Temple of the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, Japan

Explore this centuries-old monument and other execeptional highlights in the ancient city of Kyoto.

Visit with Animal Friends

Find places around the world where you can interact with animals in their natural habitats and contribute to the preservation of wildlife.

Tulip Festival

I had the pleasure of photographing the Tulip Festival in Skagit, Washington, what gorgeous colors!

West Coast Road Trip

Explore fantastic gems across California, Oregon and Washington.

Lavender Fields in Napa, California

Find out how to explore Napa's Wine country for the best scenery, picnics, wine and budget.

The Relaxing Getaway You Crave

Visiting the Seattle area? This award winning luxury hotel is nestled directly on top of a 268-foot waterfall! Read about my visit and get a taste of the Pacific Northwest.

Noodles at the Oldest Restaurant in Kyoto

Photo by thatfoodcray.com
I was incredibly lucky to enjoy a meal at the family owned and operated restaurant 'Honke Owariya' as a guest of one of the owners. This restaurant, which specializes in traditional soba (buckwheat) noodles, has existed in Kyoto since the year 1465! Over the centuries, Owariya has served emperors and shoguns as well as the monks of many Kyoto temples. To this day, the royal family eats here when they come to Kyoto. (The Japanese word ‘honke’ means ‘original house’ indicating a shop’s pedigree.)

My meal was certainly one of the best I had while in Japan. The atmosphere was traditional, warm and cozy. A hot bowl of soba noodles with veggies totally hit the spot. I was surprised to find affordable prices from a restaurant with such a well known name and history; most noodle dishes were 800-1100¥ or roughly $8-$11.

Cold soba noodle dish with tempura. Photo by thatfoodcray.com
I was also surprised to receive a gift of their homemade cookies (which they sell in the front area). I believe their sweet treats are all made with buckwheat flour. They were not as sweet as traditional American cookies, but beautifully packaged and I enjoyed them.

If you're in Kyoto, don't miss a chance to eat at Owariya! It can't hurt to browse this culinary guide for Japan from Lonely Planet either; it will teach you how to identify different types of food establishments from the outside and from the menu, which is very helpful if you don't speak Japanese!

Awesome Flea Markets in Ancient Kyoto

Visiting Kyoto, Japan recently I was in search of hidden gems off the beaten path. I'm drawn to local markets to see interesting things from other cultures and help support local artisans. There is no better souvenir to bring home than something handmade or an antique treasure from another country. I thought flea markets in Kyoto would be a fantastic treat because their culture is so different from mine and they have a long, long history in the arts... after all, Kyoto has existed since at least the 6th Century and was the capital of Japan for more than one thousand years. What a great idea this was!

The above porcelain pendants were cut from pieces of ancient Japanese tableware.
Small denim and wool purses were handmade with decorative designs and leather straps. 
People watching at the market is a fantastic experience all by itself -- I was wide eyed and giggling as I squeezed through the crowd at the Chion-ji Market wondering what I just walked into. The handmade creations include pottery, clothing and accessories, jewelry, decorations and sweets. Good luck charms and owl imagery are very popular in Japan and there was no shortage at this market!

Handmade pottery with organic glazes is a specialty of many artisans of Kyoto.
A quick primer for shopping at Japanese flea markets: Admission is free and markets are typically located at temples and shrines. Bargain hunting and negotiating is normal, you can even find used silk kimono for 500-1000¥ (or $5-$10). They are an incredibly creative community, very welcoming and friendly.

List of Kyoto Flea Markets
(click any market below for photos, hours, directions)
  • 15th of each month: Chion-ji Hyakumanben: Kyoto's biggest handicraft market; an absolutely amazing range of handmade things and great prices too. I didn't see any antiques here, just handmade items.
  • 21st of each month: To-ji Temple Flea Market (aka Kobo-san Market), the city's largest and oldest flea market dates back nearly 700 years. They primarily sell antiques and vintage kimono. It is extremely popular so be sure to go early, especially if on a weekend or a national holiday.
  • 25th of each month: Kitano-Kenman-gu Shrine Flea Market is one of Kyoto's best flea markets, selling mostly clothing, kimono and edible treats.
  • First Sunday of each month: Zuishinin-Komachi Tedukuri ichi is a handicraft market that is small yet bustling. This market also offers a chance to compare coffees and sweets. In spring the plum tree gardens on these grounds are in full bloom.
  • Second Saturday of each month: Heian-raku-ichi market features handmade crafts, coffees and plants for sale. 
  • Mori no Tedukuri market is located in the woods of the beautiful and covered forest 'Tadasu no Mori'. They offer food, handicrafts and live music. This market is held two or three times a year and lasts for two days.
  • First Saturday of each month (except in January and May): Umekoji Park Tedukuri-ichi market sells handicrafts, breads and sweets. 
  • Fourth Sunday of each month: Kamigamo Tezukuri-ichi handicraft market has great crafts, foods and vegetables and is located next to a stream where kids can play and have fun. 
  • Mononoke ichi market is an unusual market which features original artwork and crafts relating to monsters or "Youkai". They also have various sakes and ciders which you can try. Schedule is irregular so check their site for details.
Don't forget to check the list of current events in Kyoto before your trip so you don't miss out on a unique experience (and some great annual markets) you might love! Get another dose of Japanese culture at my eBay Collection inspired by ancient Kyoto.

Favorite Gems in Laguna Beach

As a California native I have always been drawn to the coast. When I first started driving in Los Angeles, I was constantly getting lost and always ending up at the beach. Between Los Angeles and San Diego we have some epic coastal scenery; it's easy to stay on the freeway and miss some of the best places! Next time you're passing through or even doing a west coast road trip, check out these incredible gems. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Exploring at Aliso Beach
The ocean is super aquamarine here because it is part of a protected marine reserve and the water is clean. It's really not like this in other parts of California. The sand is soft, the strong waves are great for body boarding, and the easily accessible tide pools are best visited in the morning. It is not uncommon to see bottle-nosed dolphins in these waters or even California sea lions which have been known to pop up near the local surfers. Bonus: because it's a county beach, it has bonfire pits and dogs are allowed (leashed).

Walking Path at Treasure Island Park
Located ocean-front at the Montage Hotel (just minutes from Aliso Beach) is one of the best ocean views you'll see in southern California and it won't cost you a penny. The cliff-top walking path is lined with colorful flowers and there's plenty of excellent photo opportunities and beach access. And yes, the ocean here is still that stunning aquamarine color. To get here, follow PCH and turn at Wesley Drive (on the west side) and park. 

Crystal Cove and Beachcomber Cafe
Located directly on the sand is this fantastic cafe with excellent food and drinks. If you're interested in exploring beyond your appetite, this California State Park has a lot to offer. You'll find hiking trails, tide pools, a visitor center, shopping promenade, beach cottages and more. 

Fresh Bites Laguna Style
Located on PCH, Madison Square & Garden Cafe is an excellent casual breakfast and lunch spot and is also dog-friendly. Think lemon ginger ricotta pancakes with berry butter or choices of fresh omelets, salads, burgers, sandwiches and catch of the day.  

Cocktails at Sunset
Head over to the rooftop lounge of La Casa del Camino and watch the sun set over the Pacific. Happy Hour is Monday-Friday 3-5pm.

Epic Whale Watching
Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari in Dana Point is an adventure I can't recommend enough; if you have 2.5 hours to spare, book your tickets and go. With two excursions scheduled each day, these nature loving experts take you on their small catamaran and you'll get extremely close to the wildlife. I just did this trip and saw five blue whales - the largest animal on earth!

Window Shopping in Downtown Laguna Beach
Perfect for a leisurely walk with cute shops, art galleries and wine bars and head down to the ocean front path. Their Saturday morning farmers market is small but a nice treat; grab some organic fruits and nuts, yogurts or fresh hot coffee.

Cliff-top view of some tide pools at Treasure Island Beach.
Vibrant bougainvillea blooms along the path at Treasure Island Park.
Beach access from Treasure Island Park.
View from the path at Treasure Island Park in front of the Montage Hotel.
Dining deck at the Beachcomber Cafe.
Crystal Cove State Park, tide pools on the right.
A rock cove at Aliso Beach. 
The beautiful waters of Aliso Beach.
Downtown Laguna Beach shops and cafes.
The path at Downtown Laguna. 
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Amazon Black Friday Starts Now - Deals for Travelers

Amazon just announced the beginning of their Black Friday Deals sale and will be adding new deals EVERY 10 MINUTES for eight straight days. Plus, Amazon will introduce three coveted Deals of the Day starting on Thanksgiving at midnight, as well as three more on Black Friday. Go HERE for the Black Friday Page.

Need to get a gift for someone who loves to travel and doesn't want "stuff"? Check out my excellent ideas for gifts that will help them make unforgettable travel memories: Gifts for Travelers by Suzette. 

Here are just some of my picks of the deals you'll see on Amazon, specifically for folks who love to travel:

Electronics for Travelers:
40-inch 1080p LED TV, $119 (deal not released yet)
32-inch LED TV, $79 (deal not released yet)

Travel Accessories:
30% Off Select Snow Goggles
Select women’s boots, under $50
Men’s Patagonia shoes 50% Off

Books, Movies and Music:
More than 50 Kindle books for $1.99 each 
Hourly Lightning Deals with savings up to 90% on over 90 movies and TV shows
Up to 58% off 11,000+ popular movies and TV shows including X-Men: Days of Future Past, Friends: The Complete Series, Downton Abbey, and more

Wine. Because Why Not?:
Amazon Wine will feature deep discounts starting at 60% off on over 100 unique wines

Wildlife Photography at the Zoo

I recently got my hands on some new lenses (50mm prime + 300mm telephoto zoom) and I wanted to try them out at the LA Zoo. The reason is simple: I love animals and I'm working on improving my wildlife photography.

The timing turned out to be perfect. Just three days earlier one of the female hippos gave birth to an adorable baby. The pair cuddled while the papa stayed close (see photo below). Check out my photos and I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments below.

This is the new dad hippo above.

Ten Free Holiday Cards Personalized With Your Photos

Tiny Prints 10 Free Holiday Cards

I wanted to share a new offer that I'm excited about from Tiny Prints. As you may know, I love using my travel photos to create personalized cards for all occasions. Right now they are offering ten free custom holiday cards and it's easier than I thought! Make sure to get yours before the offer expires next Wednesday, just click on the photo above to get started.

Tiny Prints has done a lot to make this simple and fast. Use just one photo or as many as six, pick a design and choose your text. You'll have to cover the shipping cost, but it's worth it. Still hesitant? Go to the site and upload one photo; you will see a real time preview of every card design with your photo in it, and they look great! 

PS: Here are some of my favorite holiday card designs from TinyPrints:

Details: Offer expires 11/12/2014 (11:59 P.M. PT). Enjoy ten (10) free Holiday cards using the code 10FREECARDS at checkout. Postage, shipping, and tax fees may apply. Offer applies exclusively to Holiday greeting cards and is not applicable to previously placed orders, shipping, taxes, or postage. Cannot be redeemed for cash or combined with other offers, discounts, promotions or credits. This promotion is not applicable to calendars, photo books, gift certificates, personalized postage stamps, Erin Condren weekly planners, and foil stamped, letterpress and laser-cut holiday greeting cards. This offer does not apply to add-ons (liners, trim options, paper options, envelopes, and address labels). Offer cannot be redeemed more than once per account and/or billing address. This particular offer code can only be redeemed once. Offer is only valid on Tiny Prints and is not applicable to third party or partner websites. To prevent fraud or abuse, we reserve the right to discontinue or modify this offer or cancel any order.

Sea of Poppies for Armistice Day in London

Throughout the Commonwealth Nations, millions of people are wearing a red poppy pinned to their lapel to pay respect to those who lost their lives in the First World War. Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day), is observed on November 11th and marks the anniversary of the formal end of World War I. This was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with casualties of 9 million soldiers and 7 millions civilians. It's hard to swallow just thinking about it. This year also marks the 100th Anniversary since World War I began. 

The Tower of London is home to an art installation whereby the tower's moat is filled with thousands of hand-made ceramic poppies. 888,246 poppies to be exact, one for every British soldier who lost his life during World War I. The name of the piece is, "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red", and the last poppy will be put in place Nov 11th, 2014. The remembrance poppy is a symbol of memorial because poppies bloomed across some of the battlefields of World War I and their bright red color a symbol for the blood spilled in the war.

Take a quick minute to have a look at the stunning monument being put in place to mark this years Remembrance Day, as photographed recently by Lori Miller.

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