Kyoto Red

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A bucket-list-worthy walking experience.

At some point, the crowds in Osaka were starting to get to me and reminded me of Tokyo. To escape, I spent some days of winter vacation in Kyoto. I am still speechless when it comes to Kyoto. It is one of Japan’s big cities but it did not feel that way. While Osaka and Tokyo feel modern, Kyoto had a feel of an old small town or Edo-movie set. Kyoto is a historical bucket list when visiting Japan. It was saved from the destruction that other cities faced during World War II, resulting in its history being preserved.

With too many shrines, temples and historical places to visit in Kyoto, one place I could not miss was Fushimi Inari Shrine. As shown through my visit to Hitachi, I am fascinated by patterns and colours. I wanted to know what it was like to walk through the vermilion torii gates and I was not disappointed.

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Ntendeni was not ready for the 2-hour hike up the mountain.

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I did not do my research before I went there though, and was not prepared for the two-hour hike to the main shrine at the mountain peak. I thought I would have to go through the dozens of torii gates shown in tourist guides and that would be it. Man! was I wrong. I was not prepared for the ten-thousand torii gates that made the path to the mountain peak. It was a wonderful discovery though. This is where my ignorance and sometimes, poor research comes in handy. I had never before been showered with such an amount of torii gate overdose.

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The crowds squeezing into the first dozen torii gates at the beginning of the path towards the mountain. 

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Ten-thousand of them, one after the other.

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The shrine at the top of the mountain. 

Foxy business

The shrine is dedicated Inari, the Japanese deity of foxes. There are statues and statuettes of foxes everywhere. Images of foxes are found everywhere.

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Hello foxy!

Since it was near the new year, many people were visiting the shrine.

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There are a couple of shrines on the way to the top. 

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Inari shrines are dedicated to the Japanese deity of foxes. 

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The view of Kyoto on the way to the top.

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Rural train stations are quiet and scenic.

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Christmas at Universal Studios Japan

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Ntendeni finally crushed Universal Studios Japan off her bucket list.

I spent my December vacation in the Kansai region of Japan. I used the winter vacation to finally crush Osaka and Kyoto off my bucket list. I also visited Himeji, Kobe and Nara since they are easily accessible from Osaka. One grand activity I had to crush off my bucket list was spending the day at Universal Studios Japan. I decided to do it on Christmas.

Express Pass woes

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At the end of the day, the money bled was worth all the magic in the park.

Since Christmas day is overcrowded, I decided to be safe by buying an Express Pass. My heart is still bleeding from the money I spent on the pass but I had no choice. Since I have other places I want to visit in Japan, going back to USJ  seems unlikely so I wanted to make the most of my time while I was there.

The Express Pass gives a person the authority to jump the queue and save hours by giving them first-class access to the front of the queue for certain rides at certain times of the day. On top of the 7600¥ (67.40$ or R834.84) I had to dish up for the park entrance ticket; I also, reluctantly, angrily, “complainingly”, dished up some ¥ 10,367 (92.46$ ) for the Express Pass that gave me access to the front of the line of four rides in timed slots!

The Express Pass cost more than the park ticket and it was constrained to certain slots! I could not just get access to the rides at any time I wanted even after paying such a large amount of cash! I would expect that, with such an amount spent, I would have to ride as much as I wanted throughout the day, as many times as I wanted and at any time I wanted but No!.

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The Express Pass gave Ntendeni royal access to the front of the queues in some sought-after attractions.

The other thing was that I paid a little extra on an English travel agency website because the park website allows you to purchase tickets only in Japanese. I initially asked my Japanese colleague to do it for me but then it required me to be a member of some club of the park! After all the anger and fuming, I had no choice but to buy the pass from an English agency online. And then after doing that, I realised that I could have saved a little if I had bought the pass from another site. Don’t get me started on the fact that for the busy  and high demand holiday season, they pump up the prices for the Express Pass by almost double!

After all the trouble though, I made the most of my time at Universal studios. I get to say that I spent Christmas at Universal studios and rode all the Fast-Pass (most popular) rides for the day. The express pass gave me an opportunity to check out other rides while waiting for the timed slots I was allocated to jump the queue at other rides.

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Ntendeni was not complaining when she was given a royal access to jump to the front of the hour-long queue for “The Flying Dinosaur” ride.

One time when the Express Pass was worth it was when I jumped to the front of the queue in “The Flying Dinosaur” ride, the coolest roller-coaster ever! I felt like a King jumping the line. Otherwise, I would have had to wait for over an hour to ride it. The Express Pass also gave me access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter during the illumination and night show at Hogwarts Castle, followed by a royal access to the famous ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, which, without the pass, I would not have ridden because the queues were long the whole day. The pass also gave me an opportunity to ride “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man” twice, once with the pass and once without.

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Some rides had long queues for the whole day.

The Express Pass also gave me the opportunity to spend time at other rides that were not covered by the pass, knowing that the other popular rides were guaranteed by the pass. I I used to short single-rider queues to ride “Space Fantasy-The Ride” twice, “Hollywood Dream-The Ride” twice (once because I jumped the queue by mistake and ended in the front thinking I was taking an elevator to the bathroom) and “Hollywood Dream- The Ride- Backdrop”. Towards the end of the night, I ran to “Despicable Me Minion Mayhem” ride and it was worth it. It was fun and colourful and better than the 3-D rides I took during the day.

At the end of the day, the Express Pass was worth it, saved me time and allowed me to ride all the important rides for the day; which was important considering I do not plan to go back there anytime soon. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I had to make the most of it.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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The entrance feels like a gate to a Harry Potter movie set.

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Hogwarts Castle.

I have never read any Harry Potter books or watched any Harry Potter movies but The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a fun place to be. The pass gave me access to the illumination at Hogwarts Castle at night and gave me access to the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride at the time when the area was closed to anyone without the pass. The entire Harry Potter area and the butter beer were worth all the hype.

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Butter beer! It was just as tasty as the hype.

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Ntendeni is considering being a fan of Harry Potter after the fun visit.

The fake snow made up for the lack snow during Osaka winter.

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“Flight of the Hippogriff” was another Fast-Pass ride Ntendeni enjoyed from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

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Harry Potter open theatre.

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Illuminations at Hogwarts Castle at night.

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Creepy but fun Hogwarts Castle at night.

Minion Mayhem

I hate minions so much, I love them. They are annoying and I love them. Minions, and anything to do with them, were not on the agenda during my visit but their annoying cuteness ended up invading my day.

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The naughty minions hijacked Ntendeni’s day.

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Their cuteness also dominated the parades.

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Minion ice-cream sandwich

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World-record Christmas tree

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Record-breaking most lights on a Christmas tree.

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Disneyland can keep their Cinderella castle. Universal Studios slayed Christmas with a Guinness world record-breaking Christmas tree. What a way to close off Christmas night! The illuminations and light shows on the tree were magical.

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Christmas illuminations

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Universal City

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They don’t call it Universal City for nothing. The theme park and the surrounding areas are vast and they create their own mini-city in Osaka.

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There are colourful themed trains that go to the theme park. 

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It was a memorable Christmas

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Onsen: bathing Japanese style

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Onsens are definitely on the must-do list when visiting Japan.

My first visit to an onsen was at Yunnesun in Hakone. Besides bathing in wine, I went to a nude-only onsen. I was nervous during my first experience especially because I did not know how people were going to react to seeing a naked black woman walking around. I was also shocked to see children and little boys in the female onsen. In South Africa, parents do not bathe with their children and will usually kick the little kids out of the room when they are getting dressed. Women would definitely not allow little boys to see them nude! It is a taboo for kids to see adults naked, let alone take a bath together.

While the women ignored me, the children could not hide their fascination at seeing a naked black woman walking. It is possible that for all of them, I was the first and maybe the last, black woman they will ever see naked.

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The shower area where people wash their bodies before entering the bath.

My second onsen visit was at Kinugawa onsen, a famous onsen town in Tochigi prefecture. This time around, I knew what to expect and I was aware of the dos and don’ts. I went to a hotel and paid for a one-day onsen experience.  I found a woman in the onsen, who later left and two other women came later but did not stay long. Most of the time, I was alone in the onsen. This gave me an opportunity to take pictures.

At an onsen, a person must wash their bodies and hair thoroughly in the shower area. The bath area is only for relaxing and a person must be naked and clean when they enter the bath. In Japan, tubs are not for washing the body but for relaxing. The body must be thoroughly washed at the shower and the bath must be entered clean because it is only for relaxation. The bath is not for swimming. One must try as best as possible not to cause much disturbance in the bath. A person must walk slowly if they want to go to the other side of the bath and when they find their spot, sit quietly and still.

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The shower area comes with stools and wooden buckets for washing off the dirt before entering the onsen. Shampoo, conditioner and bath soap are provided. A bath towel and face cloth can be bought or rented for a small price. Towels must not enter the onsen. A folded face cloth can be placed on the head while in the onsen though, but must not be used for bathing or even touch the water.

Now in winter, it is a great experience and a Japanese past-time to warm the body at an onsen to escape the cold. Onsens can be a great way to thaw the bones and relax away from the cold.

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The stool and wooden bucket in the shower area. 

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A day in Moscow

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Ntendeni finally saw St. Basil’s cathedral.

It is not a coincidence that just in April this year, Russia scrapped Visas for South African citizens. I believe that it was a plan by God to give me an opportunity to finally visit Moscow.

The cheapest flights to Paris were via Moscow so I deliberately booked a return flight with a day layover in the capital. I was too tired on my way back from Paris and on my periods so I just wanted to go home, but I dragged on because I could not miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I arrived early in the morning and although the airline desk emphasized to me that I could not go out without a Visa, I refused to be discouraged. I went to immigration and after too many uncomfortable stares and comparisons between me and the picture on my passport, I was finally let through. After struggling to find someone to help me and show me the way, I finally found a nice young Russian lady who could speak in English and a taxi driver that helped me.

I hustled my way around the bus and subway systems until I got to the Red Square. Once again I was in a different country where I did not speak the language. Nevertheless, I managed to find my way around, saw what I wanted to see, went through another immigration hurdle (story for another day) and had enough time left before my flight back to Tokyo.

The Red Square

I finally got to see the Red Square. The beauty lived up to the hype. It is a lovely place.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

The main reason I wanted to visit the Red Square was St. Basil’s Cathedral. The colourful patterns, shapes and the onion roofs make it look like something from a  cartoon.

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Ntendeni admires the architectural genius of the cathedral.

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State Historical Museum

This is the attractive red building opposite St. Basil’s Cathedral.

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She looks like a model posing for a picture.

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Ntendeni finally fulfilled her dream to spend a day at the square.

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Around the Square

It was nice taking a walk around. I visited Gum shopping center and watched some kind of military, army event going on; whatever that was.

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The Kremlin

Before finding the Red Square, I happened to stumble across the Kremlin. It was one of those times when I thanked God I got lost. The Kremlin was not even on my agenda but ended up being worth a visit. The reason for going there was because I did not know how to get to the Red Square

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Ntendeni loves the onion roofs.

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Bolshoi theater

This was also not on my agenda but just happened to be on the way between the Red Square and the subway.

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The subway

I was impressed by the subway in Moscow. It was spotlessly clean and the train stations were as beautifully designed as art galleries. The Moscow subway can definitely rival Tokyo and wins over Tokyo in terms of art decor.

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The rest of Moscow

Although I had a short time in Moscow, what I saw was enough to make me want to go back.

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The ultimate Japanese postcard

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Chureito Pagoda with Mount Fuji in the background.

In an attempt to renew my joy in travelling, I travelled to the Mount Fuji area. The only other time I had been in the area was last year and I only went to Fuji Q Highland theme park. This time, I went just to enjoy natural beauty.

On my way back, I decided to pass by Chureito Pagoda to capture the sunset. I walked fast, up the steps, to capture the sunset as it was already getting dark. Chureito Pagoda,with Mount Fuji in the background creates a stereotypical, touristy and postcard-worthy shot of Japan.

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Autumn colours

I love Autumn colours, maybe more than spring colours. The journey to the Pagoda presented some nice colours.

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Hitachi Seaside Park

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A hill of Kochia.

I am a flower lover. Daydreaming about running through a hill of flowers gives me peace. For a flower lover, Japan is a good place to live. There are many flower enjoyment opportunities in the country. Cherry blossom season is just one of many.

I went on a travel hiatus after coming  back exhausted from Paris in July. The humid Japanese summer also left me with no interest to go outside. Instead, I spent the rest of the summer cooling under the comfort of an air-conditioner.

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I ended my travel hiatus by visiting Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki prefecture. The park boasts a variety of flowers that attract visitors throughout the year. In Autumn, the main attraction is Kochia. The bush starts green and gradually turns red, or pink, or purple, or maroon, depending on what colour your camera sees.

I used to see a different colour depending on which side of the hill I was looking from. I am happy the rainy weather did not discourage me. The hills of Kochia felt like I was inside a landscape painting.

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After applying a cellphone filter.

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The rain did not discourage people from coming.

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Other parts of the park

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Views from the Ferris wheel

It was rainy and windy so I could not get clear views of the park from the wheel. The wind was also strong up there. This made the Ferris wheel less enjoyable.

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Louvre: Mother of all museums

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The winged victory of Samothrace has been voted amongst some of the most famous sculptures in the world.

I believed that the Louvre was the biggest museum in the world hours after being there. I started to doubt if there could be any place in the world with an art collection that large and crazy. The Louvre changed the way I saw art, my definition of what a museum entails and my appreciation for art.

I had read that one needed at least three to four days just to finish the museum but I underestimated it. I expected it to feature just the Mona Lisa and a couple of paintings and that would be it. I was beyond shocked when I went there. I arrived before the queues in the morning and left when the museum closed twelve hours later and I doubt I even finished exploring the whole museum.

The Louvre is so big, I ended up getting frustrated and emotional. After a while, I started just scanning around the museum without absorbing the details of the art. I thought that paintings were the only art the museum held and I was shocked at what I discovered. The museum celebrates every kind of art one can think of. Paintings, sculptures, ceilings, carpets, home decor, silverware and others.

I was shocked to find a gallery of African art in the museum and a large collection of Egyptian art. I was also shocked that they appreciated home decor and carpets as art. The museum’s definition of art is broad. They even have Islamic art and a section dedicated to grave, burial art.

From now on, I will compare every museum I visit to the Louvre and I know none will come close. The Louvre made me appreciate art and made me understand why people would pay so much money on art. After twelve hours of walking, my feet were sore, I was exhausted and I had learnt to appreciate art more. The museum was a maze and I discovered it freely without a guide and without following the map. It was fun and frustrating getting lost.

Paintings

The Louvre has a large collection of paintings. As I was getting lost in the maze, I discovered more and more themed galleries which I would have otherwise missed had I left early.

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Ntendeni’s favourite painting in the museum. Out of the thousands of paintings, it was the only one where a black woman was the focus of the art.

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Ceilings

At first, I did not pay attention to the ceiling and I was missing out because the ceilings at the museum have art of their own. What frustrated and wowed me about the museum was that the art was in all directions from top to bottom. The ceilings stood their ground as art on their own.

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Sculptures

The museum boasts a large collection of sculptures from all over the world, from different periods and showing different styles.

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Galleries

I felt honoured to be amongst other art lovers appreciating the work in the museum. I also felt overwhelmed because each gallery had lots of beautiful work and I did not have the time to study each piece of work properly.

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Other art

I went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and ended up being overwhelmed by all kinds of art. Some of the sections that shocked me were Islamic art, African art and the large collection of Egyptian art. I was humbled by the museum’s appreciation of various types of art from all over the world. They also have decor and carpet art!

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My morning started with some overpriced breakfast. I needed the caffeine binge if I were going to survive the museum though.

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Mona Lisa: the Louvre’s superstar

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Ntendeni managed to take a picture of the Mona Lisa early in the morning before the crowds.

Behold, the number one reason people visit the Louvre. The Mona Lisa, usually listed at number one as the world’s most famous painting. I had known about the painting for some time and knew that it was sought-after and well-known; but I had no idea how small it was until I was doing my research to prepare for my trip to Paris.

Many people visit the Louvre just to see the strange smile and the gaze and nothing else. The most sought-after painting in the museum, it is always overcrowded throughout the day and I am happy I arrived early in the morning before the madness. The most disappointing thing about the painting is the size of course. I used to imagine it being a large piece of art, the kind that fills an entire wall and makes you look up.

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The Mona Lisa is the most overcrowded work of art in the museum.

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The barriers around the painting to keep admirers, and crazies, out.

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Unlike Mona Lisa’s smile, Ntendeni’s smile needs no conspiracy theories and mysteries to decode. 

 

The Louvre

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Ntendeni crushed the Louvre off her bucket list.

Behold. The world’s most famous glass pyramid. I wanted to say it was the world’s most famous pyramid but forgot Giza in Egypt? The pyramid has become the image that comes to people’s minds when they think of the Louvre. Besides marvelling at the works of art, I took my time just to photograph the pyramid. Once you see it in real life, it draws you in and you cannot help but just stare.

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The famous pyramid at night.

One morning at the Louvre

It was my second day in Paris. I was tired and sleepy, two words that basically describe my entire stay in Paris. I had not had proper sleep since leaving Japan and I could feel my eyes struggling to keep open. However, I woke up early in the morning to beat the queues.

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The Louvre from the inside.

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Carrousel du Louvre

As I was leaving the museum, I saw an interesting inverted pyramid and went on its direction. I didn’t know there was an underground shopping mall connected to the Louvre.

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The inverted pyramid at the shopping mall fascinated Ntendeni.

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Ntendeni at the Louvre.

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Eiffel Illumination

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The Iron Lady shows off at night.

What is better than visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Watching the beautiful illumination at night. I joined thousands of tourists and admirers just to adore the illuminated Eiffel at night. Once it gets dark, the tower remains illuminated. As a bonus, it sparkles for five minutes at the beginning of every hour at night. The sparkles are a wonderful spectacle and a must on the to-do list while in Paris.

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The Eiffel Tower sparkles for five minutes.

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Thousands of people gather in all directions around the tower to appreciate the beauty of the illuminated sparkling lady at night.

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Ntendeni waits with other admirers for the tower to sparkle. 

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Ntendeni enjoys views of the Eiffel Tower from Arc de Triomphe.

 

Eiffel picnics

It is a past time and a memorable experience in Paris to have a picnic at Champ de Mars, the park at the bottom of the tower. It reminded me of Hanami, cherry blossom picnics that the Japanese enjoy in spring.

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People enjoy picnics at Champ de Mars as they wait for the tower to sparkle.

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