JAPAN for First Timers: An Adjustable Guide

Are you planning on going to Japan for the first time?
Being all excited?
Wondering what to expect?
Having a million questions?
Well, I recently came back from my first big Japan-adventure and let me tell you: It was just overwhelming; in a good way!

Geisha with phone in Kyoto
Beautifully dressed up for Japan.

As I had the chance to travel for three weeks, I know that not everybody has the opportunity to leave for so long. Therefore, based on my itinerary, I put together a travel guide. You can adjust it individually to your personal trip – for one, two, or three weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun.

日本へようこそ – Nihon e yōkoso – Welcome to Japan!

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TAKAYAMA – a travel back in time; and a side trip to SHIRAKAWAGO

Ready for a trip back in time? To walk narrow alleys lined with old wooden merchants’ houses dating to the Edo Period? Visiting a dozen fascinating museums? For platters of Hida Beef that just melts in your mouth?
If so, Takayama, nestled between the mountains of the Gifu prefecture, is the perfect place for you.

Shirakawago view of the village and bye:myself
Once in Shirakawago, you absolutely have to walk up to the Ogimachi observation deck. There is already a photographer with a couple of props waiting for you – say cheese!

And although it might be already challenging enough to fit all the landmarks downtown Takayama into your itinerary, you should, nonetheless, by no means miss a little side trip to Shirakawago village – which even made it to the World Heritage Site list in 1995.

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KYOTO – Japan’s Treasure Box; and a side trip to NARA

Oh my God, I’m such a tourist: Visiting Japan, I had all these iconic motives in my head that I wanted to ban on….well, there is no celluloid anymore, so on a storage chip.

Geishas at Kyoto, Japan's Treasure Box
Yes, this is such a stunning sight. However, according to my experience, every Geisha under the age of 55 is prone to be a Chinese tourist in disguise. Sometimes stunning just the same.

Interestingly, quite a few of them are to be found in the former capital Kyoto, practically Japan’s Treasure Box.

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OSAKA – the commercial metropole; and a side trip to HIMEJI

Osaka has always been Japan’s economic hub – and keeps its status as the country’s major commercial center to this date. Major players like Sharp, Sanyo, and Panasonic have their headquarters in Osaka.

View of Osaka from the Umeda Building
One of the many options to see Osaka from above: At the gift shop of the Umeda Sky Building.

This busy metropole was not only briefly the imperial capital in the 7th and 8th centuries, it even outnumbered Tokyo in being Japan’s largest city in the 1930s.

Therefore, a visit to Osaka is rather about the cool’n’contemporary than the ancient’n’inherited and pulls its visitors into a whirlwind of skyscrapers, shopping malls, art exhibitions, and food….lots of food.

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HIROSHIMA – risen up from the ashes; and a side trip to MIYAJIMA

Hiroshima – one of the names inextricably connected to the first atomic attack in human history.

Dove in front of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima Japan
A Dove of Peace spreading its wings in front of the Atom Bomb Dome.

Visiting Hiroshima, I wasn’t able to imagine an average Japanese city with a little over a million inhabitants plying their trades as if their city never had been practically erased and went down in history as one of the biggest humanitarian disasters.

What I found was a charming city – risen up from the atomic ashes of 1945.

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city break in COPENHAGEN – cozy and crazy

Copenhagen has many sides that can be explored even in a short city break: Romantic castles and crazy neighborhoods, the oldest amusement parks and modern art. And the Copenhagen Card allows exploring at a very reasonable price.

Christiansborg castle Copenhagen, Denmark
Danish as can be: The iconic Christiansborg castle with its highlight, the royal reception rooms.
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BRUSSELS is for everyone. A Guide.

(Updated January 2020)

If it hadn’t been for my daughter studying in Brussels, it probably wouldn’t have come to my mind to visit Belgium’s capital. Or Belgium at all, for that matter.

Chocolaterie Manneken Pis
Different strokes for different folks: World’s most famous wee-er made of chocolate. Bon appetit.

But Christmas came and families and loved ones were expected to get together. So I packed a couple of warm sweaters, threw in some fun presents and hopped on the late flight to Brussels’ airport.
Just to find out that this European capital with all its old architecture and new street art, its pralines and beers, surrealist art and political reality is not only for me, but for everyone.

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CAMBODIA – a complete travel guide

“…now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need my son:
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack…”

This is an excerpt from the song “Holiday in Cambodia” by the US band “The Dead Kennedys”. They were a punk band, hence the lyrics are meant to grate on you in their very cynical way.

And as a matter of fact, Cambodia has always been a synonym for murder and destruction and by no means a holiday destination; apart from Angkor, Asia’s most important sanctuary, that has been a World Heritage Cultural site since 1992.

Two monks admiring the model of Angkor Wat at the Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot at Phnom Penh
Also, monks were prosecuted during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Only when my friend Philippe told me about his plans of travelling to Cambodia, I took into consideration that it might be an interesting destination and a country worth exploring. I decided following his example.

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CAPE VERDE – a guide to five amazing islands

(Updated January 2020)

I get asked quite often which was my best trip and which has been my favorite country so far. How can I possibly answer such a question? How can I compare let’s say Italy to Viet Nam?
Well, the pizza is tastier and the language is prettier in Italy.
Then again the Buddhist temples are bigger and the variety at farmers’ markets is more abundant in Viet Nam.
Got the point? How could I ever compare?
Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Fishermen bringing in a boat at Tarrafal in the north of Cape Verde's main island Santiago
Fishermen bringing in a boat at Tarrafal in the north of Cape Verde’s main island Santiago

But if someone pointed a gun to my head and made me choose, I would say Cape Verde. Cape Verde with its beauty, charm, and incredible variety is the secret star on my personal globe.

So let me guide you to five of the atoll’s nine amazing islands.

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