A traditional tea ceremony

Japan is a place unlike any other, with cultural traditions fiercely protected across millennia. You can learn about the legacy of the samurai and their battles with the ninja clans, the skilful geisha and their performative art, or the rituals of the tea ceremony.

In Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, some of the old ways have been meticulously preserved. We visited WAK Japan, a women’s cooperative with local experts who can guide you through the process. There is so much more to a tea ceremony than just drinking tea.

On arrival, we removed our shoes. Had it had been the 16th century, our samurai swords would be left at the door. Putting on thick wooden slippers, we shuffled upstairs past shōjis screens. Our guide, Aska, wore a silvery kimono embroidered with the muted colours of autumn.

On the tatami floor, lay the polished ceramic drinking bowls. We knelt down, and with everyone at the same level, we were told that we were equals. Tea ceremonies were used as a leveler in society – no matter who you were in the outside world, everyone was treated the same when they came together for tea. No power or money could create a hierarchy here. Hand stitched on a cloth were the words Wa kei sei jaku meaning ‘Peace, harmony, purity, respect.’

There was something so simple and tranquil about that space, the light muffled by the paper screens and the room silent, except for our host whose movements were slow and measured. Aska tapped the ceramic lid of the tea pot with her long wooden scoop, as if waking it from a slumber.

Everything was gently submerged in cold water, then meticulously wiped with a small, folded red napkin. Aska spoke little as she prepared the tea. Instead, we listened to water being dropped, the clink of the ceramics, the hollow sound of bamboo.

With a small wooden whisk, she frothed up the green tea until the bubbles turned white. The maca leaves had been covered in silver to protect them from the sun, and as a result, the taste was less bitter than that of regular green tea. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th Century, when priests returned from China. Kyoto was the first place to grow its own tea in Japan. The hot sun and temperate climate was ideal for tea plants to flourish, and it is now famous for its matcha and gyukuro tea.

Before drinking the tea, it is customary to bow low to your host to show your gratitude. The bowls are placed in between guests with the design facing them at first, and this is the kao (face) side. You must say, “Osakini” to the person next to you, to show etiquette and to request permission to drink before them, then wait for them to nod.

At this point, you should turn the design on the bowl away from you in modesty so that the kao of the bowl is facing towards the host. The next step is to thank the host and tea growers before raising the bowl to your lips, with your left hand nestled under the right. You then spin the bowl twice clockwise and then sip – the standard rate is to finish your drink in three and a half sips. Only the last mouthful should be an audible slurp to show your appreciation.

Replacing the bowl back down in front of you, you can now turn it anti clockwise so that the design is facing you once again. The kao of the bowl is specifically chosen for the occasion, and you can enjoy trying to glean its meaning. Remember to thank your host for the tea.

There is a saying in Japanese – Ichigo Ichie, which means ‘savour every encounter.’ As Brits, we are particularly fond of a brew, but this tea ceremony was strangely calming. Emerging from the room afterwards, we felt like we’d enjoyed a soothing spa session.

To see a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in action, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wQVxj_0Mdo.

WAK Japan is a business that celebrates the historic roles of women, and provides many opportunities for cultural exchange. They are committed to preserving Japanese culture and offer courses in calligraphy, dancing, flower arrangement and Japanese paper craft. See their website for more details: http://wakjapan.com/

How to pack for the jungle

If you’re planning a day hike in a cloud forest, or trekking in the depths of the rainforest, here are 10 essentials that you should pack:

  1. Mosquito repellent – use a DEET-free one that is kind to the environment while protecting you from midges. Check the elevation you’ll be heading to – at some altitudes they are not an issue. Read the travel advice for your specific area to find out if there are any diseases you can protect yourself from in advance (yellow fever, malaria, etc.).

  2. Sun cream – protect your skin with at least SPF30, and opt for one that is easily absorbed and simple to reapply as you may face downpours or have to deal with excessive sweat. 

  3. Long-sleeved clothes – wearing a light long-sleeved top is a great way to regulate your temperature and keep insects off, while also protecting you from any UV rays that filter through the canopy.

  4. Leech socksdo your research before you go and if there are leeches, it is worth buying a cheap pair of socks to wear above your trousers/shoes to avoid having to remove these blood-sucking parasites. 

  5. Waterproof cases for cameras – you might think this is only necessary for water-based activities, but the rainforest and cloud forests can be humid, damp places. Even if you duck the rainfall, moisture will collect on your cameras and devices so take care to keep them dry.

  6. A reusable water bottle – depending on where you are travelling, check if there is a source of safe, potable water for you to top up your bottle for free. Save buying a plastic bottle each time by taking your own. Aluminium bottles with carabiner clips can be attached to your bag strap and will keep your drink cool.

  7. Charger packin some remote places, you will not have a guaranteed source of power to charge your phone and other electronics. Invest in an external charger pack that can keep you fully charged, so you can enjoy your trip without worrying about finding the next available socket.

  8. Raincoat / poncho – in tropical climates, a lined raincoat is too warm and will end up sticking to you. A lightweight version, or even a thin poncho, will keep you dry without causing you to overheat. Umbrellas are a bad idea as you won’t be able to safely navigate the paths in the jungle with your head down. 

  9. Fruits / nuts as snacks – take dried food that is easy to store and will not expire or melt in warm temperatures. High energy snacks are important if you are planning on active excursions and need something readily available. Most places will offer fresh fruit or local snacks to keep you going, but it is worth carrying some in case you need extra or have any food allergies / preferences that may not be catered for there.

  10. Waterproof fabric plasters – if you don’t carry your own first aid kit on your travels, at least pack some decent plasters or band aids. Small cuts might take longer to heal in humid conditions, and if you get blisters you’ll want to pad them out so that you can continue walking comfortably. 

Two things that should not end up in your bag are:

  • Plastic bags / rustling packets – leave these at home to not only help reduce waste, but to avoid the wrong kind of monkey attention.
  • Sunglasses and a hat – these aren’t always necessary as the canopy offers shade. If you need to look up to spot wildlife, having these fall off your head might be a nuisance.

Now you’re all set! Enjoy packing and venture into the jungle fully prepared for your trip.

 

We’d love to hear from you – is there anything else that you think should be on this list?

Borneo’s big five

You’ve heard of the Big Five in Africa, but have you heard of Borneo’s version?

The first animal on our list was the reason we had travelled to Borneo – the orangutan. The Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is wildlife conservation at its best, with a focus on protecting the orangutans from the deforestation for palm oil production, while preparing them to be reintroduced to the primary forests.

The first orangutan we saw was from the boardwalk, a young male that looked as though its fur was on fire as it caught the early sunlight. With black fingernails, he clasped the branches with finesse as he climbed down to the feeding platform. The orangutans here are not guaranteed sightings, and in fact, the guides said it was a good sign not to spot them as it meant they were foraging for themselves. This brought them one step closer to being re-released into the wild.

We also encountered a giant male with impressive side flanges who seemed to have a monopoly on the larger feeding sight. Swinging from a rope and bellowing, his presence was undeniable. However, a mischievous pig-tailed macaque stole fresh fruit from under his nose undetected.

We would spot three more orangutans outside of Sepilok, solitary individuals who were making their nightly nest high in the canopies, feeding on the fringes of the rainforest, or emerging from the thick canopy above.

Back on the river, it wasn’t long before we spotted animal number two. Our wooden boat lurched down the swollen river, so full of mud that everything below the surface was hidden. Sunning itself on the bank with its jaws open in a menacing pant, it flexed each of its muscular legs before thumping down its thick tail and slipping into the water. Our guides pulled at the motor as we scanned the chocolate river for a sign, but the 3m long saltwater crocodile had disappeared without even a ripple.

On a night tour, we would see dozens of glimmering golden eyes bobbing on the surface, not disclosing the size of the body beneath. On a dawn outing in the boat, a 4m male swam underneath us and rose to let us watch his endless scaly spines submerge once more.

Our third spot came suddenly, as a troop of proboscis monkeys disturbed the outer edges of the rainforest by leaping and shaking the leaves. The males, most famous for their protruding noses, sported potbellies and sat apart from the rest. The females carried younger members of the group, with the same rounded stomachs on show as they jumped to higher branches.

Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are endangered through loss of natural habitat. To avoid being hunted by leopards, monitor lizards and eagles, they sleep on the edge of the rainforest, finding the lightest boughs that will support them. However, one misstep or ill-timed spring could land them in the water, where a hungry crocodile will snap them up instantly.

From the Kinabatangan River, we noticed rope bridges connecting the distant banks. These were introduced by conservationists to provide safe passage for orangutans, but they are inevitably used by other species who are not keen to test the waters.

As we approached the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world, we noticed a chalkboard full of scribbled names of recent sightings. Our hopes of seeing number three were raised for the next morning, but of course, nature is unpredictable.

We set out early to reach the oxbow lake, and saw frogs, silvery langurs and graceful egrets with curved necks. We had seen sombre black hornbills roosted on dead stumps, a pair of ghoulish mating white-crested hornbills, Oriental pied hornbills with their grand casques flying in single file, and we would later see nesting bushy-crested hornbills in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Fourth on our list was the rhinoceros hornbill, with an impressive casque coloured like flames in contrast with its monochromatic plumage. Our guide pointed to a silhouette high on a branch, and as the mist dissipated, its colours were revealed. The male preened himself and its decorative casque swayed elegantly as it moved its beak around.

The final animal on our list was one that our guides said was rather elusive, despite its size. The Borneo Pygmy Elephant is the smallest elephant species in the world, but adult males still reach up to 2.5 metres high. Having already seen so many incredible species, we were content with the peaceful boat ride down the river.

Just as we were about to turn back to the lodge, we heard a splintering crack from the bank. Our guide killed the engine, and we sat in silence, listening to the disturbed water lapping the side of the boat. The sound of snapping again, followed by a glimpse of a grey, weathered trunk.

Before long, a whole herd of elephants was munching its way to the river’s edge. Juvenile elephants playfully chased their elders in circles, before retreating into the rainforest. A scarred male, missing half a tusk, stood apart from the rest. The matriarch of the group, an old female, led the group, and for a moment, we thought she would enter the water. However, she slowly turned and walked back into the treeline, the view clear after they had demolished the undergrowth.

If you would like to experience a wildlife tour in Borneo, we recommend Borneo Eco Tours. Not only do they hire local guides who are experts at spotting wildlife and sharing stories, they are consistently recognised for their commitment to conservation efforts and prioritise the welfare of the animals and local communities.

With any wildlife encounter, sightings are not guaranteed. Seeing an animal in its natural habitat is special, but it is even more so when it is not a given. If you would like to book a wildlife tour, we recommend this 5 day, 4 night experience that is a budget tour including Sukau Rainforest Lodge and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Chillout House

Walking past the striped hammocks and passing through the sliding glass doors, your eyes are first drawn to a hand painted white swinging chair. Then, you notice a growing tree placed in the centre of the room, and nearby stools carved from standing logs.

A painted sloth reclines dozily, and there are colourful chalked Costa Rican phrases (Que tuanis) above reception. A selection of cosy corners invite any visitor to throw down their bags and lay down for a quick siesta.

The hostel is surrounded by cloud forests

Chillout House is a hostel known for its recycling, encouraging its guests to separate their waste responsibly, but it also showcases a myriad of ways to lovingly restore items to surpass their former glory.

You’ll find the owner, Edith, buzzing around and fixing up her next creative project. From her hanging pineapple plants to her modernist lamp shades made from white rice containers, she is never short of ideas on how to spruce up her place.

A tea tree

Having spent two weeks at her hostel, it was clear that Edith epitomises the word ‘strong.’ Not only did she build the place with her own bare hands and a bucketload of grit, you’ll often find her dead lifting weights on the balcony.

The hostel used to be Edith’s family home. When she divorced, she lost everything except the bare bones of her house. Needing to work, she moved to La Fortuna to help one of her brothers at his restaurant. There, she began to formulate ideas for her own business.

After two years of hard graft and discovering her entrepreneurial spirit, in 2015 she decided to turn her house, which was being looked after by a friend, into a hostel.

Made by hand with love

Initially, her idea was met with disbelief. Some said that the location was too far from central Santa Elena despite it being only a fifteen minute walk.

Still, her new venture was difficult to envisage at that point. The place was empty and she had no furniture except for her own bed and a small bedside table. She said that her family weren’t totally on board at first, and instead she received pity rather than encouragement.

Yet, little by little, she began to acquire the things she needed. She asked around for any donations and told me that her neighbours couldn’t understand why she wanted their old pots and pans. Over time, she gained chairs, a fridge, then some beds.

This bed was transformed into a breakfast bar

When she was ready to open her doors to guests, her family still needed some convincing. Looking at the rooms, her daughters said that there weren’t enough home comforts to make it work.

However, the first group of guests were delighted. The growing reviews of her hostel were positive, earning her a high score and commendations on TripAdvisor. Where Edith saw flaws and improvements to be made, her guests saw quirky and creative solutions full to the brim with character.

Edith learnt how to upcycle through necessity

That is what makes the Chillout House so special. It is Edith and her family. Wherever you look, it is evident that a lot of heart has gone into forging the place as it is today.

I look forward to returning soon to see how the place evolves further, and saying hello to the adorable Alaska.

Alaska will be on hand for cuddles throughout your stay

Edith continues to be a trailblazer and you can find her new pop-up restaurant Qiao Pierde in Santa Elena (next to Restaurante Mar y Tierra). Currently serving crepes, it will soon offer the biggest burger in town!


If you would like to stay at the Chillout House, you can book through Booking.com, Hostelworld or Agoda.

Address: Barrio Valle Bonito, Calle #1 Monteverde Chillout House, Calle 1, Provincia de Puntarenas, Monteverde, Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Price: varies depending on room and season, but around $15/night. This is great value for money compared to other places we’ve stayed in Monteverde.

Breakfast: various options available for 3,500 Colones each, including a continental breakfast, typical Costa Rican breakfast or a wrap. I highly recommend the pancakes and fruit option.

Kitchen: There is a fully stocked kitchen with a shared fridge and individual shelves for storing groceries if you wish to cook yourself.

Other services: laundry for $4/kg. Edith or her daughter Betsy can help you book ziplining tours, horseback adventures, night tours, or arrange your transport to the nature and wildlife reserves nearby. They can also book buses for onward travel.

Breakfast made by Edith

Be taste adventurous!

When travelling, rather than following the banana pancake trail, it’s more fun to seek out the local food. Discovering dishes that are different or a bit weird compared to options back home is one way of getting an insight into the place you’re visiting.

Here are some of the stranger delicacies I’ve come across:

1. Scorpions on Koh San Rd, Bangkok

This road is infamous in Thailand for its nightlife, and travellers are drawn to the neon lined street like the insects buzzing around the hawker stands. Here, you’ll find a host of creepy crawlies sprayed in a salty sauce and roasted. The brave can try a crispy grasshopper, scorched tarantula, or like me, a crunchy scorpion on a stick. Have a Chang ready to wash it all down!

2. Cuy in Cusco

Best known for its delicious ceviche (fish cured in citrus juices), Peru serves up a veritable feast using ingredients plucked from its diverse ecosystems, and usually sprinkled in spicy ají pepper . You can try quinoa soup, a range of potatoes in every colour, corn, and the popular lomo saltado (stir fry beef). For the more adventurous, there is anticuchos de corazón (grilled beef heart) or cuy al horno (roasted guinea pig). I tried both on my final night in Cusco, but couldn’t quite put the image of my childhood pet aside.

3. Ice kachang in Manila

In the capital, it is impossible to miss the tourist slogan: it’s more fun in the Philippines. They’re not wrong when it comes to their desserts. Ice kachang is a favourite in Southeast Asia. You might recognise the shaved ice and syrup elements, but the rest may come as a surprise. This sweet includes coconut milk, aloe vera jelly, attap chee (palm fruit), nata de coco, sweetcorn (a popular dessert as corn on the cob), black grass jelly, sweet condensed milk, and my particular favourite, red kidney beans. It starts off as a delicious looking rainbow mountain, but as it melts it becomes brown and sludgy so eat it quickly.

A variation of ice kachang in Singapore

4. Sambal stringray in Singapore

Walking along Marina Bay’s waterfront between the Merlion and the boggling Marina Bay Sands hotel, you’ll stumble across Gluttons Bay. This place certainly lives up to its name. Hawker stalls are a way of life in Singapore, and this street serves up almost every dish you’ll find in the food centres around the island. You’ll find satay skewers, black carrot cake (actually radish), wonton noodles, roti prata, fish balls, chicken foot soup, spicy nasi lemak, and the famous chilli or black pepper crab. We also ordered sambal stringray, and its grilled white meat was delicate and slathered in a tangy, hot sauce. I washed mine down with soursop juice, which gives a refreshingly citrus hit to counteract those chillis.

5. Curry for breakfast in Jaipur

If you’re travelling to India, you’re in for a treat. With rich creamy curries, pickled vegetables served on banana leaves, pan-baked roti, fresh mango lassies, sticky gulab jamun and steaming chai masala tea, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Whilst most places in Rajasthan catered for Western breakfasts with German bakeries, cafes serving eggs, fruit or pastries, we found Jaipur a tricky place to find breakfast. After eating curry for every meal, we found it difficult to have an equally spicy start to our day. Luckily for us, fresh bananas on the bunch were easy to come by.

6. Fish sauce in Bangkok

This is another specialty hailing from Thailand. If you are a fan of Thai food, you’ll be familiar with Pad Thai, red / green Thai curry and Tom yum soup. You might not know that along with the trademark chillis, lemongrass, tamarind and kaffir (lime leaves), there is one key ingredient: fish sauce. Walking past the main factory, there was a strong gust of fish which blew us backwards. We heard rumours that Thai people pack fish sauce in their suitcases when they travel so they’re never without, just like Brits taking HP brown sauce or Heinz ketchup on holiday with them.

7. Durian in Singapore

I’ve saved the worst until last. This fleshy yellow fruit is actually banned on public transport as it smells so strong. It is pungent enough that a rotting durian shut down an Australian University last year, since the students believed it was a gas leak. The appearance of the durian should be enough to put anyone off as it has a hard, thick shell adorned with dangerous spines. Passing a durian stand burns your nostrils and fills your throat with the taste of raw sewage before you’ve even had a bite.

After two years living in Singapore and politely making excuses to avoid durian parties, I finally tried it. I think the Victorian anthropologist Alfred R. Wallace captured the sensation in his description in 1856:

A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities.

 Wallace, Alfred Russel (1856). “On the Bamboo and Durian of Borneo”

Unlike Wallace, though, I was not a fan.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this taste bud adventure! Have you ever tried anything strange whilst travelling? Let me know in the comments:

Travel buddies

When I think about my travels, my memory sometimes lets me down. It becomes increasingly hard to distinguish something real against a memory forged from a photograph.

Pictures and films help us to record experiences, but they are not always true to reality. They cannot recreate the moment so that you can feel the same things as before. The sky was a different colour. The menacing monkey was surely larger. Who is that hidden in the edges of the frame?

Asides from messy scribbles jotted down on overnight buses, I rely on the memories of my travel buddies. Yet it’s difficult to describe the exact smell of the streets in Jaipur, the subtle flavours of an authentic Cambodian dish, or how I passed the time on a 26 hour bus ride back to Cusco.

One thing I can recall clearly are the people, or rather, the lasting imprint of meeting them. Travellers often cross paths only once, but these individuals will stay with me:

The taxi driver in Jaipur who learnt all his English from Alan Partridge and ill-advisedly allowed Tom to drive his tuk tuk down the street. The small boy with brown teeth who brought joy to an otherwise hellish coach from Vientiane to Hanoi. The silent Thai man wearing a bandanna who fed his white kitten fish crackers in a bar, before commandeering the live band to play karaoke with us.

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The Vietnamese brothers who took us on a motorbike tour of Dalat, driving through villages where children rode water buffalo down dirt roads. The elderly Peruvian mountain guide nicknamed ‘The Cat’ who bounded effortlessly ahead on the Salkantay Pass to reach Machu Picchu. A young Indian girl, the namesake of my friend, who taught me bhangra moves at a wedding in Delhi.

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The German cousins who toured with us around Kerala and shared their views on Ayurvedic medicine. The inspirational Dutch woman who sold her house, bought a waffle cart and travelled the world. The laughing border control officers in Laos who saw me stagger off the boat, flu-ridden, into waist deep mud.

The man with the golden eyes in Kerala who convinced us to meet him before dawn for a sunrise paddle. The family we stayed with on the remote island of Amantani who heartily welcomed us and showed us how to dance. The competitive American author who raced us down a 200ft sand dune in the desert oasis of Huacachina.

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The family in Udaipur who spent the afternoon decorating us in henna, whom we thanked with an impromptu family portrait. The diving couple in Komodo National Park who had dived hundreds of times yet still wanted to see more. The restaurant owner who proudly taught us complimentary phrases (for haggling) in Balinese when we visited him.

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The daredevil guys who took us paragliding in the Himalayas but narrowly missed a tree on the ascent. The giant Russian man who joined our mud bath in Nha Trang and emptied it instantly. The young entrepreneurial girl hustling in a temple in Angkor to pay for school fees.

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The wildlife guide in Borneo who played Christmas tunes with his nostrils using a specially carved pipe. The enthusiastic farmer in Laos who showed us how to steer a water buffalo and harvest rice. The guide who proudly showed us the delights of Quillabamba despite the promised waterfall being dried up.

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I’ve realised that the best travel experiences happen when you let go of control. It takes courage to swallow your cynicism, suspicion and worries.

Only then can you fully embrace an opportunity and allow yourself to be surprised by what you’re experiencing, rather than what you’re expecting from the guide book description.

Sometimes that means taking the risk of being ripped off, trusting someone you’ve just met to show you around, or simply being able to laugh when plans go awry (which they often do).

Part of travelling responsibly is being social, establishing meaningful connections and engaging with local customs. To traverse the cultural divide, you have to abandon your comfort zone and challenge your existing ideas. Of course, I’m not advocating that you go do something dangerous, but measured risk is part of the adventure.

Imagine how many more meaningful connections we would make if we thought the best of strangers and sought to know them better, even if our time together is brief.


What have you learnt from travelling? Who are the people that have left the greatest impact on you?