Oasis of Tranquility in Bustling Tokyo

Who could have imagined a population density of a staggering 9.3 million people in an area slightly smaller than Victoria, B.C. How do they keep from bumping into each other in this intensely urban city? Personal space is precious in Tokyo and so they persevere with extreme courtesy and fanatic tidiness.

Traffic is relentless. From airport to hotel it’s one vast, crowded, downtown. At last, our taxi pulls up at the front doors of the Park Hyatt Hotel, and we slide out of the spotless, white, slip-covered seats, forewarned that the white-gloved driver would consider a tip a sign of disrespect. Continue reading “Oasis of Tranquility in Bustling Tokyo”

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler en Louisiana

Vaulted tombs, coloured beads, Sazeracs and trombones race through my mind as I wind through Louisiana toward The Big Easy. “We’re not as naughty as you might think,” a local once told me. “We’ve got almost as many churches as we have bars.” New Orleans is a Crayola box of sights, sounds and tastes bursting around every corner and at any moment. The highway, the river and the train tracks that fed the Delta blues and the Memphis soul began at the port of New Orleans. Here, African rhythms and European harmonies coalesced into an extraordinary cultural tapestry of instrumentation and gastronomy. Continue reading “Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler en Louisiana”

Four Great Places to Dine in Boston

Legal Seafoods

I drive straight to Legal Seafoods from the airport and in minutes, I am digging in to a platter of fried clams and a veritable oceanic feast of lobster, Maryland lump crab cakes, day boat Boston scrod, oysters and cherry stone clams from PEI and Cape Cod. “It’s the seafood that really captures the essence of what Boston cuisine is all about,” says Roger Berkowitz, president of this 50-year-old, family owned restaurant chain. “We buy directly from the boats and at auction. We’re involved on behalf of the fishermen to try to get more of the day boats into the water because they are less damaging to the environment.” Continue reading “Four Great Places to Dine in Boston”

Following the steps of Napoleon Bonaparte in Parma

The cuisine of Parma has become perfected over the centuries, as we dine at Angiol d’Or, an Art Deco restaurant tucked away in the shadow of the Duoma.

Maria Luisa, daughter of the King of Austria, married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 and became the Duchessa di Parma. Among other delightful qualities attributed to her, was her good nature and her joy in feasting and socializing, a tradition that still prevails in this pretty, dignified town. Parmagianni revere her memory, and so it was no surprise to find an homage to her on the menu at Angel d’Or. Continue reading “Following the steps of Napoleon Bonaparte in Parma”

Washington: America’s Company Town

“Washington has the worst of both worlds: Northern charm and Southern efficiency,” said JFK.

I have an appointment for an interview with a high-up FBI source. But, what does the FBI really think of us. Alas! They won’t let me in the building, since I am a foreign national (with my passport in the hotel safe.) Over lunch, my FBI source asks me what we really think of the Bureau. I respond, “We only know what we see in the movies.” “We’re really nice guys”, he tells me. The FBI is a branch of the Department of Justice, and works closely with the RCMP and the office of the US Legal Attache in Ottawa. “We respect the sovereignty of other countries and work with them,” he says. He writes his private phone number on a card with the traditional fountain pen and blue ink, echoing the style of his mentor, J.Edgar Hoover. J.Edgar insisted on a certain style and color of clothing, as well as fountain pens.

“We’re not an intelligence organization, he explains, “We’re counter-intelligence, working against foreign spies and crime within our country.” Well, now that I feel secure know the FBI is on our side, I can enjoy meandering around the city, indulging my curiosity. At some point, everyone of substance passes through this company town, and hotels cater to their every whim. The Willard Intercontinental Hotel is a microcosm of the nations history, and has been a major force in its social and political life for 150 years. In fact, the term lobbyist was coined by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant after the political shmoozers who congregated in this lobby. There are more than 35,000 lobbyists in Washington, with cellphones and blackberries as lifelines, and starting salaries of around $300,000.

At lunch in the Willard Room, where of necessity, the dining room director speaks six languages, it becomes clear that all the stereotypes are true and the “power-town uniform” really is a dark suit, white shirt and dark striped tie. “My first surprise,” says my friend, a Canadian Bureau Chief in Washington, “was the small, rather grubby, press briefing room in the West Wing. It had been the presidential swimming pool until Nixon closed it over.” A far cry from the glam television version.

Hotels are the social hubs in this city. Each hotel entices guests with a unique experience. Canadian owned Four Seasons offers a lavish, must-do afternoon tea and on a Sunday afternoon usually serves 500 guests. The Fairmont, designed as a unique urban oasis, welcomes us back every evening with live piano entertainment in its luxurious lobby. The Jefferson is filled with extraordinary antiques and is so steeped in history, we almost expect to see the icons of yore at breakfast. And there is the recently opened Trump Hotel, a must-see for foreign visitors. The country’s brightest twenty-somethings flock here to fill positions as interns, assistants and aides, and while Washington has never been a renowned “eating city”, they pack the restaurants. New York restaurateur Charlie Palmer has revitalized regional cuisine and created menus that are hardcore USA. His restaurant, Charlie Palmer Steak, is where you’ll find Hillary Clinton and other New Yorkers. It’s all politics. At the opening ceremony of the magnificent Arthur Erickson designed-Canadian Embassy in May, 1989 by PM Brian Mulroney, Senator Ted Kennedy stood next to me on the stone steps. He pointed out that the Canadian flag flapping in the breeze had holes in it. “It’s as American as apple pie,” I said, “there must be holes in a pie crust (and a flag) to allow the hot air to blow through and avoid a small explosion.” That’s Washington: in politics, diplomacy and apple pie, there must always be some holes for the hot air to blow through.

Ottawa: Capital Cool

Lazily drifting along a slow moving river with Owl Rafting as the sun sparkles off the ripples in our wake, we hear the distant rush of falls closer and closer until voom! We’ve got speed, and are paddling hard as we’re sucked down into the vortex of swelling rapids that flood and buckle our boat with exhilarating metre-high waves.

With only moments to catch our breath we, again, pick up velocity and are drenched within the natural spin cycle of the Ottawa River run. And this was the start of a family trip to our nation’s capital.
Continue reading “Ottawa: Capital Cool”

My Fifteen Minutes as a Geisha in Kyoto

Every year, 50 million Tourists visit Kyoto, and the Flower Towns are a favourite since they are home to the remaining Geishas and Maikos, (geishas in training.) I peer through the wooden slat screen into the foyer of a Geisha house. The names of the Geishas who live there are written on a wooden plaque at the door. Should I enter? No, I feel that to go any further would be a rude invasion of privacy. Tonight, there is much activity in the Gion corner where they are preparing for any evening of traditional musical theatre, including comic and puppet plays, and the Kyoto-style dance performed by the Maikos. Like ballerinas in the Western world their movements are just as graceful, almost liquid.

On the narrow streets and Tea House lined alleys of Gion, Geishas are heading to their rendezvous’ in taxis and on foot. Graceful and swift they do not appear to walk, but simply glide very quickly on their wooden clogs (okobo), their silk kimonos gleaming in the lamplight. In front of one restaurant decorated with traditional red lanterns, seven tuxedo-ed security men stand guard. Tonight, a Japanese corporation is entertaining international clients and executives with a dinner and a traditional geisha performance. And just as it is in the movies, the cost of such an evening is astronomical and far beyond the reach of the hoi polloi. To dine with a Geisha and have her entertain you with music and dance will be $900 to $1000 U.S. per hour. And that does not include your dinner. These elegant women are not “escorts” as some Westerners might think.

This ancient city has its own dialect and cuisine. What do the Geisha eat? By day when they are not eating a simple lunch of Yudofu (simmered tofu) at home, you might see the Geishas lunching at any one of the many restaurants that serve local Kyoto cuisine.

In the interests of research, I wanted to have my 15 minutes as a Geisha, so I traveled to Eigamura Studios in Ukyo-Ku outside of Kyoto, to get into costume. A portion of this studio is open to the public. The makeup department took about an hour to apply the white make up to my face, pink eye makeup and black eyeliner, and a three prong fork shaped area at the back of my neck. An ornate black wig covered my head, but, they let me know that my blue eyes simply looked “wrong.” I stood with my arms outstretched as two women from the wardrobe department dressed me in the layers of silks, and showed me how to hide my hands in the folds of the sleeves in a certain way. Next came the white tabi socks and wooden clogs, like big wooden flip flops.

Then, totally unrecognizable I said, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.” Staring at my reflection a full length mirror was surreal. I had disappeared. It was as if my personality had been erased. Now I understood how a young Japanese woman feels when she finishes her training, and goes through the makeup and clothing ritual. She becomes another person. A Geisha. Could I have passed as a Geisha if I walked swiftly along the dimly lit streets of Gion? I’ll never know. They wouldn’t let me off the studio lot wearing a $17,000 silk kimono.

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Southern Comfort In Louisiana

Paddling up the Mississippi, Canadian brothers Bienville and Iberville spotted a Cypress pole drenched in animal blood. While this would have been enough to turn my boat around fast, it was here—where this Baton Rouge was discovered—that the capital of Louisiana was established. Continue reading “Southern Comfort In Louisiana”

Cajun vs. Creole

Cajuns descended from Acadians. Known as The Grand Derangement, they were deported by the British from Eastern Canada and permitted by the French to rural Louisiana. Many traditional dishes were lost due to the shift to a new climate, but their cuisine was essentially comprised of available local ingredients simply prepared. Continue reading “Cajun vs. Creole”