Top Pick: Hakone Open Air Museum – art and natural beauty in harmony

The town of Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 60 miles from Tokyo and one of the most popular destinations for Japanese and international tourists. Famous for its natural beauty, many hotsprings (onsen), traditional inns ( ryokan), and the view of Mount Fuji across Lake Ashinoko (didn’t get to see that), Hakone is also renowned for its open air museum.

The Hakone Open Air Museum (Hakone Chōkoku No Mori Bijutsukan), has to be one of the most spectacular outdoor museums in the world. Surrounded by mountains and overlooking a valley, ~100 diverse sculptures (modern and contemporary, including works of Rodin, Milo and Moore) from around the world grace the expansive (~17 acres), rolling gardens. There’s also several indoor exhibits as well, including One of the world’s best collections of Picasso’s work, the 2 story Picasso Exhibition Hall displays a total of 300 pieces, including paintings, sculptures and ceramics. The exhibit also features photos chronicling of the artist’s life is one of world’s best collections.

 

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In addition there are shops, café’s, multiple kids spaces with art installations that they can climb on and a mini garden maze. And because the Japanese think of everything, there’s even an 65 foot heated foot bath to refresh your weary feet while enjoying the view.

You can easily spend hours here taking in all the beauty and the art.

Take the Hakone Tozan train there – it’s an incredible experience in itself

The Hakone Open Air Museum is just a few steps from Chokoku No Mori Station on the Hakone Tozan (30 minutes, $3.55 from Hakone-Yumoto). It’s the last station before the terminal station of Gora. Taking the train is an experience in itself as it chugs slowly up and back switchbacks up the steepest slope of all railways in Japan through green forests above the splendidly scenic Haya-kawa River Valley.

 

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From the train station, you’ll walk by Woody’s Café Bar first. I stopped in on my way to the museum. The hot artisan coffee was a cool wet morning so it was a perfect prelude to walking around outside. It’s quite a unique spot with a Toy Story theme, hence the name. It serves coffee, lunch, dinner and is a bar at night.

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Tokyo Photo Post and Top Picks Prince Hotel & Hamashiba Sushi, Minato

Had the good fortune to travel to Japan on business and to stay in the luxurious Prince Hotel, Minato, Tokyo. My bathroom and room had tremendous view of Tokyo tower (aka Eiffel Tower knock off). I have never been in such a large or luxurious bathroom – huge walk in shower, deep jacuzzi bathtub and enough room left over for a small dance party. Seriously, the bathroom seemed more spacious and outfitted than the room itself. In case you haven’t heard, the Japanese have a thing for outfitted toilets (heated seats, warm water spritz wash (biddett & hot air dry, etc…) and deep soaking tubs. We Westerners could certainly learn a thing or two from Japan and improve our WC experience…

 

While I was in town for business meetings, I still managed to sneak in a couple strolls and a quick run around the area to take in a few of the nearby scenic highlights.

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As my Japanese grand finale, I indulged in a sushi dinner at Hamashiba restaurant in the hotel. Forget everything you’ve heard about hotel restaurants – this one is superb. The sushi is outstanding, by far the best I’ve had and no doubt, will ever have. The maguro / tuna was absolutely exquisite and it was a treat and once in a lifetime experience to watch the master sushi chefs at work. Was it expensive? Duh. Was it worth it? Absolutely! (The company didn’t pick up this one.)

 

 

 

Sayonara!

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Garden and City views from my room at The Prince

 

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Oh, and it looks like the sole homeless person in all of Japan was sleeping under my window at The Prince.

Stay tuned for adventures in Kyoto and Hakone…Arigato.

My “Best of Thailand” Recap

What an amazing whirlwind month it was! So many incredible sights, sounds, tastes and experiences, definitely one of my top trips. Highly recommend Thailand as a destination. If you’re thinking about it, do it! My blog covers all the places I went and most of my activities – just use the search tool to get the scoop on the areas that interest you or do a browse and select Thailand for an overview of all the posts. There’s plenty more to see and explore there, but this was all I could pack into my trip. Let me know what spot is your favorite so I can check it out next time. If you have any questions, just send me a note.

Where I went

Bangkok

Chiang Mai

Mae Wang

Chiang Dao

Thaton

Chang Rai

Sukhothai

Ayutthaya

Koh Samui

Koh Phangan

Railay, Krabi

Phuket

What I did

These are my top picks from my month-long adventures

Best active tours: ActiveThailand

Best beach with restaurants, live music & mellow nightlife: Chaloklum Bay, Koh Samui

Best beach resort:  White House, Koh Samui

Best experience: Trekking and mountain biking remote areas of northern Thailand and homestaying with the Karen Hill Tribe

Best food: Chiang Dao Restaurant near the cave  – Chicken Tumeric, Chiang Mai & Bangkok Street Food – pork on a stick

Best health & Fitness Resort: Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort See post.

Best nature preserve island: Naugyuan

Best ruins: Sukkhothai

Best scenery: Railay, Krabi

Best town: Thaton

Best view from the room: Cocohut Beach Resort & Spa, Koh Phangan

Best wildlife: Railay, Krabi

 

Here are some scenes from my last night in Thailand, near the Bangkok airport:

Tip: The Paragon Inn is a basic, but decent airport hotel. It’s minutes from the airport and walking distance from the mall and street market. Super convenient for getting those last minute gifts and for catching those early AM flights.

 

Can’t emphasize enough how easy and inexpensive it is to tour around Thailand and have an exceptional time.  I’ll share more about what makes it so easy in an upcoming blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koh Samui: Highlights, Tips & Top Pick White House Resort & Spa

First impression of Koh Samui, not so good. Fortunately, as you’ll see, it got better after a little trial and error.

Drove several miles through areas that make Honolulu seem rural…It was so congested with buildings, bars and cheap tourist shops that you couldn’t see through to the beaches. Young tourists and aging Caucasian derelicts from all over the world were running amok, boozing it up and smoking in the heat of the day. Yup, major turn off.

A dozen or so miles beyond the airport, things improved, beaches became visible and I let out a sigh of relief. (Perhaps too soon.)  I happily paid ahead and checked into what appeared to be a lovely resort on the beach. While the hotel was well appointed, as picturesque as the beach was, I found out too late that the beach was not “functional”. Too short and rocky for walking or running and too coral filled and prone to low tides for swimming. I wanted out, but there was no refund coming so I made the best of my stay there. I took one of their free kayaks for a tour around to Lamai Beach, a more desirable area.

TIP: Learn from my mistake. Never pay ahead until you have thoroughly checked the place out.

TIP: Given the tides and the coral situation it can be difficult to find a swim-able beach in the islands. If that’s important to you, do your research.

Ok, don’t mean to whine,  it wasn’t terrible, just disappointing. I did enjoy their great view and a lovely breakfast.

 

Rented a scooter to scout the island for a better spot for the next two nights.

Discovered the Na Muang waterfall along with the rest of the crowd whom I somehow managed to edit out of the picture.

Na Muang Waterfall DescriptionNa Muang Waterfall

TIP: Go early and on a weekday to avoid the crowds.

Apologies on the video quality – I’ll get better…

 

Found a great spot, the White House Beach Resort and Spa. It was one of my favorites during my 30 day journey around Thailand. Staff was gracious; room was spacious. Tropical setting with an old world vibe, the resort is a peaceful paradise in a great location. At night, you can enjoy mellow live music down the beach and you have your pick of romantic beach-side dining. There’s a nice village feel with a handful of restaurants and excellent, inexpensive massage ($9 an hour)  right across the street. And it’s a great spot for your activity hub, as there are many tours and excursions you can join. (See my Tale of Two Snorkels post.)

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TIP: Book excursions direct from the tour places along the street – the hotel adds a significant surcharge.

Friendly felines and pooches make you feel at home. Gym is limited, small and not air conditioned. The most hilarious thing to me is that they have a sauna that costs $12 an hour. Who the heck takes sauna’s in this kind of tropical heat? All you have to do is go into the gym and sweat it out for free-lol!  Pool is on the small side, but I spent all my time in the the dazzling turquoise waters. Breakfast buffet is quite good too and the view can’t be beat. The beach is lovely and the resort is enchanting! I’d come back any day. Today would be good. : )

 

 

Next stop, take a walk on the wilder side with me to Koh Phanang, home to the infamous full moon party and the Cocohut Beach Resort.

 

 

 

Living the Pura Vida: Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort Phuket, Thailand

(Disclaimer: I know I’m mixing Costa Rican and Thai cultures with my title, but it really does capture the gist of this post as I hope you’ll see.)

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been on the move, touring around Thailand (Bangkok, Mae Wang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao, Thaton, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Aruythaya, Koh Samui, Nangyaun Island, Koh Pranang, and Railay, Krabi). I’ve journeyed by plane, bus, minivan, taxi, ferry, long tail boat, mountain bike and foot – sometimes nearly all modes in 1 day. I’ve roughed it trekking and biking in the mountains, and also luxuriated at some 5 star resorts along the way. Eating my way through Thailand as I have been, I’ve enjoyed: Karen Hill Tribe home cooked meals, the famous Chiang Mai night market street food, a bounty of breakfast buffets, and a sampling of resort food. After all my adventures and explorations, I decided to spend my final week here in one spot the active paradise of Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort in Phuket. While I won’t be on the move, I will be maximizing my body’s movement every day. As an endurance athlete and a personal trainer, I thrive on active vacations. While I’ve been relatively active over the past 21 days (3 day trek, 3 day mountain bike trip, ocean swims, snorkels, walkabouts and hotel gym workouts), I’ve missed my  focused training. 

 One of my greatest pleasures in life is relishing vigorous activity and the rewards that follow both psychological and physical. Balancing all the activity with some quality pampering is essential as well. Pampering may be as simple as a big nap, a hot shower, an ice bath, a massage, a great meal or any combination of them. It’s about revitalizing, nourishing and recuperating. Here at Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort, they have it all covered and then some.

Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort is the place triathletes, national swim teams (German, French, Hungarian, British and Royal Dutch to name a few), tennis players and athletes of all types train.

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Team workout in the 50M pool. I had it to myself in the mornings.

Thanyapura Health &  Sports Resort

• 50m Olympic pool, 25m training pool & hotel pool  • 6 Tennis Courts (4 covered)

• Beach Volleyball Court • Beach Soccer Court  • 500m Track • Muay Thai Ring

•Two 900sqm Gyms (cardio & weights)  • Cannondale Road Bike Rentals

 

 

It’s where active people from all around the world come to optimize their potential and have fun while doing so. But you don’t have to be a rock star or elite athlete to be here, though you might run into one. There’s something for everyone as active or relaxed as you want to be. There’s tennis, swimming, cycling, running, group fitness, Muay Thai, yoga, meditation, cooking classes, a full service spa, and so much more. There’s a Center for Wellness and Mindfulness, onsite medical services, chiropractor and talks by experts. Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort is the place for anyone who wants to reset their bodies and minds with a detox, get inspired with 1:1 coaching on living a healthy lifestyle, train like a demon, transform their life, or just chill out, disconnect and enjoy the resort’s many amenities.  

Day 1

After a 6 hour travel day, I arrived at 2:30 PM to a friendly reception and a refreshing glass of some deep periwinkle blue elixir.  Once in my luxurious room, I quickly showered and changed for my first group fitness class.

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My lovely room. My sanctuary.

I wanted to make the most of my first afternoon so I took a 3 PM Pilates class, a 4 PM high intensity training class and a 5PM boot camp class. I might have overreached on the back-to-back classes, but I didn’t want to miss out. Eh, no more pushups, please.

Day 2

I jumped in the van with the triathlon training group for an early morning open water swim at lovely Laguna Beach. After a half dozen or so laps around the buoys with some drills mixed in, we returned appetites fueled in time to enjoy the sumptuous breakfast buffet. Lavish and predominantly healthy choices ranging from breakfast foods to abundant colorful salads and savory traditional meat dishes are available 6:30AM until mid morning.

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I made breakfast my primary meal while I was there. Not a bad habit to carry over. While the buffet did include waffles and a couple other sweet indulgences, I wasn’t really tempted. With so many wonderful tasting, healthy options, it was easy to steer clear. Plus the fruit is so sweet. (Ok, I admit I did have the mango and sticky coconut rice desert one night and it was as good as it looks.) Thai mangoes are AMAZING!

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Fresh mango and coconut sticky rice – so dreamy!

And I will also confess that one night I decided to indulge and selected an alluring chocolate cake that was topped with glistening pomegranate seeds from the display at the Booster Cafe. Well, the joke was on me. I took one big bite and discovered that it was zucchini cake cleverly disguised as chocolate cake. It wasn’t bad, but I did have to get the real thing the next day. Surprisingly, after a month in Thailand without eating much chocolate, this chocolate fiend didn’t even finish the piece of actual chocolate cake. Lost my taste for it? Let’s hope so.

Between 11 AM and 2 PM is relaxation time, private coaching or gym time. I used this time to catch up on my blog posts and recuperate from my morning workout(s).  In the afternoon, I attended Hip Opening Yoga, contorting my body and stretching my limits for greater fitness and flexibility. After that, I put gloves and shin guards on and mixed it up with the Muay Thai Boxing coachfirst time, fun time. Next, I enjoyed a peaceful, tropical sunset swim in the 50 meter pool. I dined at Booster Deli & Bar, relishing a beautifully composed grilled tuna salad.

 If I could eat this well every day, it would be an incredible boost to my quality of life and health.

Day 3

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Great carbon Cannondale rental. Unfortunately, I forgot my bike shoes.

Today, I rented a fine Cannondale carbon road bike and joined the triathlon training group for a mellow 50k ride through the gorgeous green countryside.

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You wouldn’t expect it, at least I didn’t, but the road conditions here are excellentsmooth and mostly empty back roads―lovely, but a bit steamy. (I chose the hottest month of the year to visit Thailand.) I’m accustomed to San Diego weather so it’s a bit of an adjustment, but I do feel I’m making some gains training here.

After a couple hours of downtime, I attended Guided Meditation and Yin Yoga in the afternoon. Pierre Gagnon, the Meditation and Mind Training Coach, has a way of explaining and teaching meditation that makes it accessible and practical for athletes. I gained insights about the mind-body connection and enjoyed applying his down-to-earth approach to meditation. (See my personal training blog for those insights and why I believe meditation is a must for all of us, especially athletes.)

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Mind Training & Meditation Coach Pierre

 I found out the hard way that Yin Yoga is the practice of holding the pose / stretch for long periods of time. This involves the collision of discomfort and stillness. (As athletes, we’re used to moving through pain, sometimes to our detriment.) This is something new – to endure discomfort in stillness and to use your breath and mind to dissipate and overcome it. I’ve got a long way to go on this one…

Enjoyed some Thanyapura style Pad Thai tonight.

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Day 4

Marking the midway of my active stay, I dialed it down today with a pool swim in the morning and a Guided Meditation class in the afternoon. Felt so mellow after meditation that I dined early and closed the day with a sunset stroll up the road to Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. A lovely citrus salad (mango, orange, avocado, walnuts, and sprinkling of pomegranate seeds) was the day’s flavor finale.

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Day 5

Started my morning with a swim, followed by a step toning class and a stretch class. In the afternoon, I attended Guided Meditation. I’m balancing my physical and mental fitness. Stopped in the gym very briefly before retiring for the evening.

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Day 6

Greeted another day with a short morning swim, followed by an easy scenic 40k bike with the Senior Cycling Coach Daniel Amby, a semi-pro who just returned from some crazy 5 stage bike race with 23% grade hills in triple digit heat! Even under those extreme conditions, he made it to the podium 3x out of 5! I’m clearly in the presence of immortals here. My afternoon was filled with meditation, yoga and a swim technique class. Enjoyed being lulled by the downpour during two thunder stormsthe green/ rainy season has officially arrived. Dined at Divine restaurant with my new friend Jade, a young triathlete I cycled with on Monday. Devoured many delectable items on the dinner buffet. Very hungry today!

 

Day 7

The day began on the bike with Coach Daniel and a dozen fellow cyclists / triathletes ranging in age from 10 to 50 plus. Interval training included four 5k intervals (80% effort, 100% effort, big gear push, mid gear accelerate 30 secs on / off). Humbled to say, I got my butt kicked by a ten year old. I have all sorts of excuses – rental bike, running shoes, not used to heat/humidity, she only did 2 intervals, let’s see else can I come up with? She kicks butt, mine included –no doubt one of Thanyapura’s many rising stars. 

This afternoon, more yoga. (I’m afraid sweet, angelic voiced  Yoga Coach Pascha  was up to her usual tricks and twists in the yoga studio.) Practicing with Pascha has helped me become more aware of my muscle imbalances, posture and breathing. It becomes very apparent how short, tight muscles sabotage performance and make you more susceptible to injury …

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Pascha, my yoga guru

 

I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of the soft, long exhale from both Coach Pascha and Coach Pierre 

Swim technique class with Triathlon Head Coach Ricky was also illuminating for me. Among other drills, we practiced 1 arm stroke, side kicking, catch-up and fist swimming–somehow the combination of them had me swimming freestyle with more awareness of gliding on my side.

Day 8
Winding down for tomorrow’s departure. A morning swim, followed by an energizing breakfast (raw carrot pasta, rocket salad and beet salad), fresh fruit and guava juice. (And yes, I had more than 1 helping.)

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As with my first afternoon, I packed everything I could into my last morning. Guided meditation with Coach Pierre, step toning with a dashing Thai gentleman who would kick butt on dancing with the stars, a final yoga session with Pascha and a quick farewell lunch with my new friend Jade. When I said my goodbyes to Pascha and Pierre, I felt like I was graduating from school, leaving my wise instructors behind and setting off into the world.

Immersing myself in meditation, yoga and healthy eating at Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort was transformative for me. Despite being a personal trainer, I’m someone who has spent a lifetime relentlessly pursuing endurance sports and intense workouts without the balance of restorative yoga, stretching or optimal nutrition. Standing in the line at the Phuket airport, I had an epiphany. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a negative or judgmental thought—apparently another benefit of mind body balance and heightened awareness achieved through meditation and yoga and spending time in Thailand at Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort. When I return home, I will carry forward my practices, share the insights I gained and spread the word of Thanyapura. Thank you and Nameste.

 

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Oh, I’m already missing this magical place. Photo credit Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort.

 

3 Day Mt. Bike Adventure. Part 3: Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.

Had an incredible day of delightful single track through the forest and miles of dirt roads through remote countryside. It was topped off with the Chiang Dao Cave  and ruins exploration and by my best meal yet here in Thailand at a local open air restaurant near the cave. The tumeric chicken dish on the right was an outstanding flavor feast!

 

After our afternoon ride, we closed the day in comfort and beautiful surroundings at the rustic mt. biker’s haven, Padeng Lodge.

 

Back on the bikes at 8 am the next morning with more wonderful single track and back roads to explore. I had to make a pit stop along the way and that’s when we discovered this delightful coffee shop/ vineyard/farm – something you might expect to see in New Zealand.

Midday, we stopped for lunch in bustling Fang at a Muslim noodle shop.

 

While I have a thing for the name Fang, I wasn’t crazy about it. Of course, this dose of civilization was a bit of a shock to my system after all the remote countryside we’d traversed by bike and following my Karen Hill Tribe trek earlier in the week. Thankfully,  it was only a matter of minutes before we were on back roads again, passing scenic mango, garlic, eggplant and rice plantations along the way.

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After roasting on the bike for the better part of the day, I was quite happy to roll into Thaton, a small riverside village with lots of charm where’d I’d staying the night on a hotel with AC. To be continued…

Worth it: Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, MT

Just a block from the West entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is worth a stop. And you might find you’ll want to stay a while and even come back the next day. And that’s okay because the  admission fee (just $13 for adults, $8 for kids 5 years and up) is good for 2 consecutive days.

The not-for-profit wildlife center takes in orphaned grizzly bear cubs and adults from as far away as Alaska and as close by as Yellowstone Park. Most adult grizzlies are those that have become habituated to human food due to campers and hikers not following proper food storage requirements. At the outdoor exhibit, you can watch the beautiful, massive beasts foraging under rocks and logs for the fruit treats that the caretaker hides for them.  In order to rescue more bears and provide habitat variety for the existing bears, the center will be creating a new exhibit called bear meadows that will feature mini river rapids and a trout-stocked pond. Note, because they are fed all year round, the bears don’t hibernate so you can see them all year round.  And any day you want because the center is open every day.

The outdoor wolf exhibit and information about the trophic cascade was well done too.

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There’s also an extensive, interactive bear exhibit inside and plenty of programs for kids and adults, including:

  • Bear-Resistant Product Testing (I would have liked to see that one.)
  • Keeper Kids (Kids get to help the caretakers hide food for the bears.)
  • Yellowstone Park Ranger Talks
  • Live Bird of Prey Presentations (A must! The naturalist delivers an engaging, incredibly informative, hands-on presentation.)

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In the works is a River Otter Riparian Habitat that will highlight the interrelations of the critters who make up that ecosystem.

Young or old, you won’t leave the center without learning something new about the wild animals and birds of the region and the impact humans have on them and their habitat.