“Isn’t Ukraine dangerous??” a friend of mine recently asked me.
In the case of Odessa, it’s most significant Black Sea port, nothing could be further from the truth. The war in the Donbass, the south-east region of Ukraine has blackened the image of this amazing country. But that should take nothing away from a place I’ve been privileged enough to visit on three occasions.
Odessa, is, on the surface, one of the most curious cities you’ll ever visit.
It’s a young city that feels much older, with its concoction of Baroque facades, shining shop windows, vintage Soviet mega-structures, and bright lights.
But beneath the façade, is a celebration of culture. Odessa is a wonderful mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Caucasian and Central Asian peoples in one charming enclave, as I was to find out later on in my journey.
IMPRESSIONS AND ILLUSIONS
The joie de vivre of Odessa can be felt as soon as you land in Odessa’s airport. This is definitely the best way of getting there, unless you are familiar with Ukrainian buses, or are touring the region in the relative comfort of a Ukrainian train. I highly recommend the latter if your intention is to see Ukraine for what it really is, a primarily rural, impoverished land but with charm and friendliness to spare.
A taxi ride to the city centre from the airport only takes 20-25 minutes, but to avoid being over-charged, it’s a good idea to arrange one well in advance.
The taxi ride will offer you an interesting impression of Odessa’s suburbs. The life emanating from the outer, and then inner suburbs give the impression of two different cities in existence. The darkened buildings have a character of their own, but there is no doubt that many of Odessa’s citizens are enveloped in a struggle for survival.
The closer you get to the city centre though, the more the multicultural verve becomes apparent. Deribasovskaya Street or Primorsky Boulevard are ideal bases for a visit here. Despite not being wholly representative of Odessa as it might be seen from local eyes, they offer great access to the city’s main attractions.
One of the best known of these is undoubtedly the Potemkin Steps, designed by Italian architect Franz Boffo. The stairs were designed in such a way, that if you stand at the top, the 192 steps look exactly the same width, even though the bottom steps are much wider.
The steps serve another purpose too. Odessa is Ukraine’s ‘mail-order’ brides capital, and newlyweds can be seen promenading across the top of the steps, or posing by the statue of the Duc de Richieleu for their wedding photographs.
The Duc is known as the city’s founder, and the butt of a well known local joke – which involved looking ‘at the Duke from the Manhole Cover’. Looking at the statue from this angle (i.e, to the left of the statue) the scroll which he clutches in his hand gives the illusion of being…well, something else.
BEYOND THE FAÇADE
Walking from Deribasovskaya Street towards the Potemkin Steps, you can’t miss the Italian façade of Odessa’s Opera and Ballet theatre. In addition to being a great photo opportunity, tickets are very reasonable, and the atmosphere and acoustics are equally impressive.
A sit-down in the City Garden and its bandstand is perfect in mid-afternoon. Plenty of cafés and restaurants adorn the area, as well as one of the few currency exchanges that’ll accept pound sterling.
The open-air military museum 9km from the city centre is well worth a visit. The presentation isn’t immaculate, but the array of exhibits is, despite the entrance not being immediately visible once you step off the bus…
UNDER THE SURFACE
Peeking into the character-filled (yet crumbling) 18th century buildings, and you find almost another world, which has everything from washing flapping on a line, to elderly people along with their thoughts, and possibly a cigarette.
A closer inspection will also uncover perhaps Odessa’s most famous feature – the catacombs. Until the late Soviet era, almost every yard in Odessa had its own entrance into the vast network of catacombs. However, the number of children wandering in and getting lost led to these entrances being closed, never to be re-opened. Today however, guided excursions are available to a small section of the catacombs on the outskirts of the city.
Being a port meant that a black market of goods soon thrived in Odessa, in the 18th century, the catacombs being the ideal way to move and store the contraband.
But during WWII, the network was utilised by the Ukrainian partisans in defence of the city, to strike at the occupying German & Romanian forces, who were responsible for decimating the Jewish community of Odessa, from whom the city derives much of its character.
A tour can range from anything from 3 hours to 12, depending on what you’re willing to pay, and your level of interest in this one of many ‘must-sees’ of Odessa.
WHERE TO STAY
Odessa happily caters for all types, and the Frapolli Hotel in Deribasovskaya Street, with its small and cosy downstairs bar and restaurant is the best example of this flexible approach, and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. Friendly staff and spacious rooms ensure a more than pleasant stay. The tours offered are wide-ranging and can cater for everyone, and marks an opportunity well worth taking.
For something a bit more up-market, the legendary Londonskaya on Primorsky Boulevard is only 2 minutes from the Potemkin Steps and Opera & Ballet theatre, and offers a superb evening menu in particular. The classy façade is replicated within, and certainly deserves its reputation as the most luxurious hotel in the city.
If however, you’re more interested in mixing it up a bit more, there are a variety of agents who will let apartments at a variety of rates, depending on style and location. This is highly recommended if you wish to sample local culture at all levels, and is an excellent way of improving your spoken Russian (its being the most commonly spoken language in Odessa)
WINING & DINING
The city’s multi-cultural nature (with over 100 nationalities residing there) paves the way for a greatly diverse eating scene.
For traditional Ukrainian food, the ostentatious Kumanets is ideal. Despite the high prices and the need to book well in advance, the service is first rate, and being just opposite the City Garden, offers a tranquil, yet busy experience.
The French influence found at Maman, as well as the more general European feel of Pivnoi Sad, in the City Garden itself, offer a good deal of familiarity to the Western European clientele who like something a little bit closer to home. The ubiquitous German or Ukrainian pans in the latter are superbly priced, if a little heavy on the waistline!
Staying in the centre, only 100 yards or so from Odessa’s cathedral, is the almost anarchic establishment of Legend. This basement restaurant and wine cellar was built in the style of a medieval nobleman’s house, an idea conceived by the owner barely five years ago. Initially concerned by a possible lack of appeal, he’s seen the restaurant grow in stature and reputation, and its warm feel, from the crockery down to the port-cullised restrooms is an almost surreal joy. Two hundred yards down the street is the Merry Berry café, boasting a wide range of teas and hot chocolates, ideal for an after-dinner nightcap.
For those wanting a faster option, Mario’s Pizza on Sadova street offers a cheap and easy Italian menu to go, is open late at night, and easily within walking distance of most of the city centre hotels.
For me however, the cafes, as opposed to the evening restaurants, are what gives Odessa its charm. Klarabara, in the City Garden is, perfect in the sun, and with Lavazza coffee on the menu, one can’t go far wrong. Kompot, on Panteleimonivs’ka Street offers a traditional Ukrainian lunch menu with multiple varieties of sweet and savoury vareneiki and compote that’s made on site, that makes for a cosy (if calorific) experience.
Perhaps the most striking, and the most delicious though, is Lviv Handmade Chocolate at the western end of Deribasovskaya Street. Boasting a chocolaterie and coffee roasting house on the ground floor, and a café on the top floor, this is one rare occasion where your Russian will be answered with Ukrainian. The range of teas, hot chocolates, coffees and desserts is very impressive, and those waning a novelty chocolate or coffee gift for loved ones or friends should also pay a visit.
Odessa is a city that’s full of surprises. And I was the beneficiary of that very phenomenon, when I was asked by a friend to take a class on British culture, Brexit and Trump of all things, at the Pedagological University on my last day in the city.
Combining a mixture of first and fourth year English language students, I found a highly refreshing and dynamic atmosphere present everywhere in the University. The vast majority of the students were studying to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, as opposed to merely securing a job which could enable them to buy a car.
Covering everything from the Anglo-American cultural relationship to the ideal itinerary for a UK holiday, I felt sad in a way that a lot of the students may well not be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential, given how Ukrainian higher education is perceived in the wider world.
Despite this, I had reason to smile. Their welcoming nature, humour, intelligence and spark convinced me that despite the instability that racks their country at the time of writing, the future of their country, as well as this energetic and enigmatic city, is in good hands.
Nathan Williams: Associate Director at Coutts, Coach, Tutor and Traveler out of hours
When the Allied forces arrived in Japan in 1945 for what was to be the seven year military occupation, there was little doubt that the country would be changed forever. However, some traditions were retained in an effort to maintain Japanese culture. One of these traditions was sushi.
The earliest form of sushi in Japan was called narezushi (salted fish). Fish was stored in fermented rice for long periods of time without spoiling and provided an important source of protein in the Japanese diet. The sushi we are familiar with today is called nigiri sushi. It had its origins in Edo (Tokyo). A restaurant owner named Hanaya Yohei is credited with having invented this type of sushi during the 19th century. The Edo people were known for their busy lifestyle and lack of patience, therefore many fast food businesses began cropping up. Nigiri sushi, which was known as Edomaezushi at the time, was a type of fast food, conveniently shaped to be eaten by hand and no longer reliant on the fermentation process utilized by narezushi.
While nigiri quickly became the most popular style of sushi in Edo, it did not immediately dominate the sushi landscape as it does today. There were two events which aided the popularity of nigiri sushi outside of Tokyo: one was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the other was the military occupation of Japan in 1945. The earthquake caused many people to leave Tokyo and return to their hometowns. Among these were the various sushi chefs who opened restaurants upon returning home and served Edomaezushi to their clientele. In post-war Japan, many sushi shops were forced to close due to the rice rationing at the time and not allowed to reopen.
Eventually it was impressed upon the American Forces General Headquarters that the sushi restaurants should be allowed to reopen as sushi was an important part of Japanese culture. When the restaurants reopened however, they had to adhere to one strict rule. That rule was that the patrons were to bring in their own rice rations for the sushi. One cup of rice was to be used to make ten pieces of sushi hence the nigiri sushi shrunk in size. In pre-war Japan, nigiri sushi was three times larger.
Eventually the same system was implemented throughout Japan and Tokyo style nigiri became Japan’s predominant form of sushi.
Once having served as a feudal lord’s residence, Shinjuku Gyoen is one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks. It is home to more than 20,000 trees, including approximately 1,500 cherry trees, which make it a popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) destination from late March to late April. The park is also nice to visit during autumn when the leaves change. The spectacular fall colors typically appear from mid-November to mid-December.
Shinjuku Gyoen, which spans 58.3 hectares is comprised of three different types of gardens. The oldest is a traditional Japanese landscape garden, which features the Taiwan Pavilion, constructed on the occasion of the Showa Emperor’s wedding. During the first two weeks in November, a chrysanthemum exhibit is held here with beautiful floral displays and temporary pavilions erected around the park’s grounds. You can also find a traditional Japanese tea house here.
The park’s other main gardens include a formal French garden and an English landscape garden. The remainder of the park consists of forested areas, lawns and several structures including a restaurant, an information center and an art gallery. There is also a beautiful greenhouse with numerous tropical and subtropical flowers on display. The park was almost completely destroyed during World War II, but it was eventually rebuilt and reopened to the public in 1949. It is not uncommon to walk around the park and find various artists creating beautiful water color images of the scenery.
Shinjuku Gyoen also has three gates. The Shinjuku Gate and the Okido Gate are both just a five-minute walk from the Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line. The third gate, the Sendagaya Gate, is located five minutes on foot from the JR Sendagaya Station on the local Chuo/Sobu Line.
The park is open from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM Tuesday through Sunday, except during cherry blossom season and chrysanthemum season, when the park is open seven days a week.
Those who enjoy and are familiar with Japanese sweets should be familiar with Glico, the producer of such popular delights are Pocky, Pretz, etc. The company is headquartered in Nishiyodogawa-ku, Osaka and their illuminated sign of the running man is a famous landmark in Osaka’s downtown Dotonbori District. But did you know that Glico also has a museum? Known as the Ezaki Memorial Hall, the museum opened in 1970 and features exhibits highlighting the history of Glico and the various Glico give-away toys from the Taisho Period.
Ezaki Glico Co., Ltd. was founded by Riichi Ezaki (1882-1980) in 1921 after the launch of Glico Caramel at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Osaka. Glico is short for glycogen, a nutrient that stores energy. This nutrient was used in the manufacture of the caramel candies. In 1927, the company began giving away free toys including medals placed in a small box attached to the distinctive red running man packages. The first electric signboard was erected in Dotonbori in 1935 and was 1.5 times the size of the current illuminated sign (six generation sign). The production of Glico Caramels was halted in 1942 as the company was unable to procure materials to produce the confections as Japan became more deeply embroiled in WWII. The original signboard was dismantled in 1943 and used for scrap metal in the war effort.
Following the war, the Glico product was fully revived in 1949. The company developed over 30,000 kinds of give-away gifts, including miniature dolls, vehicles and household appliances, 4,000 of which it displays in the museum at its head office in Osaka. Today, the company’s Pocky product is sold in over 30 countries and the company hopes to expand further to rival Nestle’s Kit Kat product which brings in $1 billion on sales annually.
The museum is limited to the second floor of the Utajima location and admission is free of charge. (Please note that advance reservations are required which can be made via the web page or by phone.) Upon entering the museum, visitors are obliged to watch a 12-minute founder’s video. After the video, there are various exhibits highlighting the company’s history and the history of its trademark. The museum also has various examples of machines that were used in the manufacturing process of the confections, vending machines and even the original delivery cart for the product. Lastly, there is a display of the company’s myriad of products including curry, ice cream and yogurt, just to name a few.
Ezaki Memorial Hall is just 16 minutes of foot from the Tsukamoto Station of the JR Kobe line or 18 minutes on foot from the Mitejima Station of JR Tozai line. It does not take long to tour the museum (approximately 30 minutes) so do plan to combine your visit with other activities in Osaka.
Address: 4-6-5 Utajima, Nishiyodogawa-ku, Osaka 555-0021
Traveling through Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train) and gazing out at the scenery, I couldn’t help but notice how widespread pachinko parlors were in Japan.
Pachinko is a type of mechanical game resembling a vertical pinball machine that originated in Japan. The player gets a number of balls by inserting cash or cards directly into the machine. The balls are then shot into the machine by pulling a lever once for each launch from a ball tray. The balls then fall vertically through an array of pins, levers, cups, traps and various obstacles until they reach the bottom of the machine screen. The player has a chance to get more balls to play with if one of the launched balls hit a certain place during the fall through the pachinko machine. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible thus remaining in the game longer and increasing your winning odds.
The arcades and the machines have evolved over the years where the machines now resemble video slot machines and the parlors are more like casinos. For some, pachinko is a recreational arcade game and for many it is a form of gambling. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, therefore the balls are exchanged for prizes such as t-shirts, pens, cigarette lighters, perfume, cosmetics, candy or coupons to a nearby grocery store at the pachinko parlor. However, you can also elect to take a voucher which in turn can be exchanged for cash at “exchange centers” distinctly separate from the parlor.
At any given time, you can wonder into a pachinko parlor and find players of all ages and backgrounds transfixed on their machines which pack the narrow aisles. It is estimated that one-quarter of Japan’s over-18 population of approximately 100 million plays pachinko at least occasionally and up to 30 million people play pachinko regularly.
In 1999 the pachinko industry was worth a staggering 30 trillion yen, more than the Japanese motor industry! Further, the current recession doesn’t seem to be affecting pachinko’s prospects. Pachinko is unquestionably Japan’s number one leisure activity.
The first pachinko machines appeared in the 1920s as a children’s game called “Korinto Gemu.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that they emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya. During WWII, all of the pachinko parlors in Japan were shut down but re-opened in the late 1940s and the industry has been growing strong ever since.
In the early days, Nishijin and Sankyo were the main manufacturers of pachinko machines. Today, the Heiwa Corporation, established in Kiryu, Gunma in 1949 is the world’s largest privately owned manufacturer of pachinko and pachislot machines.
So does Japan have a massive gambling habit? Why not visit a pachinko parlor during your next trip and make that determination for yourself! Also, keep in mind that the Japanese prefer to call it gaming rather than gambling!
Located just south of Motomachi Station in Kobe is one of only three designated Chinatowns in Japan known as Nankinmachi (Nanjing town). Originated in 1868, the area is home to over one hundred Chinese restaurants, shops and a temple dedicated to Guan Yu.
When Kobe’s port was opened to foreigners after Japan’s isolation period, Chinese merchants from Guangdong and Fujian flocked in and settled in the western end of what was known as Kobe’s foreign district. At that time, Chinese people were referred to as “people from Nanking,” therefore the settlement came to be known as Nankinmachi. The area flourished in the early 1920s but that all changed during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II when many of the settlers returned to China. Further, the town was destroyed after the allied bombings and had to be rebuilt after the war by the Chinese who remained behind. In 1995, Nankinmachi was damaged once again due to the Great Hanshin earthquake and quickly rebuilt where today it remains a thriving center of Chinese culture in the Kansai region and is home to 10,000 residents.
A popular tourist attraction, Nankinmachi has three gates: Chang’an Gate (長安門), Xi’an Gate (西安門) and Nanlou Gate (南樓門). Two main streets run through the district, intersecting at a small plaza in the center. They are packed with shops, restaurants and food stands that sell items such as steamed buns (manju), ramen, tapioca drinks and various other Chinese dishes, many of which have been altered for the Japanese palate. The plaza is decorated with stone carvings of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs is a well-liked spot for photographs.
Several events take place during the year, with Chinese New Year or Shunsetu Sai, being the most attended. The brilliant fireworks and dancing lions/ dragons are quite spectacular and attract thousands of visitors to the district.
The Motomachi Station is 3 minutes from Sannomiya Station, 25 minutes from Osaka Station on the JR Kobe Line and 30 minutes from Umeda Station on the Hanshin Main Line making it an easy stop over when visiting Kobe.
Situated south of Kagoshima Prefecture is the island of Amami Oshima (lit. Big Amami Island), famous for its natural beauty and brightly colored coral reefs which make it an ideal diving spot. The island is part of the Amami Island chain consisting of eight islands and has been under the occupation of several domains.
Initially it belonged to the Ryukyu Kingdom and served as a stopping off point for envoys traveling from Japan to China. In 1609, Amami Oshima was invaded by the Shimazu clan and incorporated into their official holdings in 1624. The island was incorporated into Osumi Province (later Kagoshima Prefecture) after the Meiji Restoration and was occupied by the United States after WWII. In 1953, control of the island was finally reverted back to Japan. Saigo Takamori, was one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history, was exiled on the island in 1859 for a period of two years. His house has been preserved as a memorial museum.
Approximately 95% of the island is covered in forest which includes over a quarter square miles of mangrove. The surrounding waters are a clear, deep blue and home to several species of tropical fish. From June through August of each year, hundreds of sea turtles come up on shore to lay their eggs. The phenomenon draws hundreds of visitors to the island at nighttime.
Since 1974, 19,420 acres of Amami Oshima has been designated as part of Amami-gunto Quasi-National Park and the lands have been protected ever since. The northern part of the island, where Amami Oshima Airport is located, is dotted with white-sand beaches and beautiful coral reefs, a popular resort area for divers. The island produces a special silk product known as Oshima Tsumugi silk and there are over 400 factories located within Amami City, the only city among the eight islands.
The island is easily accessible from Haneda Airport. It is a 2 hour and 35 minute flight from Haneda to Amami Oshima Airport.
So if you want to experience the unspoiled natural beauty of one of Japan’s remote islands, a trip to Amami Oshima should be on your agenda. But do be aware of the Habu snake. The venomous pit viper inhabits roughly 70% of the island.