Last night in Tokyo

Before coming to Japan, I was really excited to see this one of a kind place where tradition and technology seemingly go hand in hand. I was expecting to feel overwhelmed at the size and advancement of this metropolis, finding something new and surprising at every turn. Soon upon arrival however, we almost felt slightly cheated. It was not as different as I had expected, its technology and speed of life resembling most major cities I’ve visited or lived in. Sure, it was interesting, and like most megalopolis it came with its own flavour and unique quirks, but despite liking it here, my husband and I soon found ourselves looking forward to exchanging Tokyo for Kyoto.

We still had one last evening in Japan’s capital before catching the Shinkansen to the former central city of this island nation and we decided to do something fun. Instead of running towards the noise and bustle of the big city, as we tried to escape what we had everyday in London, we decided to look for something more low-key yet interesting. Determined that we should try to experience something typically Japanese, which we would be unlikely to see back home, I decided to visit the Konica Minolta Planetarium.

As we walked out of the Ikebukuro station, the sun was finishing its daily journey. The tall sky scrappers of  the Sunshine City began to have their smooth surfaces turn warm shades of pink and lilac, giving the area a serene feel. For one of Tokyo’s main shopping and entertainment areas,  the Sunshine City seemed surprisingly calm.

We had to pass through the shopping centre to get to the top floor of the high-rise building to get to the planetarium. The mall wasn’t busy and we decided to walk around the shops and grab some gyoza  before the screening was about to start.

The planetarium turned out to be completely different from what I had expected. Rather than scientific facts about the planets, it was showing movies with only lose ties to the sky and space.  We had been given two choices- a violent Japanese sci-fi or something known as the Healing Planetarium that promised a relaxing journey through the starry sky. Obviously, we chose the latter.

As we entered the round room with a high-dome ceiling, we were given blankets and headphones, so that we can hear the movie narration in English. The seats were comfortable and we reclined them to an almost horizontal position, following in the footsteps of the Japanese visitors around us.  Upon the start of the movie, or a computerised cartoon to be more precise, we were taken on a tour to Japan’s forest where we were being shown different constellations that can be spotted on the night sky. To support the relaxation the air was filled with gentle herbal scents that were sprayed throughout the screening.

As we listened to the soft voice of the narrator and watched the slowly changing digital landscape of the night sky, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of it all. Instead of experiencing the actual nature, there we were- trapped amongst concrete, dreaming of nature we abandoned for the false promises of the city, paying money to see a poorly made digital copy of the starry night we could see for free if only we headed out of the city centre.

When the movie finished, I felt relaxed and ready to go to bed, the experience having been a pleasant one, yet somewhere deep down I knew something in my soul had been stirred by this evening. I needed nature. I needed the perspective it could offer, the connection it could provide, with the real world, with me. We keep on rushing through our lives, constantly focused on saving time and increasing efficiency. And as we run through our concrete jungles, we forget the freedom we traded for comfort. We become disconnected from the world around us, slowly loosing the remnants of intuition that was once strong. Forgetting that we are part of this symbiotic universe, we start to put our needs ahead of the planet’s, and in the process of destroying our home, we destroy ourselves, becoming lonelier than ever before.

It is no surprise that between loneliness, high social pressure and history of honourable death, Japan still remains a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world –  a grim fact of which we were reminded at the underground stations that have the jump-preventing barriers. In 2014, on average 70 people committed suicide every day, most of whom were men. Although suicide still continues to be one of the leading causes of death in young working men and remains to be almost three times higher than in US or UK , the numbers have began to  decrease over the last few years. Part of the reason for the lowered death rates might be the arrival of the gatekeepers.

Inochi no monban, or a  “gatekeeper for life”, can be anyone who had been trained to address suicidal tendencies in public places. Japanese citizens from all walks of life can attend the government-funded gatekeeper program where they learn how to spot troubled souls and how to encourage them to seek professional help.

Seeing government investing in addressing the issue of suicide is  truly commendable, but it leaves me wondering – as with any problem, should we not be addressing the causes rather than symptoms?  In my years of psychology work it became painfully obvious to me that we are great at driving ourselves to destruction. We literally work ourselves to death, suffering from depression and anxiety due to stress and lack of social support. Perhaps we shouldn’t wait until we get approached by a gatekeeper, but actively seek to create a life humans were meant to lead –  one filled with real connections and real experiences in the real world.

I was looking forward to the next day when we were to part our ways with Tokyo and spend time in Kyoto instead. I believed the names of these two cities were each others’ opposites for a reason, and as I was soon to find out – I was not mistaken.

Japanese fortune telling

The unbearable heat that enveloped Tokyo just the previous day, was turning into a distant memory. The scorching sun was washed off of the streets with never ending downpour and the city’s landscape was turning grey under the dark overcast.

It was on this rainy day that we decided to visit Asakusa,  Tokyo’s popular historic district of religious significance. Like most foreigners, we were heading there to see the famous Senso-ji temple,  and to experience what we were hoping was going to be the more traditional side of Japan.

As we got off the underground station, we walked down the incense filled narrow streets, passing shops selling religious artefacts and cheap souvenirs. The area wasn’t too busy  and it seemed like only the most devout Buddhists and few determined tourists, were not deterred by the heavy rain, so typical during Japanese summer.

The brave few, hiding from the rain underneath their umbrellas or transparent ponchos sold in every shop, were making their journey to the temple worthwhile by stopping by the various stalls of the Nakamise-dōri, offering  traditional goods and delicious local sweets, ranging from the fish-shaped taiyaki (cream or bean paste filled cakes) to melonpan – a delicate, sweet crunchy bun.

With our stomachs happy filled with the delicious sweet treats, we arrived at last at the majestic red building. Recognising the characteristic Senso-Ji temple features, we walked underneath the “Thunder Gate”, an impressive entrance featuring three massive paper lanterns painted with red and black signs suggestive of thunderclouds and lightnings. Having passed the gate, we   entered the courtyard surrounded by smaller buildings.  Tokyo’s oldest temple was busy with Buddhists praying in front of the various altars or purchasing good fate from the many shops with religious tokens that could be found around the temple complex.

Dating back to 645 AD, Senso-Ji is considered Tokyo’s oldest, and most significant, Buddhist temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Adjacent to the building is also the Asakusa Shrine, a five-storey Shinto pagoda.

According to the legend, a statue of the Goddess, known also as Kannon Bodhisattva, was found one day in the nearby river two brothers who were fishermen. Recognising the importance of the statue, the head of their village turned his house into a small temple for everyone in Asakusa to be able to worship the deity.

Today, Senso-Ji is one of the most visited spiritual places on the planet, attracting tourists and local worshippers alike. It is not only the significant past of this place that draws them, but also what it can tell its visitors about their future.

One of the most popular Japanese ways to read one’s fortune is through drawing omukuji, written fortune strips.  At Senso-Ji you can learn what the future has in store for you for just  ¥100  (less than a pound). To draw your fortune, you need to shake a special metal tin filled with long wooden sticks while praying for your wish. When one of the sticks comes out through the small hole in the tin, you need to look at the number written on it and find a corresponding sign on the case of wooden drawers standing right next to it. When you open the drawer pointed by your stick, you will find there a small piece of paper with your future written on it.  There are three kinds of fortune: good, regular and bad.

If you draw the good fortune, you should take it with you.  In case of a bad one, you should tie it in a knot and leave it at the temple. Regardless of your fortune however, you should remain “modest and gentle” and, as the Senso-Ji temple reminds us, “whether in good or bad fortune you should tenaciously do your best. You can carve out your own fortune”.

Convinced that we are masters of our own destiny, we nevertheless decided to improve our fortune the Japanese way  – by buying our luck. Like all the others who were leaving their fortunes behind,  we donated money to the slots in front of the Buddha statue, bought a  picture of deity that was supposed to bring us good luck and, just to be on the safe side, burnt thin white candles while praying for our wish to come true. Good fortune was not cheap to obtain, and Buddhism, like most religions nowadays, turned out to be highly commercialised.

I don’t know whether it was the money spent on the prayers or whether bathing our heads in the fragrant fume from burning incense, but when we drew the fortune one last time, it turned out neutral.  Not wanting to tempt fate, I decided neutral was good enough for me and it was time to finish our visit to the temple.

On the way out we passed by the statue of a Buddha in the garden. What was now a tranquil place, turned out to have been destroyed during the World War II. In the courtyard, one can still find a tree that was bombed in an air raid and had regrown in the bark of the old tree. Just like the tree itself, the rebuilt temple has become a symbol of rebirth and peace.


It was not only Senso-Ji, but Japan in general that seemed to be determined to keep raising from its ashes, continuously growing in the never ending karmic cycle. Just like the rest of Tokyo, destroyed in the war Asakusa managed to return to life, once again becoming a popular district filled with restaurants and entertainment.

Perhaps life and growth were all about the choices. Regardless of what the future had in store, we could either let our circumstances define us, or choose to learn our lessons and move on. In my life I knew many people and places that remained trapped in their past, allowing the stories of their misfortunes to dominate their existence. It wasn’t easy to forget, but those few who chose to look forward and stubbornly grew, no matter what cards fate has handed them, were the ones to succeed.

I decided there and then, that I don’t need to know my future. I just need to know that whatever life has in store for me, I will try my best to rise above it.

Despite the persistent rain we kept on walking. After all, you carve your own fortune.



Welcome to Japan

I knew Japan was going to be something special from the moment I saw the majestic snow-covered peak  of Mount Fuji towering over the clouds. The day was only just waking up from its slumber, but the iconic mountain appeared already in full readiness for what life had in store. Strong, proud and solitary – just like Japan itself.

I’m not sure what I had expected the country to be. On one hand Japan has always been presented as the country of traditions and rich culture, on the other Western media liked to depict it as the epicentre of weird trends and even stranger fetishes. How those two extremes would work in unison, I wasn’t sure, but I was soon to find that out.

I experienced my first culture shock when I entered… the toilet at Haneda Airport. I never really paid much attention to public toilets before, but the one at Tokyo’s international airport turned out to be surprisingly informative about Japanese society. You see, instead of the usual toilet, each cubicle contained a highly computerised washlet. These all-singing, all-dancing devices not only played the soothing water sounds while you used them, but also washed and dried  any desired part of your derrièr. After Chinese squatting toilets, this was heaven. Aside from clearly valuing cleanliness and technology, Japanese must have also been very thoughtful people as in the cubicle I noticed a small holder for the baby. Mothers around the world struggle when having to use the facilities while not having where to leave the baby, and now Japan had a solution to that problem –  a special suspension where a mum could safely “deposit” her infant for a few minutes and use the toilet at peace. The family-friendly and forward-thinking efficiency of this island nation became apparent also when I spotted, leaving the washroom, a child-sized urinals for little men who inevitably have to visit the ladies room with their mums. I was seriously impressed!

Between the fancy toilets, traditionally decorated restaurants serving good food and indoor growing plants, Haneda was  the only airport I was reluctant to leave. But Tokyo was calling, and it was time to see what it had to offer.

We got into the underground right in time for the morning rush hour. Accustomed to London’s busyness, tightly squeezed commuters reminded us of home. The only difference was the impressive number of people sleeping while standing – a skill I haven’t yet seen back home. That and the tiny books everyone who was not asleep seemed to be reading. The pocket sized books all had beautiful material covers, keeping reader’s choices safely  hidden from the curious gazes of others.

Upon reaching Shimbashi station, where we had to change trains, we decided to hide from the never-ending wave of bodies hurrying to work in a small cafe at the station. The underground system in Tokyo seemed more complicated to navigate than the one in London and definitely required much more walking to get from one line to another. Luckily, tired passengers could take a break from almost half-a-kilometre walk in one of the many cafes that most of the large stations had conveniently placed within the underground corridors. It was in one of such places that we took refuge until the human traffic began to slow down to more manageable size and we decided it was safe to board the train again.

Since the place we rented through Airbnb was not available till later in the day, we decided to head to a nearby Nihombashi and start exploring the city. Thanks to my newly found minimalism we had only hand luggage, and so walking around was not a problem. Our first stop was a Suitengu Shrine.


This Shinto place of worship turned out to be known for providing safe delivery during childbirth and was popular with families praying for children. The traditional appearance of the shrine stood in sharp contrast to the modern surroundings and the air-conditioned centre for the worshippers, but  everything made sense again once I found out that the existing shrine was built only a few years ago, after the original building was burnt down by the fire of the Great Earthquake in 1923.

Although the complex features a number of places for prayer, such as the statue of a female dog and her puppy or a dragon fountain places in front a machine dispensing drinks, popular across Japan, most visitors would begin at the main shrine. It is a custom for the worshippers to pull one of the colourful hanging ropes known as Suzunoo to summon the deities. The material of the ropes is changed regularly and given to pregnant women for an easy childbirth. After the rope is pulled and a sound of a bell can be heard, a monetary offering should be placed in a box. The worshipper then takes two deep bows, claps their hands twice and takes another deep bow.

After visit to the shrine, we carried on walking around the neighbourhood, where we passed local vendors selling Ningyo-yaki. These traditional cookies filled with bean paste, were famously shaped after shichifukujin, i.e. seven gods of good luck, and became a popular treat in the Nihonbashi-ningyocho area.


Throughout our walk, the tradition and modernity continued to blend. In between newly built blocks of flats one could still find old wooden houses safely tucked in, to remind the passersby about Tokyo’s past. I was in love with these small buildings, so different from any house I’ve seen so far. This was the Japan I was hoping to see.

Just like one could not escape the past, so was the religion present at every step. Every few meters we would find a simple stone gate surrounded by greenery, which usually led to a tiny shrine.  In the unbearable heat of Japanese summer, these shaded places of prayer offered a temporary escape from the sun. There was also something beautiful about these pockets of tradition hidden in the side streets. Entering each new shrine, I felt like I was discovering a new secret, unsure what will await me at the end of the gravel path. I found particularly interesting the stone statutes of fox, or Kitsune. This animal is perceived in Japan as faithful guardians and often symbolise friendship and love, although some folklore stories depict them as supernatural beings able to take on human form. Today they are popular features of Shinto shrines, as they are believed to be the messengers of Inari, a spirit of fertility, agriculture and general success.

Having explored the area and sheltered from the heat in a cosy Bookshelf cafe, it was time to head to Asakusabashi, where we booked our accommodation.

Even though the place was only minutes away from the underground station, we had problems finding the address we were given. The Japanese  system is not the most straightforward to follow as instead of the usual street names, the address usually includes Chōme, which is the numbered divisions of a Chō, the neighbourhood, and is further divided into numbered Banchi, which are not very intuitive to a foreigner. It took us a long time to find the right area, and we found the house we were looking for only thanks to a lovely man working in a nearby restaurant who left his place of work to walk us all the way to our rented property. 

We entered the code we were given to a small box outside the house and took out the keys. As soon as we entered a two-storey square building, we found ourselves in a tiny hall with space for shoes. We removed our trainers and placed them on a small shelf before walking up the stairs. Despite its compact size, the flat was arranged in a smart manner, making the most of the available space. I took a quick shower, packed the mobile wi-fi that came with the flat into my bag and headed to Shibuya.

In between the busy shopping malls of  Tokyo’s main commercial and business centre we finally managed to find a break from the overwhelming consumerism in the nearby small streets off the Shinjuku station. The narrow alleys of Golden Gai were filled with dozens of tiny restaurants. The few square metres of kitchen were surrounded by tightly arranged chairs, each occupied by Edokko, eating their dinners at the counters. Many of these tiny drinking dens serve only their regular customers, so it is safest to enter one that boasts a menu in English. The food served with the local drinks usually takes a form similar to a Japanese version of tapas, and includes for example a number of bite sized meat skewers, known as kushiyaki, and barbecued quail eggs. The area used to be known as a red light district, but changed into a popular drinking place since 1958 when prostitution became illegal. In the 1980s, when many places in Tokyo were being burnt down by Yakuza in attempt to free up the land so that developers could purchase it, the Golden Gai managed to survive thanks to its influential supporters guarding the area each night.


Although prostitution may have been officially banned, Shinjuku and Shibuya were still filled with sexual accents, ranging from hyper-sexualised manga characters on the neon billboards to scantly clad girls inviting potential visitors to bars and Pachinko game centres.

Despite its busyness, the area seemed devoid of real life. Its open-late shops and fast food restaurants offering a cheap entertainment, a way to forget about the emptiness of one’s life in the busy metropolis, the crowds allowing one to forget about their loneliness.

On the way back  to Asakusabashi we shared our journey with the tired workers and drunk businessmen. Tokyo commuters started and ended their day sleeping on the trains. Even when drunk, Japanese  remained polite and didn’t really bother anyone; many of them just quietly going to sleep on the platform or the streets surrounding the station.

Looking at the sleeping silhouettes I couldn’t help but think about the state of the world. We work ourselves sick, drive ourselves to exhaustion so that we can spend every waking moment either drinking to forget our sorrows or filling the void in our life with shopping for things we don’t really need. Tokyo, London, New York – the dream cities. Places everyone wants to live, hoping for a better future, not realising the price their dreams are likely to come at.

I thought back to my life in London, the unhealthy habits I once had and how much most of my clients were still struggling with well-being and work-life balance. I considered myself lucky as I took a different path, moved to a lovely green quiet area just minutes away from the centre, learnt to put health over profit and began my journey to minimalism. Still, I realised that just like the world I was living in, I still had a long way to go.

As my husband and I got off the underground and walked down the quiet streets of Asakusabashi, I felt grateful for the life I have and for the peace of that summer night in Tokyo. I promised myself to remember that feeling and the contrast to the tiring, busy lifestyle I got a glimpse of that day. We all have choice in our life, we can shape our life according to our values, and just like Japan, we can decide how much we want to run after money, and how much space we are willing to leave to traditional values and a slow, but meaningful life.

Shanghai – Travel in time

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for Shanghai. With my cheek pressed flat against the window pane of the taxi, I kept on looking at the astonishing world around me. At first glance Shanghai was far from pretty, but driving on the highway surrounded by crumbling, yet still majestic, skyscrapers was the closest I’ve ever gotten to travelling in time. It was as if someone transported me into the future – not the glamorous science fiction kind though, but the slightly decaying one of the dystopian novels. I have never seen blocks of flats so big; rows of rusty grey boxes of air conditioners adorning the walls over 20 storeys tall. I felt overwhelmed and unwelcome in this world of not so great greatness wreathed in the haze of a heavy smog.

When the idea of the trip to Asia in 2017 first entered my mind, out of the three countries we were going to visit, China was the one I was least excited about. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure how I felt about going to a country whose politics I wasn’t a fan of and which seemed to become the world’s leading economy at the expense of it’s people’s rights and the environment. I wasn’t looking forward to the “modern” China, but much more interested in its past, the rich heritage of its beautiful culture, before its consumerist spirit disguised under communist slogans. And now that we left the Forbidden City for the concrete jungle of Shanghai, I was experiencing what I had thought I would feel upon arrival in China- the grey emptiness of a busy metropolis devoid of culture and filled with hunger for profit. Luckily, I was soon to find out that underneath the colossal buildings the city had much more for me in store.

The first thing my husband and I did after dropping our bags at the Yun’s Paradise Yun Garden (which was as far from a paradise or a garden as they get),  was a visit to the Yu Yuan which was just a short walk from the hotel. The area surrounding the Yu Yuan (meaning Garden of Happiness) was as close as I was going to get to the “old” China.

We walked through the tall, gold adorned gate guarded on both sides by two stone lions, finding ourselves on a Fangbang road filled with small shops selling  anything from antiques to tea. It was clearly a tourist area, but as anything in China, there were more home-grown tourists than foreigners around. Walking past the eager vendors who tried to entice us to visit their shops, we managed to eventually arrive at the Old Cheng Huang Temple snack square and Yu Yuan bazaar where hordes of hungry Chinese youth gathered to eat the plentitude of local fast food. Eating a crispy, thin local fried pastry surrounded by the beautiful wooden buildings with elaborate rooftops and ornamental balconies, one could easily get tricked into feeling that they were experiencing the “authentic” China.

Although at a first glance the traditional architecture surrounding the area looks historic, a significant part of the original Old City  has been demolished and redeveloped into tall-rise buildings, leaving only some of the ancient houses. Much of the remaining architecture, however, includes renovated features or has been completely rebuilt in exact resemblance of the initial building –  a practice popular across China.

Despite McDonald’s and Starbucks embedded in the historic looking houses, the area brings to life the essence of the old China. Underneath the dark, carved,sloping  layers of the rooftops, you will find some wonderful tranquility of the teahouses. One of my personal favourites was the Huxinting Teahouse, dating back to 1855. Overseeing a small lake inhabited by water turtles and koi fish, this intricately decorated pavillon took me back in time. Sitting over perfectly brewed green tea and enjoying the delicious tea-stained quail eggs and bite-sized tofu, I could almost imagine busy teahouses and opium dens of this port city, filled with bustle of merchants selling silk and trading tea leaves. Realising I would never get to see THAT Shanghai, I felt a certain ping of nostalgia and sadness for the world gone. But it wasn’t my past that I was pining for, it wasn’t my heritage that I wished to see but a stereotype I had created and now felt disappointed that reality did not reflect it. To me China lost some of its beautiful past, but perhaps to the Chinese the future with its promise of what it could become was more important?  Maybe they had just as much of the old as they were prepared to hold on to? Perhaps a 19th century teahouse and quality tea were just the right amount of past for them.  Or maybe there was a whole lot of the  forgotten world that was still alive, safely tucked away from the curious gazes of the foreigners? Only the Chinese would know.

As I pondered China’s relationship with time, I suddenly wondered: don’t we all do the same? Don’t most of us either impatiently embrace the new and efficient, bigger and better without stopping to think at what cost this progress comes; or hold on to the past in a senselessly habitual rather than reflective way? Perhaps one of he biggest art of living this life is the ability to strike the right balance between the old and the new, the past and the future, creating enough space for the here and now.

Sitting in Shanghai’s teahouse, holding a tiny steaming cup of tea in my hand, I focused on its delicate jasmine fragrance. I took a sip and tasted the warm softness of the comforting liquid on my tongue. I didn’t have to rush anywhere, physically or mentally. I could simply be. Living in the present moment, appreciating life right here, right now.


My Turkish Delight

Out of all the little pleasures and treats that Istanbul has to offer, one of my personal favourites is a visit to a hamam. After finishing my last job, I needed to cleanse my mental palate before starting at the new place and what better way to clear your mind than by going through a ritual of purifying your body?

The Turkish bathhouses, or hamams, are gender-segregated buildings, usually next to a mosque,where members of the public come for a deep cleanse and relaxation. I had visited this local equivalent of a spa for the first time a few years ago and it has become a must-have experience while in Istanbul. So when my friend Ayşegül asked me what I wanted to do during my short visit to Turkey, I exclaimed without hesitation : Let’s go to a hamam!


Around midday we arrived at Çinili Hamam in Üsküdar district, on the Asian coast of Istanbul. We entered through a conspicuous looking door on the side of an old building. Dating back to 1640, Çinili Hamam has maintained a lot of its historical charm till today.

Upon arrival at a square hall covered in blue tiles which gave the place its name ( “Çinili” is a special type of blue porcelain used in the decoration of royal buildings ), we climbed a spiral staircase which took us to the changing rooms. We opened the rickety yellow wooden door to our cabin, undressed and walked downstairs wrapped  in thin material of pestemal, a special towel used in hamams.

Equipped with bars of natural herbal soap, kessa  glove for body’s exfoliation and hamam bowls, we passed through the arabesque shaped entrance into the main area of the hamam. Sicaklik,known also as haratet, was a large marble room with soft natural light coming through the tiny eyelets in the dome of the ceiling. The warm air was full of steam and filled with the sound of splashing water and a delicate hint of soapy cleanliness.

We entered one of the smaller naves  and sat down on the side of a marble basin. Dipping the shallow bowls into the hot and cold streams coming from the taps, we let the warm water wash the outside world off of us.  With every drop I was beginning to feel lighter, as if by purifying my body I was removing the weight of my previous life. The quiet atmosphere helped to relax the mind while the pleasant heat of the room put our tired frames at ease. I looked around. In the neighbouring niches, women of all shapes and sizes soaked in the serene atmosphere of this almost mystical place. It was a woman’s world, a place where we could be ourselves, without shame or anyone’s judgement. There was something refreshing about being surrounded by this pure female energy. I hadn’t realised it before, but due to stress and general busyness, I have neglected that part of my psyche in the recent months, I have traded connections and rituals for time-management and project deadlines and my soul was yearning to get its spirituality back.

Once the cold bitterness of the winter gave place to the comforting heat of the steam and the skin softened under the gentle caresses of water, it was time to move onto the Göbek tasi (marble stone raised in the centre of the  hamam).  Lying on the warm stone  I enjoyed the pleasant heat slowly spreading through my body while waiting for the masseuse. Natir thoroughly washed my body with the water and soap, scrubbing vigorously every inch of my body, leaving me feeling relaxed and renewed. It was as if with every stroke of the kessa glove, she was rubbing off a part of my old life.

Leaving the Hamam, I felt restored and reborn. As we drove back by the peaceful banks of  Bosphorus I  reflected on the importance of rituals in our life. How important it is to give ourselves a little treat, time to renew physically and mentally, to slow down and just be present, listen to what the body tries to tell us. In the chaos of my everyday life, I forgot about myself. I put everyone’s needs ahead of mine, prioritising work over my well-being. With the new job however, I was determined not to fall into this trap again. It was a truly new beginning and a chance to do things differently this time around.

A visit to hamam was a rare treat for me, something associated with significant life transitions, yet to my friend, it was part of everyday life, an element of her cultural landscape. Perhaps it was time for me to create space for rituals in my life, to make time for myself and get in touch with my body and soul? I promised myself to make every day special by slowing down and allowing some me-time, to look after myself and recreate that wonderful hamam feeling each day. For life is what’s happening now, not some day next week or next month and it deserves to be celebrated today and every single day.

My Istanbul

Instead of my usual alarm, I was awoken by the joyous laughter of seagulls welcoming a new day. The room was filled with gentle morning light, filtered through the curtains making a hazy attempt at protecting me from the nosy gazes of neighbours living in the apartment building opposite. I sometimes wondered if it was possible to really get any privacy in Istanbul between the narrow streets of its busy neighbourhoods and friendly people filled with curiosity.

Istanbul has always been a very special place for me. Ever since I visited this chaotically beautiful city on the cusp of Europe and Asia in my teens, I couldn’t get it out of my soul. It was the first “real” place I have travelled to on my own –  an excited 16 year old with a head full of dreams of adventure on her way to meet a friend she had met two years earlier in England. Istanbul was my introduction to a brave new world. I still remember that first day I heard the ezan, the melodic voice of the muezzin calling everyone for prayer blending with the sounds of ships passing the busy waters of the Bosphorus. To my young heart yearning for a bigger life, this was the most beautiful sound in the world.

Istanbul was a place where I  visited bohemian cafes and had meaningful conversations about life over cappuccino flavoured nargile smoke, where I drank litres of strong tea from tiny tulip-shaped glasses while looking at the turquoise water in front of me and mosques dotting the horizon. It was the world where I felt loved, inspired and free. It was the world my dear friend Aysegul lived in, my favourite place to come back to.

Over the years I kept on visiting Ayşegül and Istanbul, watching both of them change. To me the city and my friend used to be one and the same thing – different from anything I had known before, familiar yet full of surprises, artistic and hungry for life. With time however, both of them started to go different ways. With each year Istanbul seemed to be turning its head towards the past, a change towards which  Ayşegül started becoming increasingly resistant. The more women in headscarves populated the streets, the more rebellious my friend would become, leaving me with a vague feeling that he city was being taken away from her. On one hand there was the liberal bohemian lifestyle I have  grown to associate with my friend, which still seemed to be in a full swing in the tiny atmospheric cafes of Karaköy and cute, cat-filled restaurants of Üsküdar . On the other side however, there were pictures of Erdogan somberly scrutinising the passersby hurrying from the ferries to packed dolmuş taking them home, checking if they are pious enough.  I could feel the growing tension between the young and the old, the modern and the tradition, the liberal and religious. Istanbul was changing and neither Ayşegül nor I liked the direction in which the city we loved was heading. But it wasn’t up to us to stop the journey it was on and we had to accept that it was time for Ayşegül to go her own way.

As my friend was moving to Canada, my latest visit to Istanbul was threatening to be a truly last one. I will miss the free spirited young people filling the independent cafes of the Asian side of the city, the sellers of the sesame encrusted simit moving gracefully between the cars trapped in Istanbul’s unyielding traffic. I was going to miss the warming bitterness of Turkish coffee and the hours of playing the game of tavla. I would miss the rough aquamarine beauty of the Bosphorus,  but most of all, I would miss my Ayşegül , our laughter on the streets of Istanbul forever intertwined with the seagulls screaming about their freedom. Because no matter where we would be, regardless of where the city was heading, we would always have our Istanbul.



Warsaw – Christmas in January

There’s something really important in reconnecting with the place you’re from. A place where everyone speaks your language, where your surname is correctly pronounced, where all the smells and sounds are familiar. That is what Poland is to me – that cosy mix of familiarity.

As probably anyone who lives abroad, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with my country. I fondly  hold on  to traditions my friends back home see as outdated, I cherish the local food and find myself in awe of the little things my compatriots take for granted. It doesn’t mean I never see its flaws, on the contrary, I am very aware of my country’s limitations, but when you’re away from your land you can be more forgiving. Yes, people can sometimes be rude when you go to a Polish bank or a shop, yes they will share their opinions on your life whether you asked for them or not. But it’s the rudeness and nosiness that you’re familiar with, that you understand and anticipate and what used to annoy the hell out of you suddenly becomes a part of your culture, something you are trying to understand rather than judge. Because home is home, no matter how great or poor its interior design might be to others.

Having a two week break from work, I decided to recharge my soul in Warsaw. My actual home is Gdynia, a beautiful sea side town up north, but I felt that what I needed at this point in time was a home away from home. I wanted something familiar and easy, relaxing yet different enough to satisfy that wanderlust craving of mine. Warsaw seemed like the perfect choice –  a city I know a little, where my friends live, but where for the first time I would be getting in the middle of the week instead of on the weekend and where as a result I would have to get around on my own while everyone I knew was at work. And so I got the ticket and went.

Flying with Wizzair I arrived at Modlin, which is to Warsaw what Luton is to London- a small airport on the city’s outskirts operating mostly budget airlines. The moment I stepped out of the plane Poland welcomed me in its capital with snow.  The forest surrounding the airport was becoming whiter with every passing minute, snow turning the world into an unexpected winter wonderland.

The feeling of belated Christmas became even stronger once I finally arrived at Warsaw’s Old Town (having taken a connecting bus and a train from Modlin to Warszawa Gdanska, for approximately 4.50 GBP). After walking from the Ratursz Arsenal underground station down the Dluga street I kept on admiring the colourful tenement houses nibbled by time. The cobble stone alleys next to Warsaw Barbican were tethered with snow and the warm light of the street lamps gave the area a serene feel.

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Passing the cosy cafes tempting me with their warmth and delicious scent of coffee and cinammon, I got to the Rynek, the main square of the old town. The space around the iconic statue of Warsaw’s marmaid had been turned into an ice rink surrounded by wooden huts selling mulled wine, hot chocolate and polish sausages. I felt like I travelled in time and was given yet another Christmas.

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The Christmasy feel intensified further as I entered Bazyliszek, a traditional polish restaurant where I was meeting my friend Marcin.  In the wooden interior decorated with brunches of pine tree and candles, I simply had to order barszcz, polish beetroot soup with dumplings, which reminded me of the delicious crimson hotness served each year on my family’s Christmas table.

After the delectable feast for the body and soul, Marcin and I decided the continue our catch up over a hot cup of tea in nearby Same Fusy. This tea house has always had a very special place in my heart ever since I travelled to Warsaw for the first time as a teenager and I had spent hours discussing life in this enchanting tea house. The owners of the place captured its essence perfectly when they described the it with the following words: “The floating aromas of freshly brewed teas, music of the world, make the time slow down, for as all tea lovers know, she doesn’t like rush and chaos”. Until this day, I find something magical among the brick walls of this cosy space. It is a place where my soul recharges, where conversations become more real and connections deeper.

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Walking through the snowy streets of Warsaw’s old town I couldn’t help but feel charmed. This was the Poland I needed. The Poland I missed. By the time we got to the Castle square with its brightly decorated Christmas tree, I decided that the universe was giving me a present- another Christmas. I would spend the following two days doing exactly what I would have over the festive period- enjoying food and hot drinks, catching up on reading and spending time with people I love.

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And that’s exactly what I did.  I spent each lunchtime and evening with friends or family in Warsaw, enjoying the company of wonderful people I don’t get to see enough of. While everyone was working, I just spent my days enjoying Warsaw.

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The first full day I had in the capital turned out to be the most relaxing day I’ve had in a while. Aside from breakfast, lunch and dinner with my favourite people, I just spent my day relaxing in Warsaw’s cosy cafes. I started off with breakfast in the Green Cafe Nero (which luckily doesn’t have much to do with the all-same coffee chain in England) on Nowy Swiat, a central shopping street leading to the Old Town. I then moved to the Wrzenie Swiata, where I enjoyed browsing through documentary books this place is known for before settling with one of them in a big yellow armchair by the heater while enjoying hot tea with oranges and cloves.After having pierogi for lunch with one of my friends I made my way to Telimena, which proudly announces itself at the entrance as the oldest cafe in Warsaw. The building, like most in Warsaw’s old town have an interesting history and has hosted many great Polish artists like the composer Fryderyk Chopin. There is something about the cafes in Poland that nurtures the soul and encourages reflection. It is something I miss deeply in London, as I pass by yet another Starbucks or cold minimalist interiors of the hipster cafes. In Warsaw the coffee and tea feel like love in a cup, the sofas and armchairs hug you, and the warm atmosphere makes people open up their souls.

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During my short stay in Warsaw I abandoned the busy sightseeing schedule to follow my heart rather than head. I had been doing too much of what my head deemed necessary, neglecting the needs of my soul and it was time to reverse the order and give my spirit a break it so badly needed. As I entered yet another cafe, To Lubie, back by the Barbican and sat in a little reading nook by the windowsill, sipping tick and sweet amaretto flavoured hot chocolate, I felt that this is what life should be like. Unhurried, mindful, full of delicious drinks and inspiring books and conversations. Life filled with real people having real connection,  eating real food in real places. I found my Polish hygge and I couldn’t have been happier.


Singapore -a ticket to good life

Travel is often associated with trouble. You have to apply for visa, figure out how to move around the new country, struggle with communication and understanding the new reality. From the moment you arrive until the departure, your senses are heightened in readiness to help you deal with yet another confusion. Everywhere but in Singapore.

From the moment I landed at Singapore’s Changi airport everything become easy. The usual chaos surrounding arrival in a foreign country here gives way to simplified order. Before I knew it I had transferred from the plane to the passport control, which I had left even quicker. No queue, no visa required. Within a space of mere minutes I was free to explore this tiny island-country.


For 30 Singaporean dollars (approximately 13 GBP) I took the taxi from the airport to Amara hotel in the city centre. Twenty minutes later I was already checking in, hotel receptionist making no issue of my early arrival. Encouraged by how swiftly everything was going, I decided to try to see as much as possible during this short business trip.

Thanks to its petite size, Singapore is easy to explore on foot. After just a short walk from the hotel I was already wandering through the fragrant streets of Chinatown, where I decided to visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.


I spent over an hour wandering through the Buddhist complex and museum, admiring impressive sculptures, breathtaking halls and learning about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama. Although I enjoyed all of the levels of the complex, my favourite was the Roof Garden. At the top floor of the building, surrounded by lush green trees and beautiful orchids, in a Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavillion stood the Vaironcana Buddha Prayer Wheel. Turning its bright red, gold and green cylindrical surface clockwise helps to focus the mind on mantra recitation and according to Buddhist beliefs supports gathering of the good karma and purifies negative energy. After your mind has been cleansed, you can make your way to the basement of the Temple to nourish your body with some affordable vegetarian dishes in the devotees’ canteen.

I must admit that the visit to the religious complex turned out to be far from what I had expected. I knew Singapore was a modern city with many traditional accents of its multicultural heritage, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how traditional and modern a place can be at the same time. Right next to the historic houses and commercial establishments taking you back in time shine the glass and metal surfaces of the city’s skyscrapers.



You can see the businessmen and women of the financial district lunching in the elegant and trendy restaurants serving European food just as much as sitting outside enjoying a bowl of traditional noodles.


I felt that despite its petite size, everyone will find their own space in Singapore.


Another striking feature of this city-state is its ever-present nature.




Thanks to its proximity to the equator, Singapore can boast tropical climate throughout the entire year. This, combined with the country’s ecological concerns, makes Singapore the greenest and most beautiful metropolis I have ever seen.


The lush greenery surrounding the financial district provides a feeling of calm and balance, supporting the sense of well-being and a healthy perspective to the usual rush of the working life. It is not uncommon to see whole buildings covered with plants or having roof top gardens. From the venue where I delivered client work I even saw a skyscraper where each balcony featured a small garden with palm trees. Technology and progress embracing nature – this is how every modern city should be.


Thanks to its small size and inexpensive public transport and taxis, within 15 minutes from the moment of leaving the office you can find yourself in a rain forest. The abundance of tropical shrubs in the Botanical Garden was exactly what I needed to relax after a full day at work. While my colleagues in London were entering crowded tube, I was breathing fresh air and enjoying a walk in nature, silence broken only with the soothing melodies of the bird songs.  Now this is what the work-life balance should be.



Another example of what I loved about Singapore is its diversity. I first noticed that when I was enjoying the traditional breakfast and overheard a conversation between a blond German who was enjoying his meal in the presence of his Sikh friend when they run into a few East Asian men who were asking if they will be joining them for basketball later. This seemingly insignificant encounter prompted me to see just how typical the scene was. Everywhere I have gone, I had the impression of people from all walks of life and religion coexisting peacefully next to each other. Busses driving underneath the Christmas decorations adorning the streets displayed “Happy Deepavali” interchangeably with the destination of their travel. Nobody seemed surprised to see a mosque right next to a Hindu temple just meters away from Chinatown. In Singapore this diversity was completely normal and I couldn’t help but dream of a world where such religious and ethnic eclecticism is a norm.


Aside from Singapore’s openness to its multicultural society, this Asian country seems to be a perfect place for foreigners. Visitors and expatriates alike can easy communicate with everyone as Singaporeans tend to speak fluent English, Tamil, Malay and Mandarin. My UK credit card worked without everywhere without any problems (although I enoyed withdrawing cash from the cash machine more than card payment as the screen displayed an inspiring quote each time I waited for the money withdrawal) and I found moving around the island extremely easy. What I found unusual here though was the attitude I sensed towards me as a white tourist, so different to many places I have visited in the past. In many countries with strong expat communities, there is often a divide between the locals and the foreigners, the latter living in a bubble, removed from the local life. In Singapore I felt that all walks of life are more intertwined than in any other country I had seen. It might have been Singaporeans’ politeness, but whenever I have spoken to anyone who had been born there, they all seemed puzzled at my questions regarding the expat community and potential trouble their presence could be causing them. “It has always been like this. My parents saw foreigners coming to this country as did my grandparents. Singapore has always been what it is today, so we don’t have anything else to compare it to” assured me one of the local taxi drivers. The visit to the museum of Singapore’s history seemed to confirm that attitude. Due to its location, Singapore developed into a thriving international business hub centuries ago and the first written accounts of its existence suggest that it was already a melting pot of various cultures back then. It is thanks to its history then and minimal (in comparison to other Asian countries) imperialist influence, that Singaporeans appear to see themselves as equal to the foreigners, not better, not worse, simply equal. The pessimist in me is sure that some instances of racism or inequality must still be present here, despite its outwardly feel of complete tolerance, however the comparison to other countries makes me believe that even if not perfect, it is Singapore that we could learn a lesson or two on peaceful coexistence.


Thanks to its good weather, great outdoor spaces, short distances and various museums and attractions, Singapore appears to be a very family friendly place. From picnics in the nature, through interactive light installations designed for children to enjoy, to beach family festivals on the weekends,  the country seems to have something not just for the single professionals and tourists, but also for families.


The general feeling of safety, unhurried effectiveness and general kindness  made me feel like Singapore was exactly the place I needed to visit to remind me that a city like this can exist. Perhaps we don’t have to choose between family and career, technology and nature, future and past. Perhaps we can have it all. We just need to buy a one way ticket to Singapore.




Make time for what really matters

Aerial view of tropical beach, Dominican Republic, Punta Cana

First of January always proves to be a magical time for me. According to an Italian proverb – Anno Nuovo, vita nuova (new year, new life), as someone recently reminded me when I told them about changes to my career. New year always brings me hope, that this year will be better than the last, that this year I will be better.  That finally I will create the habits that will support the resolutions I have set for myself.

It was with that hope that on the first of January I was writing down my new year’s resolutions connected with travel. I felt that over the last year I somewhat I slightly failed my dream. True, I managed to visit four new countries and went to some amazing places, but I felt disappointed with my writing routine (or lack of thereof) and in general had the impression that I should have been doing much more to carve wider space for travel in my everyday life. I decided it was the last time I finish the year with that feeling and that 2018 will see me embracing travel to the level it deserves. In order to help myself achieve those goals I decided on the following resolutions:

  1. Write a new post at least once a week

I designated Saturday mornings as my travel-writing time and will be ensuring that it is my priority. I had many moments of self-doubt last year, wondering whether having this blog makes sense and I often felt discouraged seeing that I wasn’t getting as many readers as I wish I had, but I decided that I started this blog for myself and should carry on writing not for the outcomes but for the pleasure of writing and a chance to relive the memories of the places I visited. I just need to do it more often, to stay on top of everything and capture as much as possible before my memory starts to fade.

  1. Do something every week to promote my blog

Having said all that about remembering my reasons for writing, I still decided that this year I want to be brave and shout more about my blog. Writing about your experiences and opinions can often leave you feeling quite exposed and it might be tempting to keep your posts hidden from the critical eyes of others. But perhaps promoting what I create is something I need to do as part of working on my self-confidence. And who knows, perhaps one of my posts can help someone to plan their trip or to see some place in a different light? So each week I will tell someone new about my blog, mention it in groups that have travel interest and be on the constant look out for ways to promote it. As part of having the courage to expose myself to criticism, I will also send an article to a travel magazine to see if they would be interested in publishing it (one of my greatest dreams!). I am also hoping to run at least one travel workshop in London. I have run some successfully in Poland already, but would like to do more of it this year and translating it into English and running it here, might be easier than waiting until I’m again in Poland.

  1. Learn photography

Part of the reason I have never tried to send articles to magazines and haven’t done as much in the blog promotion department was my conviction that my photos are simply not good enough. I have never learnt photography in any form and just ended taking photos when I was away, documenting what I saw. Looking at the photos upon return however, I always wished I knew more about photography, so that I could capture at least a glimpse of the beauty I was witnessing. This is why this year I promised myself I will finally learn about the shutter speeds and ISO, and try to hone my photography skills.

  1. Read at least one travel book and magazine each month

I have a stack of unread issues of my favourite travel magazines waiting to be picked up. Just like a number of travel books, they have been gathering dust, while I have been busy reading everything else (out of 102 books I read last year perhaps 5 were travel literature!). I have been postponing opening them up out of fear that they would wake up my well tucked-in feeling of guilt at not creating enough space for travel in my life. This is how I had created a vicious circle that I now decided to break. To keep my wanderlust intact, I will read at least one travel book each month and one of the travel magazines. This will help to declutter the magazine area, in line with my newly found minimalist tendencies, but it will also help me to finally create a travel binder I always dreamt of having. Over the years I have been writing down little tips and information on various countries I have been meaning to visit, but as they were dispersed across various notebooks and lose papers, I would usually end up losing them before I had a chance to incorporate them into my travel plans. This year, I will finally create a binder allowing me to store all the information (notes and articles) in one place, so that when the time to visit particular country finally comes, I will know what to see and how to get there.

  1. Visit five new countries in 2018

While I love returning to my favourite places (see you very soon Istanbul!), there is no better feeling than discovering a new country. Wandering through the unknown streets, tasting foreign food and having soul filled with a childish sense of wonder are among the best moments in life. So this year, I vow to step my foot in five countries I have never visited. Instead of things, this year I will be buying plane tickets.

                                                      What are your travel resolutions?

Minimalist travel

Summer vacation things neatly organised

After years of traveling around the world, I was very familiar with the airport routine and the long waiting times that seemed inevitable. I wasted what felt like years of my life standing in the queues to check in my luggage, only to await with dread whether my suitcase will appear on the baggage carousel. Unfortunately, there were times it did not.

When I was packing for my three-week long trip to Asia in the summer of 2017, I decided I am done wasting my precious time. It was time to apply my newly found minimalism to the final area of my life – travel.

Having simplified my wardrobe, packing has become surprisingly easy! I managed to fit all my clothes into a hand luggage, which proved indispensable as my husband and I travelled to a different city in China, Japan and South Korea every other day of our Asian adventure.

Small luggage also meant that I had to consciously choose what souvenirs to bring back from our travels. In the past, I used to bring a large number of cheap knick knacks “to remember the place by”. Over the years I learnt however that it’s the memories that matter, not these “travel trophies”.

Traveling light started as an exercise in minimalism but proved to teach me some important lessons. Here’s some of my tips on how to travel minimalist style:

  1. Try something new

One of the greatest joys of travel is that it allows us to break away from our everyday life and experience a reality different to what we know from home. Many people find change unsettling and try to recreate as much of their home environment and habits as possible – even if they don’t do so consciously. Traveling with sole necessities forces us to alter our routines and be comfortable with discomfort. It encourages us to be creative and to simplify, reminding us that we actually need much less than we think. It is also a great way to step out of your comfort zone and speak to the locals and practice that Spanish or French you’ve been learning at school while you’re forced to look for the sunscreen you never packed. You will be surprised what you can learn about the place you’re visiting as well as about yourself this way.

  1. Embrace the freedom

One of the great appeals of traveling is the freedom it gives us. Leaving our busy schedules behind we can truly embrace the time we have and allocate it any way we wish to. We can read the books we haven’t had time to open, we can wander aimlessly through the charming little streets of the city we’re visiting or get lost in the awe of nature we’re exploring. Every day, we are completely free to choose what to do with the 24 hours we are given. Why waste this time on packing and queueing at the airports? The less stuff you carry, the more freedom you have. Embrace it.

  1. It’s the memories that count

The less stuff we have, the more money we are left with for what really matters in life. I used to often end up paying more for the plane ticket, just so I can take a checked luggage. A number of times I even had to pay for the things I had already paid for at the time of their purchase, just so I can take my overweight bags home with me. People often worry that if they don’t bring souvenirs from their trips they won’t have any “proof” of their travels. Others are concerned that they cannot go back to their friends and family empty handed, without a token from their journey. I used to fall prey to these fears too, returning home with piles of cheap mementos that soon gathered dust instead of bringing back memories from the trip. Instead, I now limited the number of things I can bring back from my trip to one essential item that can have a practical use. For example, from my trip to Japan I brought only matcha green tea, which flavour reminds me of all the relaxed mornings my husband and I shared in that beautiful country. The less money I spend on stuff, the more money I have to travel, and to me those memories are more precious than anything I could display on a mantelpiece.

  1. Be present

The less stuff you carry around, the less you need to worry about them getting lost or stolen. Traveling with just a bag that you can see at all times, allows you to keep an eye on your belongings quite effortlessly. It gives us a chance to focus on experiencing the moment instead of worrying what will happen if our things get stolen. Rather than relaxing on holidays, I used to keep a watchful eye on my bags and stress whether I managed to pack everything when checking out of hotels and hostels. Now that the items I travel with are less numerous, I find packing much easier and less stressful. At the same time I get to focus on the experiences, be really present, without the worry spoiling my time.

  1. Leave your baggage at home

Many of us travel to get a break from our reality. Away from stress of work deadlines and boring routines, we can reconnect with ourselves and get some new perspective. Often just a short break or just the physical space can help us see a situation or a problem in a different light. The more stuff you carry with you, the more ties you down to the life you’ve been trying to get a break from. We like to hold on to our thoughts and beliefs just as we hold on to our belongings. The moment you leave what’s known behind, the more space you can create for the new and unknown. So leave your physical and mental baggage at home and travel light. Inside and out.