The famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo during rush hour at dusk. Photo: Juergen SackI’ve travelled well this year, and I hope wisely. I travelled on private jets, on Japan’s Bullet Train, on riverboats and down the back in budget economy. There have been a few hiccups involving cancellations but I am grateful, as I always am this time of the year, that I have the opportunity, wherewithal and good health to explore the world.
I’m not alone in this, as there were almost 10 million Australian resident departures on short trips during 2015-2016. Given that our journeys are often longer than they are elsewhere in the world, and more expensive, that adds up to one lucky country.
Sometimes I can’t help but leave my heart behind, in a place with which I have fallen hopelessly in love, or with an experience that is all the more special for not being able to be repeated at home. Often it’s the moments that exceed expectations and the surprise diversions that affect me the most, because they remind me it’s best to leave my prejudices behind when I set out on a journey.
Mostly, it has been the simpler things I’ve loved the best.
My favourite hotel experience for 2016 was the few days I spent at Zaborin, a contemporary ryokan or inn, deep in a snow-filled forest in Hokkaido, northern Japan. Not only were the rooms, food and details absolutely perfect, the place had soul, mostly because it was a labour of love for owner Shouya Grigg, a designer who bought the land a decade ago and built his own house on it.
My favourite memory of my favourite place? Mr Sato, an elderly local resident, who would visit the inn each morning to tend to the small moss gardens he made and placed throughout the hotel. Mr Sato was also an expert forager and would bring to the chef mushrooms, berries and other edibles from the forest. It elevated my mood every day to observe his love of nature and his dedication in making small things of beauty for the pleasure of the guests.
My favourite country this year was lovely, long-forgotten Portugal, now the hottest destination in the world, and justifiably so. My favourite experience in my favourite place was the tiny Fado club we visited late one night in Lisbon, where we and one other table were the only guests.
Clube de Fado is often full of tourists, who come to be entertained over dinner, but once they clear out by about 10 pm, the club becomes the haunt of locals, many of whom are friends of the musicians. The stirring, heartfelt passion of the singers was unforgettable, all the more so for the intimacy of the stage.
My favourite city? Tokyo. I was lucky to go there three times this year and it never fails to delight me in both a design sense and in terms of my interaction with its unfailingly polite citizens. The shopping is second to none. It’s so easy to get there, you could conceivably go for a long weekend to clear out the cobwebs.
My favourite food experience was not a Michelin-starred meal but the exquisite orange blossom icecream from the modest little Heladaria La Fiorentina in Seville. The delightful artisan behind the best icecream in the world is Joaquin Lira, who incorporates unique flavours, such as saffron, manzanilla sherry and olive oil into his inventive creations. Pity Seville is so far away – it’s the kind of food treat I’d travel long distances for.
I love snooping around markets and my favourite of the year was the central market in Mandalay, where brilliantly coloured rugs could be found for about $3 with a little bit of bargaining. I came away with a mosquito-coil holder made out of bits of old tin cans that was my favourite purchase of the year. It’s an example of the resourcefulness of human nature that speaks so strongly to me.
In all the clamour of arrivals and departures and airport lines, I can’t forget one small gesture. We were early for our flight at Sapporo airport in northern Japan and sat for half an hour before the attendants appeared to open the gate. When they finally arrived and logged onto the computers, both stepped in front of their stations, bowed solemnly to those waiting for the flight – only the two of us at the stage – and returned to their desks.
I’m hoping that 2017 has many more sweet spots like this.
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