Temple of the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, Japan

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

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Tulip Festival

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Amazing Secret Jungle Hike in Honolulu, Hawaii

The beginning of the Manoa Falls Trail in Honolulu, Hawaii.
There is a fantastic hidden jungle hike on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which you will love if you're a traveler who enjoys heading off the beaten path. The trail is hidden in a residential area called Manoa Valley just 20 minutes away from Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

The Manoa Falls Trail will take you through dense jungle that is lush with a shady canopy, bamboo forest and huge trees that will make you feel like you are in a jurassic park movie (minus the dinosaurs). The movie Jurassic Park was actually filmed in this area! Just 1.6 miles up you'll see Manoa Falls, a beautiful 150 foot waterfall and pool (no swimming allowed). The trail has a slight incline and can be muddy, so dress accordingly and apply inspect repellent before you start out. Don't wear flip flops or sandals!

The entire hike is pretty easy and can be done in under an hour, so it's a really fantastic and easy way to experience a truly Hawaiian jungle hike even when you're on a beach vacation.

Path on the jungle hike. Photo by Daniel Ramirez.
Bamboo Forest on Manoa Falls Trail. Photo by Daniel Ramirez.
How to Get to Manoa Falls
  • Follow Kapahulu St out of Waikiki up to the H-1 Freeway
  • Take H-1 West towards the Airport
  • Take the Punahoe Exit
  • Follow Punahoe Road up towards the mountains
  • Punahoe Road turns into Manoa Road
  • Follow Manoa Road all the way up to the top.
There is a parking lot by the trail head which costs $5, though I would suggest parking in the residential streets below for free and walking the additional 1/4 mile. Look for the sign designating the Manoa Falls Trail (pictured below).

If you don't have a car, it's easy to get here by bus. Just take the #5 bus which stops on the residential streets just before the entrance.

Where to Stay When Visiting Waikiki
  • On my visit I had some not-so-great hotel experiences -- I had been avoiding the pricey beach-front options which did not turn out in my favor. I called Expedia who moved me to the Waikiki Beach Marriott for a fantastic deal. The open-air lobby was filled with fresh purple orchids! It's located across the street from Waikiki Beach, has a pool and five restaurants. $229/night + 20% off when booked on Expedia with a flight.
  • Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is a beachfront 22-acre resort property. Complete with a spa, 20 dining venues and a swimming pool with water slides. $151/night + $30/day resort fee.
  • Hilton Waikiki Beach is just steps to the beach, newly renovated, has a swimming pool and the rooms offer both ocean and mountain views. $206/night.

 All photos above by Daniel Ramirez.

Kyoto's Golden Gem

Kinkakuji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Temple in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto whose top two floors are entirely covered in gold leaf. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site.

The view was perhaps the most awe-inspiring sight on my visit to Kyoto. Beyond that is an education and immersion into one of the world's best examples of artistically creating a structure in harmony with the landscape. Kinkakuji is set in a traditional Japanese strolling garden and extends over a pond which provides beautiful reflections of the golden structure. Did I mention the koi fish? The rock gardens, bridges, ponds and vegetation are truly zen in every way.

Some say that the most stunning view of Kinkakuji is in the winter when it is covered in snow.... it snowed there one day after I left!

The gold used on the temple has a symbolic meaning; it was believed that the gold purified any negative thoughts and feelings towards death. I found that interesting, also knowing that the grounds were designed to illustrate harmony between heaven and earth.

Kinkakuji was built in 1393 as a retirement villa for Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. Through history it has burned down several times, most recently having been rebuilt in 1955. Due to the immense historic buildings in the ancient city of Kyoto, the city was spared much of the destruction of World War II.

Statues of the Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu are stored in the first floor. While it's not possible to enter the pavilion, you can view them from across the pond as the front windows of the first floor are usually kept open..... they were not open when I visited.

Check out the bird under the tree!
After you exit the temple area, you'll see Fudo Hall where people line up to ring the bells (to awaken the gods) and say a prayer. This small temple is home to a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and the protector of Buddhism. The statue is said to have been carved by one of Japan's most important religious figures in history.

There you will also find small wooden plaques which are somewhat of a landmark at Kyoto's shrines and temples. Called Ema in traditional Shinto language, they often have images of animals and wishes of success written on them. Prayers or wishes can be written on the plaques which are then left hanging at the shrine for the spirits or gods to receive them. Don't be shy, everyone is welcome to leave a wish.

Travel Tips for Visiting the Temple of the Golden Pavilion:

The Golden Pavilion is open for visitors every single day of the year, from 9am to 5pm. Admission is 400 ¥. Kinkakuji can be accessed from Kyoto Station by City Bus number 101 or 205 in about 40 minutes and for 230 ¥. Alternatively, you could take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes, 260 ¥) and take a taxi (10 minutes, 1000-1200 ¥) or bus (10 minutes, 230 ¥, bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205) from there to Kinkakuji.

Here you can access what I found to be the most useful Kyoto travel guide

Where to Stay When Visiting Kyoto:

I recommend the Almont Hotel where I stayed, which is about 3 blocks from the Kyoto Station, the major hub for getting anywhere in the city and beyond. It was clean, comfortable and their location is great. I liked that they have traditional onsen (mineral pools), free wifi and a business center (all of which I made use of!). Book through Agoda (below) as I did for the best rate.

Native American Culture at an Indian Pow Wow

I recently had the pleasure of experiencing Native American culture firsthand at a dance and feather-filled pow wow. This type of cultural celebration is something I love to see on my travels and share.

Native Americans from the Band of Paiutes in Nevada, Utah, Canada and their guests gathered for the 25th annual Snow Mountain Indian Pow Wow in Las Vegas, Nevada. They came together to join in cultural song and dance and honor the deceased on Memorial Day.

They say this is a chance to bring all nations together as a community. Damon Polk, the Emcee from Cedar City said, "As Native Americans, we don't put up fences or boundaries. Everyone is invited to the pow wows because it makes our souls happy." 

Each dancer's attire is unique to their style of dance and represents their tribe. The rhythmic drums are said to impart remembrance of ancestral traditions. For Native Americans the drum is a sacred instrument; the beat, known as 'the heartbeat of Mother Earth,' has a purpose to bring everyone back into balance.

I hope you enjoy my photo gallery below showcasing the exceptional artistry and craftsmanship put into creating their traditional ceremonial wear. The beadwork, vibrant colors, feathers and designs are something I find very inspiring on my travels.

Five Best Things About the Vancouver Aquarium

The Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada has many things to offer which are unique to the region. Here are the top five reasons you should visit:

1. Beluga Whales are majestic and other worldly... watching them slowly glide across the water is something fantastic. This Beluga and I had a moment! Typically these mammals live in arctic and subarctic waters, and they are known as "sea canaries" because of their songs and chatter which you'll get a chance to hear at the Vancouver Aquarium. They also have been known to enjoy a musical serenade or two.

2. Penguin Point is the new home for these adorable South African Penguins and you can get up close and personal. African Penguins have been classified as endangered because their population has decreased 90 percent in the past 30 years, and Vancouver Aquarium is helping to conserve and educate visitors about them.

3. The Sea Otters are playful from dusk till dawn. If you have an obsession with cutie otters (as I do) you can watch them play 24 hours a day on the Vancouver Aquarium's live internet video stream  -- watch their otters swim and play here!

4. Since 1956 this Aquarium has been advancing scientific research to help conserve our natural world through education, research and wildlife rescue. They are a self-supporting, non-profit society and your admission supports their efforts in conservation and research. Save $2 on Admission per person when you display a valid transit pass (bus ticket) to show your efforts to travel smart and support conservation efforts.

5. The Aquarium is open 365 days a year. Every holiday. Every. Single. Day.  

Cute video alert! These are stories of rescued wildlife who made unlikely animal friends (Cheetah and Dog, Hippo and Tortoise, orangutan and Hound, Elephant and Sheep, Polar Bear and Sled Dogs) and they couldn't be more cute.

I hope you get a chance to experience the Vancouver Aquarium, watch the otters play, and help support their wildlife conservation efforts!


The Best Dam Photos Ever - A Masterpiece

I recently visited the ever-impressive Hoover Dam, taking some time to appreciate the vision and ingenuity it took to "Make the Desert Bloom" with the creation of the dam.

The dam was built by over 5000 engineers and laborers who overcame huge obstacles to achieve something so monumental. And they got it done 18 months ahead of schedule and under-budget. The dam was entirely paid for (and continues to be maintained) by selling the power it generates. If you live in California, Nevada or Arizona, the Hoover Dam provides you with a portion of your electricity. 

It was a task of unprecedented scale, complexity, and cost. It weighs over 6 million tons, as much as 18 Empire State Buildings. It stands 726 feet tall and was made with 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete. Numerous innovations advanced the science of construction, which to this day are some of the most sophisticated engineering accomplishments ever. Did I mention that they had to re-reroute the Colorado River to achieve all this?

In 2010, the dam was joined by a new engineering marvel, the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (above). It straddles the Colorado river between the states of Nevada and Arizona. It is the second highest bridge in the United States, the highest concrete arch bridge in the world, and the widest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, the Hoover Dam has some impressive designations:

- One of the Seven Wonders of the World (American Society of Civil Engineers)
- National Historic Landmark (US Dept of the Interior)
- A Monument of the Millenium (American Society of Civil Engineers)
- National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark (American Society of Civil Engineers)
- One of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders (American Society of Civil Engineers)
- One of the Top Ten Construction Achievements of the 20th Century (Construction Industry Manuf Association)

The guided tour takes you into the depths of the dam (530 feet down)
to see the generators. Admission is $11 per person.
 This underground tunnel was built in the 1930s.

The dam's designers understood that this was a great public work that visitors would want to experience. They tasked Denver artist Allen Tupper True with designing the walls and floors of the dam with some very inspiring art. Into the walkways of the dam interiors, he incorporated images and colors based on the Native American visions of rain, lightning, water, clouds and wildlife - which he merged with concepts of the machinery and generators in operation, so the patterns appear both ancient and modern.

Looking back on Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam.
Lake Mead from a distance @ Boulder City scenic lookout.
Last but not least, this is the Memorial at the Hoover Dam. 

The dam is only 30 miles from Las Vegas, so if you're in the area, you should visit! 

Where to Stay When Visiting the Hoover Dam:

Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip are a 30-minute drive from the Hoover Dam, Expedia always finds me the best room rates. When I stay at the Paris Hotel for 2 or more nights, I get a great discount when booking with the hotel directly. 

If you want to avoid the Vegas Strip, I recommend staying in Boulder City which is just minutes from the Hoover Dam. My favorite hotel there is the Boulder Dam Hotel which offers great rooms, free parking, wifi and breakfast. Make sure you use your AAA Membership for discounted room rates and you can usually get a room for $80.

If you seek a luxury hotel but want to avoid the Vegas Strip, I highly recommend staying at the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Spa. It is located in Henderson, a 30-minute drive from Hoover Dam. They offer luxury rooms and suites, three restaurants, six bars and lounges, a casino, pool and spa. Room rates range from $90-$275 per night. A 2-night stay, mid week, will get you $150 in spa and restaurant credit. Again, use your AAA Membership!

Discounted Tickets with Hoover Dam Tour Company:

Groupon offers tickets for the Hoover Dam Tour for $45 per person (44% Off). The Tour Company will pick you up from your hotel in downtown Vegas, Henderson or Boulder City in an air conditioned motor coach. They will take you on the full 2-hour tour of the Dam, then a nearby chocolate factory and botanical gardens. I've not done this tour, but logistically it could be a good choice.

Go here for my easy-access list of discounts on the Las Vegas Strip including hotels, restaurants, sightseeing activities, shows and the best Happy Hours.

For more Information:

Hoover Dam Visitor Information

Hoover Dam on Wikipedia
Hoover Dam Memorial Bridge Project

Getty Villa - The Road Less Traveled

While the famous Getty Center Museum atop a hill in Brentwood, California draws over 1.3 million visitors annually, the Getty Villa in Malibu is really the road less traveled and should be on your short list to visit in Los Angeles.

The Getty Villa is an educational center and museum dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. It is a lesson in art, history and nature. And dedication. And architecture. And romance. I could go on....

The Villa is located on the Pacific Coast Highway, so if you go on a clear day you will have beautiful ocean views. They do free tours throughout the day of the gardens, exhibits and architecture. Check their calendar because in the summertime they have Shakespearean and Classical plays in their outdoor amphitheater, concerts and crafting classes. It's a great place to meet up with friends.
Photo by The Consortium via Flickr

My favorite of their Exhibitions is called
'Glassmaking in Antiquity'. It is a remarkable collection of 180 pieces of antique glass from the beginning of glass production in Mesopotamia in 2500 B.C. to Byzantine glass of the 11th century. I believe I saw the oldest glass object that still exists today; astounding that it has been preserved. You'll see the tools and techniques used in ancient glassmaking.... never stop learning!

Two days a week they have a social activity called 'Tea by the Sea'. You'll love this! It is inspired by the herbs, vegetables and fruits from the Villa's authentically recreated Roman gardens. For a flat-fare of $36, enjoy a menu of savory panini, scones, tea breads, cakes, tarts, fruits and cheeses. They have a great tea selection, of course.

Admission to the Getty Villa is free, though reservations are required and last entry is 3pm. They are open 6 days a week (closed on Tuesdays). Here is their website for further details.

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