The battle of the double-decker tour buses has begun. After monopolizing the industry in Tokyo for the past 60 years, Hato Bus Co now has a new challenger in the form of Hinomaru Limousine Co. The upstart company is operating three bright red tour buses in central Tokyo—and, unlike Hato’s, they have open tops. The Sky Bus tours depart from the south Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station every hour between 10am and 6pm, visiting the front gate of the Imperial Palace, the National Theater of Japan, the Supreme Court, the Diet and Ginza; the waterfront Odaiba district and Tokyo Tower will shortly be added to the itinerary. Tours cost ¥1,500 for adults, ¥700 for children aged 4-11. Hato Bus still has the lion’s share of the market, of course, running more than 100 tour routes a day against Sky’s single itinerary. But everybody loves an underdog, eh? For more info on Sky’s new service, check out www.skybus.jp/English..
“Oman suteki!” How many times have you heard that? Odds are, not many. But for intrepid travelers who like to be ahead of the curve, that’s a good thing. Put simply, the Sultanate of Oman is the Arabian Peninsula’s most alluring destination. Few locations offer the dramatic scenery and peace of mind—this friendly land has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Who knew standing around on a pitch-black beach staring at flashlight-illuminated turtle butts could be so mesmerizing?
The exotic wafts of Omani fragrances are an appropriate introduction to a wealthy country where aromatic scents and the smell of money commingle in a happy mixture of tradition and modernity. There are several small museums of interest in the capital, Muscat, but the country’s real attractions are remarkable landscapes, natural wonders—and enigmatic perfume, much of which is based on frankincense, a substance known to many only as a mysterious gift borne by a wise man 2007 years ago.
Frankincense is the milky sap of a gnarled, stubby tree that grows in high-desert conditions; Oman’s has been coveted for centuries and remains sought-after to this day, though fellow mystical scents myrrh (also derived from a tree) and orris (the aromatic dried root of a cactus) are nothing to sniff at with regard to value. To inhale them all, visit the Amouage perfume showroom located near the airport in Muscat’s Seeb district. The company began as the perfume manufacturer for the royal family and grew from there; Amouage is now sold in exclusive shops across the globe to an elite clientele to whom the price tag for the most valuable perfume in the world is not an obstacle to smelling regal.
It is in Dhofar that the treasured frankincense trees ooze with charm and sap; they can be seen along the spectacular mountain road beyond Al Mughsayl, whose beach would be reminiscent of Ireland if not for the camels ambling along the sand. Frankincense resin crystals are easily purchased at the al-Husr souk, where exotic ingredients are displayed for a mélange of fragrances prepared and bottled to order.
Inland from Muscat is Nizwa, once the capital of Oman and now home to the impressive Nizwa Fort. The complex is large and well positioned (as forts tend to be) for extensive views over the landscape. Nearby is Birkat Al Mawz, an unexpectedly lush settlement and one of the country’s most picturesque locations; it is the apotheosis of desert oases. Further inland is Wahiba Sands, an attraction for adrenalin-heads looking for desert adventure. Riding the sand dunes is a popular pastime here, where the endless undulations can yield surprise encounters.
At the easternmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz are among the busiest egg-laying beaches in the world for giant green turtles who come ashore to keep the species alive. Visitors come from far and wide to see the massive creatures drop their ping pong-ball-sized rubbery eggs into small sandpits. If you’re an early riser, get to the beach at dawn to see the spectacle sunny side up.
Salalah, in the southern Dhofar region, is a world apart. Its most impressive sight is the dense vegetation between the sea and the city; the cornucopia of coconuts and tropical fruits will have you thinking you are in Kerala after a monsoon instead of the Arabian Peninsula. Dhofar attracts European and Japanese visitors eager to escape the cold and gray of winter. In summer, it is the comparative cold and gray of the misty khareef season rolling out a green carpet of lush foliage exotic for this part of the world.
In Salalah’s vicinity are several excursions: into the mountains along the coast to the city’s west, to the dense fog of the khareef to the north, and to the archeological sites of the ancient trading cities Sumharum and Al Baleed to the east.
Oman is an automobile society; distances are considerable and gas is subsidized, making motoring the way to go. Yet whether you hire a guide or do it on your own, the country has something to please all five senses.
The Oman Ministry of Tourism website (www.mot.gov.om) is an excellent aid in planning travel to the country, offering detailed information about every region. Zahara Tours (www.zaharatours.com) is a professional outfit that can arrange an SUV with a driver to take you anywhere in the country. Such a tour company is a necessity for those who want to ride the sand dunes or go to remote locations where sturdy wheels and local knowledge are invaluable. Oman Air (www.omanair.aero/wy) flies from Muscat to Salalah several times per week. The flight is approximately 90 minutes. The airline’s introduction of nonstop flights from Bangkok to Muscat makes getting there from Tokyo extremely easy.
If you’ve been to Kyoto, you know the drill. You try to visit every temple, shrine and garden within city limits, then while away the evenings quietly at your hotel, perhaps over a few beers from the conbini.
Wake up! Everyone knows the most famous sights to visit by day, but one of the best-kept secrets of the ancient capital is that it has a rocking nightlife. Focus your attention on Kiyamachi Dori, the small street that runs parallel to Kamogawa. If you’re willing to wade through the sleaze, you’ll be rewarded with some of the cheapest, most unusual bars you’ll encounter in Japan. If you’re not already convinced, remember that all the following places are located within stumbling distance of each other, so you can save your cab fare for drinks instead.
The best way to begin any Kyoto night out is at Den-en. This is one of the most spacious bars in Kyoto, and it soon becomes apparent why: their free-drink system is one of the best deals around. For the ladies, a mere ¥1,200 will buy you all the drinks you can down in two hours. Men pay a bit more (¥1,600), but keep in mind you could spend that much on one cocktail in Tokyo. While not big on décor, Den-en does have a number of board games and playing cards lying around—which are great for sharing or inventing drinking games, or breaking the ice with the regulars. The crowd is generally composed of university students, with couples and smaller groups of friends gathering in the quieter corners.
There are a few more stops not to miss on this budget booze-cruise—well, four to be exact. At all four Kyoto branches of Moonwalk Bar, every drink is a measly ¥200. The pub does charge a ¥300 cover, but even if you only have one drink, you’re still coming out ahead. The Moonwalk establishments tend to be on the cozier side, with space for about 10, max—but this is part of its charm. Though you never know who your drinking companions will be, chances are that they will be chatty and friendly.
Once you’ve had your fill of cheap drinks, you might be willing to part with a bit more cash in exchange for a room with a view. For centuries, there have been bars and restaurants along the Pontocho nightlife drag with decks overlooking Kamogawa. This is where geisha would traditionally entertain their clients on stiflingly hot summer evenings.
You can carry on in an updated version of this tradition at Ace Café, located along Kiyamachi Dori, just north of Sanjo Dori. While there is no outdoor patio, Ace does boast floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the surrounding mountains, affording spectacular views of Kiyomizudera and Ryozen Kannon.
Kyoto residents may have a reputation for being straitlaced and traditional, but the city’s proximity to Osaka ensures that they also have a sense of humor. This is nowhere more apparent than in the names of its cafés and bars. Some, like Café Tits and White Lover, are true gems well worth a visit for the scrapbook photo alone. A few of my other favorites are Shaft 65, Selfish Cream, and the inimitable Bollocks Paradium.
On a recent visit, after years of chuckling and admiring it from afar, I took the leap of faith and visited Bollocks. It turned out to be a very charming, typical Kyoto bar. It seats about 15, mainly at intimate tables, but there are a few stools at the bar as well. Candles provide romantic lighting, and the staff are attentive and friendly—though I couldn’t quite work up the courage to ask where the name came from.
For those in the mood for booty shaking, check out Club World or Lab Tribe. No late night out in Kyoto is complete without stopping by Hamid’s, where you can get kebabs and killer falafel until 3am. Hamid’s also has a great selection of Bollywood videos for your perusal.
If you go to Kyoto, take some time to do a bit of partying. When you wake up the next morning, take comfort in the fact that there aren’t many cities as serene to nurse a hangover.
Den-En B1 Vox Biru, Kawaramachi-Sanjo. Tel: 0120-071-688. Open Sun-Thu 5:30pm-midnight, weekends and hols 5:30pm-2am. www.vox.co.jp/denen
Moonwalk Bar (Kiyamachi-Sanjo branch) Tel: 075-255-7750. Open daily 7pm-5am. www.barmoonwalk.jp
Ace Café 10F Empire Bldg, Kiyamachi-Agaru, Nakagyo-ku. Tel: 075-241-0009. Open daily noon-5am. http://www.ace-cafe.com/
Bollocks Paradium Tel: 075-212-8633. Open daily 8pm-5am. Club World B1-B2F Imagium, 97 Shinmachi, Shijo-Agaru, Nishi- Kiyamachi, Shimogyo-ku (just north of Shijo Dori). Tel: 075-213-4119. Business hours vary. www.world-kyoto.com
Lab Tribe B1 Kosaten-Minami Nishikado, Nijo Kawaramachi. Tel: 075-254-1228. Business hours vary. www.labtribe.net
Hamid’s 2F Royal Biru, Nishi-Kiyamachi (south of Sanjo Dori). Tel: 075-211-5390. Open daily 7pm-3am.