I remember being annoyed by the constant hustling of the souk vendors, trying to drag you into their shops to buy a carpet or some other object you don't need.

This time was very different. The first thing that struck me was the sheer intensity of light. Glorious clear blue skies and warm December temperatures in the "red city" made for a perfect escape from the cold European winter.

It's difficult to say what I liked best: the bustle of the colourful souks; the ritual bargaining; the sensory overload of the Medina; Jemaa el-Fna dressing up for a night out on the town; the palaces, medersas and other jewels of Islamic architecture; the beautiful parks and gardens smelling of orange trees and spring; or, the delicious Moroccan cuisine.

Here, in no particular order, is my Marrakech pick for a short trip to this imperial city:

We stayed in the exquisite Riad Khabia tucked away just behind the royal palace and a stone's throw away from the Palais de la Bahia and the Palais El Badii. The rooms are beautifully decorated and the calm of this Riad is a welcome change to the craze of the medina. There's hardly a better place for a post-souk snooze than the rooftop overlooking Marrakech and admiring the views of the snowy Atlas mountains in the distance. But it's no doubt the hospitality of Dany and Julien that topped off our experience, making us truly feel at home - something I have very rarely experienced.

My other highlights included the Café des Épices on Rahba Lakdima smack bang in the middle of the souk.

The narrow three storey Café des Épices looms over the spice square, and has a great rooftop view. Don't be deterred by the queues to get a table, they dwindle quickly. The staff are super friendly and a veggie & cheese sandwich with a mint tea is exactly what you need to recover strength for your next bargaining duel.

If you'd like a more elegant recovery then head to the Café des Épices big sister Terrace des Épices. This airy and very stylish restaurant on a terrace overlooking the Cherifia Souk serves up light, simple Moroccan fare. The food is delicious and the place is so inviting we wiled away a whole afternoon lazing in the sun.

For a real Morrocan tasting experience we went to Le Tanjia. The food was very tasty and well presented, the decor is sort of 1001 Nights and the belly dancing show surprisingly fun.

My friend Yoko from Japan forwarded me the latest GOOP newsletter with a list of the most "in-the-know spots" of Marrakech. Kasbek was certainly a real discovery. Aussies Cassie and Rebecca sell new and vintage Kaftans with details handmade by local craftsmen. The cloths are beautiful, and after hesitating between bright red & turquoise, light green & orange or black, I decided to get all three...

For culinary shopping we were told to check out the Marrakshi institution Patisserie des Princes for the best petit-fours and Morrocan sweets. You can buy their fresh and deliciously gooey cakes starting at 5 AM.

Finally I would recommend going to a hammam. We went to the Hammam Ziani right by the Palais de la Bahia. It caters exclusively to tourists so it's not the most authentic hammam experience, but steaming up, scrubbing down last year's skin and indulging in a fantastic massage was a great way to start the New Year.

Sale in the Souk

Jemaa el-Fna: the pulse of Marrakech

No matter what time of the day, Jemaa el-Fna, the beating heart of Marrakech is bustling with activity.

Street vendors sell delicious freshly squeezed orange-juice and colourful dried fruits, healers offer cures for many ails and pains, astrologers read what the future will bring in 2010, while veiled women try to grab your hand for a henna tattoo (I got one too...). And then there are the snake charmers and monkey men who try to hustle tourists for a few dirams.

At dusk camera totting tourists jostle one another on the many roof top terrace cafes to catch a glimpse of the sun setting behind the Koutoubia Minaret.

Down below storytellers begin their epic tales - lasting we were told up to 7 days. A smokey haze starts to waft over Jemaa el-Fna as food stalls fire up their barbecues for delicious spicey keftas, which they offer with Moroccan salads and steaming snails.

Of course this magical square is a tourist magnet, but it's not all staged and artificial. Jemaa el-Fna is where people in Marrakech come to socialize. You'll see groups of young women strolling up and down the square, families enjoying a meal at one of the many food stalls, and also large groups of men crowding around story tellers or Berber musicians.

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