A beginner’s guide to Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of South-East Asia’s most popular city break destinations. Home to soaring skyscrapers, some of the most celebrated food on the planet, fluorescent nightlife, and theme parks – there’s plenty to keep even the most cosmopolitan of travellers happy. Not only that, but there is also a beautiful landscape surrounding the city. Plus, it’s well connected to other destinations in the southern hemisphere, making it an incredible opportunity for a multi-stop adventure. Here’s how to make the most of your city break in Hong Kong.

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A foodie’s guide to Japan

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Japanese food is renowned the world over for its subtle taste, exotic textures, and meticulous presentation. Part of the fun of visiting Japan is indulging in this delicious culinary concoction. In fact, it might be the ultimate destination for a foodie traveller. But while dishes such as sushi and tempura have made an international impact, there are hundreds of other local Japanese recipes ready for visitors to sink their teeth into.

Breakfast

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Breakfast is an entirely different situation in Japan. The most common Japanese breakfast is a combination of miso soup, grilled fish, pickles, and rice. Saying that Western-style buffets are also available in most tourist hotels.

Sushi and Seafood

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It’s a myth that sushi and seafood are synonymous. What makes sushi, well, sushi is the way the rice is prepared with vinegar. It can then be served with meat, fish or vegetables.

The most common varieties of sushi are described below:

  • Maki – the seaweed is on the outside of the rice and other ingredients
  • Temaki – seaweed is wrapped loosely around all other ingredients in a cone shape
  • Uramaki – sometimes called ‘inside-out’ sushi, you’ll find the rice on the outside of the seaweed (and other ingredients in the middle)
  • Sashimi – slices of raw fish and seafood on their own
  • Nigiri – hand pressed rice topped with an ingredient, this is the oldest type of sushi and was created in Tokyo

Rice Dishes

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Rice is considered an essential part of Japanese cooking, and many main meals come with a side-serving of rice. Rice-based snacks are also very popular. Such as Onigiri, which is a palm-sized triangle of rice filled with soy, tuna, salmon roe, or sour umeboshi (pickled plum), all wrapped up in a sheet of crisp seaweed (also called nori).

Noodle Dishes

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Noodle dishes are also very popular in Japan, and three main types of noodles you’ll come across are: soba, udon and ramen. Soba are thin noodles made of brown buckwheat flour and can be served hot or cold. Typically hot soba noodles are served with tofu, vegetables and chicken – combined with a hot broth. Cold soba noodles are laid on a bamboo screen bed, with a cold sauce for dipping.

Udon noodles are much chunkier and made with plain wheat flour. Yakisoba and yakiudon are the most common dishes udon noodles are found in, where the noodles are fried (often in a thick soy sauce) along with seaweed flakes, meat and vegetables.

Ramen noodles, made from yellow wheat-flour, are usually served in big bowls in a steaming oily soup and typically comes in three varieties: miso (flavoured with fermented bean paste), shio (a salty soup) or shōyu (a broth made with soy sauce).

Vegetarian and vegan

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While Japan might have been the country that brought the world tofu, plant-based diets are not that common in Japan. While it is easy to avoid dishes with meat or fish in them, it’s hard to find something where the broth doesn’t contain a by-product.  

Like most international cities, however, Tokyo has a splattering of vegetarian restaurants and more restaurants are creating 100% vegetarian dishes. You just need to plan ahead. Kyoto, however, is the most vegetarian-friendly place in Japan. It’s an ancient city that has deep Buddhist routes – where Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan, is still served today.

Desserts

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Japan has a sweet tooth and dessert is a big part of its culture. However, Japan was making desserts before sugar was readily available in the country and, as a result, fashioned unique desserts that were based on rice and sweet beans.

One of the most popular desserts in Japan is mochi – which can be a dessert in its own right or mixed with something else. Daifuku is mochi with a sweet filling, ranging from black sesame to strawberry. Mochi can also be turned into an ice-cream. Another popular option is Dango: chewy Japanese rice dumplings served on a stick that can be toasted over a campfire. Small crepe shops are also a common sight in Japan, with their crepes usually served as a cone containing elaborate fillings.

Drinks

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Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage is undoubtedly sake (also known as nihonshu). If you’re not familiar with it, officially it is a rice wine but tastes more like beer. Two varieties exist – sweet (amakuchi) and dry (karakuchi) – and while there’s technically three grades of sake, these grades are mainly used for tax purposes and don’t indicate the quality of the beverage.

Sake is traditionally served in small square bowls and drank with a meal. You might be asked if you want your sake heated up but most sakes taste best cool. As a final note, sake is 15% alcohol and one small box is more than enough to get someone tipsy.

You’ll also spot the beverage shōchū, which is a cheaper version of sake. It’s potent, ranging between 25 to 50 per cent alcohol. Premium brands can be served straight like traditional sake, while budget-friendly bottles are served with cocktails.

While sake might be Japan’s official drink – beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage. Ironically the first ever brewery was set up to please American expats, and Japanese locals had to be bribed into drinking it. These days, Japan boasts four big-name breweries: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory – each of which churns out several varieties of lager and ale-type beers. Local craft beers are also becoming more popular.

If you’re not drinking alcohol, tea is very common. Green teas in Japan are graded. Bancha, the lowest grade, is for everyday drinking. While Sencha is medium-grade and served in upmarket restaurants. While gyokuro, the highest grade, is served during special occasions.

Ordering and etiquette

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Restaurant and dining etiquette is different in Japan. When you are initially seated, you’ll be handed an oshibori (a damp, folded hand towel, usually steaming hot though sometimes cool in the summer) and a jug of water will usually be automatically brought to the table.

Most Japanese restaurants will give you chopsticks by default, but in touri
st places, forks and knives are usually available (though you might have to ask for them). Chopsticks, however, come with their own rules of etiquette. You should use different ends for your own plate and taking food from communal dishes, and shouldn’t use them to point at things. Also remember to not stick your chopsticks upright in rice, as this is an illusion to death.

As for tipping, it is not usually expected and service charges are automatically added to bills.

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Have you been to Japan? Tell us about the best meal you ate and anything you think first-time visitors should know.

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A beginner’s guide to India

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India is undoubtedly a bucket list country for many people – but its vast size can be intimidating for first-time visitors.

If you don’t know where to start, we’ve compiled the below guide to help you out. Whether your perfect trip to India involves the bustling New Delhi, the beaches of Goa or the beautiful architecture of the Taj Mahal, all your questions should be answered below. Remember, that we offer escorted tours to India with our travel partner Intrepid. Leave us a question if we haven’t covered it.

Popular places to visit

India is usually best explored as part of a tour – with so many amazing places it would be a shame to stick to just one place. Here are five must-visits.  

Taj Mahal

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You can’t visit India and not stop by its most recognisable building. Found on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra, its complex includes a mosque, guest house and formal gardens.

New Delhi

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Home to the world’s biggest Hindu temple, the country’s largest mosque, and South Asia’s largest shopping mall, New Delhi has grown beyond its own boundaries. But it is also a city with a lot of history, having been the capital for at least seven civilizations – each leaving behind its own monuments. And despite its intimidating size, you’ll find plenty of green space too!

Jaipur

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If it’s history that you are looking for then Jaipur definitely needs to be on your list. It was built in the eighteenth century by Sawai Jai Singh as India’s first planned city and is home to some of India’s best historical sites, including the City Palace, Govind Dev ji Temple, Vidhan Sabha and Birla Temple.

Goa

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Goa is the India destination for anyone looking for a beach! Choose between the contrasting North and South Goa; as a rule, North Goa is for parties on the beach while south Goa is for relaxing on the beach. We’ve previously blogged about the two here so you can pick the best one for you.

You can even fly direct to Goa from the UK for a week long beach holiday, but it also make for a nice beach break after the buzz of New Delhi or Mumbai.

Kerala

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India can be a lively place and if you’re looking to unwind after the buzz of New Delhi, Kerala is a great option. Stretching along the south-west coast for 600km, its beaches are white and backed by palm trees, while inland you’ll find fragrant hills where tea and spice grow, as well as tranquil backwaters that have earned the region the nickname “Venice of the East”.

Getting there and getting around

India’s top five international airports are Delhi Airport, Mumbai Airport, Chennai Airport, Bangalore Airport and Hyderabad Airport. New Delhi remains the busiest airport in India and offers a direct flight to London Heathrow.

As we’ve mentioned already, India is a country to tour. One of the most iconic ways to do so is on board the Deccan Odyssey, which offers six inspirational itineraries. All the routes start from Mumbai, and can take you to the beaches of Goa or to the exotic Ellora Caves.

Escorted tours are also readily available in India, and you can book many of them through Barrhead Travel (you can see some on our website here, but we have more available if you speak to a Travel Consultant in one of our branches).

Other important information

  • India’s currency is the Indian Rupee (INR) and is a closed currency so you’ll need to withdraw cash when you arrive.
  • India is still a cash country so always carry money on you.
  • Remember to haggle!
  • UK visitors need a visa to enter India.
  • You’ll need either a Type C (two-prong plug) or Type D (three-prong plug).
  • Hindi is the official language of India, but English is widely spoken in the major tourist hubs.
  • It is recommended that you discuss vaccinations with your doctor

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