Knitting Japan Together on the Shinkansen
Japan’s shinkansen bullet train can travel more than 800 kilometres in only six hours. | Photo: henry perks on Unsplash

Knitting Japan Together on the Shinkansen

Tying together Japan’s metropolitan areas, the shinkansen passes through parts of the country that still retain deep traditional practices. James Krick discovers his trip to Sapporo is also a journey into the past.

Spread over 3,000 miles of mountains, jungle, forest, and plains, the Japanese archipelago is an area of ancient history and traditions dating back thousands of years. However, the skyscrapers and glittering neon of the megacities on the country’s eastern shores often bear little resemblance to the Japan found in its hinterland.

In fact, despite the names of places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama conjuring up futuristic, Blade Runner-esque visions in the minds of visitors, the real, every day Japan is far more traditional than it may first appear.

To experience this juxtaposition myself, I bought a ticket for a journey on Japan’s shinkansen bullet train network. My chosen destination of Sapporo is a mammoth 830 kilometres from Tokyo, but on this train, the journey could be completed in its entirety in just six short hours.

As the train left Tokyo Station, I found it remarkable how much the interior resembles a luxury airliner, and I settled into my aircraft-style seat for the ride. However, looking out of the window, I realised the one thing that an aircraft could never offer is the view you get from the shinkansen. With Mount Fuji glistening in the far distance like a snow-tipped pyramid looming over the city, the scenery outside my window began to blur as the train sped north out of the city. 

The ticket inspectors passed through my carriage. I noted that, as with many aspects of life in Japan, they completed their tasks with full commitment to the tradition of service. Upon entering each carriage, the immaculately dressed ticket conductors remove their hats and bow to the passengers before excusing the disturbance of having to check tickets. Even on the bullet train, the importance of tradition and etiquette is present.

As city buildings gave way to the countryside, it occurred to me how curious it is that such modern aspects of society exist comfortably alongside time-honoured ways of life.

In towns and villages around the country, people make the annual pilgrimage to their local Shinto shrines after midnight on the first day of the new year to pray to the gods for luck and prosperity. It is a unique blend of cutting-edge technology and modernity, but always infused with traditional values and beliefs that makes Japan such a unique place.

Nowhere have I found this juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient more evident than on journeys like this one on Japan’s shinkansen bullet train network. The rail system that was first built in 1964 has created a network of arteries crossing the country and linking the major centres to some of the country’s farthest corners. It truly does knit together the old and the new of Japan.

It is easy to forget that this marvel of engineering is now in its sixth decade of existence, and yet it still feels very much like a modern, efficient, and fast way to make a journey. An estimated 85 million passengers use the service every year, and it is often seen as a more comfortable and convenient way to travel than flying.

However, what is truly the most intriguing aspect about travelling on the shinkansen is how this marvel of modern engineering is the best way for travellers to experience some of Japan’s most hidden and traditional places and sights that would be easily missed between the big cities. Despite often being overlooked as a shuttle to get from one city to the next, the shinkansen network is actually a treasure trove of cultural highlights.

Taking a shinkansen journey from Tokyo’s bustling central station has led me to many different areas of the country. From Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, famed for its tonkotsu ramen noodles and nightlife, to Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, an area that is renowned for its world-class winter sports. 

Travelling from Tokyo and Sapporo, as I was on this particular trip, is one of the shinkansen’s many branches that serve to connect two of the country’s most important metropolitan areas. 

However, watching Japan fly by on my own journey, I realised it is the places the bullet train visits in between that really show how it transports us to the country’s traditional corners. 

To call the service a ”shuttle” at all is to do it a monumental disservice. Although the shinkansen is widely used by business travellers to go between Japan’s economic centres quickly, it is also a journey through Japan’s rich and textured culture — a mix of timeworn practices and contemporary wonders. 

Over the course of my single journey, Japan’s shinkansen took me to hidden “onsen” hot springs, through wild forests, and past tiny villages and hamlets where the traditional minka houses clustered around rice paddies. Indeed, this was seeing ancient Japan through one of modern Japan’s most famous creations. 

The train slowed for a brief final stop at one of Japan’s largest and last remaining outdoor morning markets in the northern city of Aomori. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and enjoy a traditional breakfast of salmon rice balls and green tea while watching the fishing boats bobbing in the harbour. Once the shinkansen took off from the station, it sped me under the Tsugaru Strait and up to my final destination of Sapporo.

As the train pulled into Sapporo’s modern station and its skyscrapers loomed into view, I gathered my bag and lined up with the businessmen and women to disembark into the afternoon sunshine. Watching the people around me checking their smartphones and closing their laptops, the traditional Japan that we had journeyed through already felt a world away. However, as the train prepared to depart for its return journey to Tokyo, I turned and saw the station crew bowing as its engines once again began their roar, blessing its return journey. 

Even in the modern city, tradition remains just beneath the surface. 

It is truly a uniquely Japanese experience to travel from one of the world’s most technologically advanced cities to an area where so little has changed in thousands of years, and tradition remains at the forefront of people’s lives. To do so on such a symbol of the country that provides people with a transport link between the old and new Japan is even more remarkable.

James Krick


James is a British born writer based between Japan and the Middle East. Travelling and exploring different cultures are two of his greatest passions. When he is not travelling to new places, he can be found hunting down new sushi spots to try or out walking with his dog!

    Time to Read:  5 Minutes
    Traveller: James Krick
    23 December 2022
    Travellers' Tales - Customs and Traditions

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    Photo Essay: An Invitation to a Tocho Toy Party in the Kyrgyz Highlands
    The celebration's immense spread included homemade bread, grapes, candies, fried dough, and boiled ram. | Photo: Quentin Boehm

    Photo Essay: An Invitation to a Tocho Toy Party in the Kyrgyz Highlands

    Crossing Kyrgyz Highlands with their three stallions, Ashley Parsons and Quentin Boehm were invited to celebrate a special day with a local family. The occasion? Their youngest daughter had just taken her first steps.

    There are few countries where travelling by horseback is still feasible, much less practical. Kyrgyzstan, with its soaring mountains, vast steppes, and rushing rivers, is one of those lands.

    From May to September 2021, I travelled with Quentin Boehm across the country with our three stallions: Fidel, Tian, and Chai. Each day, we learned more about the bond between horse and rider, the nature of Kyrgyzstan, and the culture of the semi-nomadic peoples who populate the highlands during the summer months. 

    One day in mid-August, we accepted an invitation to the yurt of a family celebrating a special day: the first steps of their youngest daughter. We had the privilege of capturing this intimate peek into the life of Kyrgyz semi-nomadic shepherds. 

    Travelling across the country with our three stallions: Fidel, Tian, and Chai | Quentin Boehm

    For nearly 1,000 miles, we had been crossing Kyrgyzstan on horseback: Quentin, Fidel, Tian, Chai, and me. These three horses had been our partners for the past four months; we rarely spent an hour apart.

    Our days passed in devotion to their care. In exchange, these noble stallions allowed us a chance to see the country from between their ears. Over four months, they inducted us in the land where steppe, mountains, and sky meet.

    Old Russian cars navigate the bumpy paths of the highlands | Photo: Quentin Boehm

    Kyrgyzstan, the land of nomads, has changed since the days of the old Silk Road. A mix of long-standing Kyrgyz traditions, Soviet equipment, and modern gadgets imported from China make up the world of a typical Kyrgyz shepherd. In the region of the sacred lake Issyk-Kul, old Russian cars are used to navigate the bumpy paths of the highlands. 

    On this August morning, a car packed with people hailed us down and insisted we follow it for something that sounded like a “tocho toy.” After four months in the country, we knew that “toy” meant “party” in Kyrgyz, so we obliged.

    Outside the yurt, a festive spirit was in the air | Quentin Boehm

    The car parked and we settled our horses nearby. Azaida and Norbek introduced themselves and welcomed us with huge grins. Outside their yurt, relatives and neighbours gathered and a festive spirit reigned. 

    Kyrgyz traditions are mostly oral, but we’d read enough of the epic “Manas,” and been spontaneously invited home enough by shepherds, to know that surprise foreign guests bring good luck to any feast or party. 

    We were invited to join in celebration of a child’s first steps | Quentin Boehm

    The star of the day smiled at us. After exchanging niceties, Azaida explained the purpose of the day’s party to us. A tocho toy is a special day in a young child’s life: It is the celebration of their first steps.

    Around the planet, parents rejoice when a child takes their first steps. But how wholesome, charming, and loving to celebrate the first steps toward independence with a full-blown party!

    In the shadow of the tunduk, the latticed wooden roof of the yurt | Quentin Boehm

    Ushered out of the hot sun, we stepped inside the yurt. These mobile summer homes are incredibly efficient at offering shade on sweltering days, or warmth when the wind whips icy droplets across your face. 

    The shadow of the tunduk (the latticed wooden roof of the yurt symbolising unity and strength) cast patterns across the entryway where we left our shoes.

    The extravagant spread laid on for tea, a truly celebratory affair | Quentin Boehm

    Our jaws hit the floor. 

    The most extravagant spread we’d ever seen for caj, or tea, lay before us. Homemade bread, watermelon from Uzbekistan, grapes, candies, and fried dough sprawled across the table. Bananas from god-knows-where, homemade kymak (heavy cream), jams from wild berries. 

    Stopping in for tea is sacred in Kyrgyzstan; it is the most basic offering of hospitality, a chance for tired riders or shepherds to regain strength, and a social visit for the hosts. Azaida and Norbek had pulled out all the stops for their little girl.

    After tea, chatting outdoors and watching the children at play | Quentin Boehm

    In between tea and the main course, we convened outdoors to watch the children play and keep chatting. Though it is hard work keeping livestock and living in a yurt for four to six months a year, Kyrgyz shepherds and their families are very proud of the health benefits and privilege of being out in nature.

    The main course of boiled ram — no edible part of the animal goes to waste | Quentin Boehm

    On the menu: boiled ram. Left to simmer for hours in the deep pot on a fire fueled by dried cow manure, the celebration dish included every edible part of the ram. Organs, intestines, and blocks of fat are not excluded. 

    Had there been more people, or if the party had been for a son (Norbek had three young girls at the time), “I would have prepared horse,” confided Norbek. Horse meat is prized (and quite expensive) in Kyrgyzstan, and the ritual of slaughtering a horse is very serious and solemn. 

    The women’s circle: for the main meal, men and women split up | Quentin Boehm

    Azaida sits in the front of the women’s circle. Although we share the same table for tea, for the main meal, men and women split up. The ram is served besh barmak style, which means “five fingers.” Sitting on decorative cushions called korpachas, the women share the more succulent cuts of meat and cubes of fat, and drink more tea.

    Outdoors, the men are allocated the ribs and organs. Their drink of choice? Numerous vodka toasts.

    A joyful milestone: the first steps of a beloved daughter | Quentin Boehm

    Four months in Kyrgyzstan and we thought we’d started to understand this beautiful culture that is full of respect, hospitality, hard work, honour, and love. And then a day like this, with a surprise invitation to a party celebrating the first steps of a beloved daughter adds a new layer to what we don’t yet understand. 

    What a lucky girl to join a family that relishes celebration and sharing!

    Ashley Parsons


    Ashley Parsons is a wandering journalist, travelling slowly by bicycle, horseback, or on foot. Conscious and slow travel, adventure, the outdoors, curious traditions, and grassroots movements are her favorite subjects to write about. She's written books for Lonely Planet, and her articles have been published in places like Atlas Obscura, Whetstone Mag, Fodor's Travel, Earth Island Journal, Sidetracked Magazine, and more. You can find her work online and follow her and photographer Quentin Bohem's travels at En Selle! or on instagram.

    Time to Read:  5 Minutes
    Traveller: Ashley Parsons
    23 December 2022
    Travellers' Tales - Meet the People - Photo Essay

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    Meet Rebecca Lolosoli, a Samburu Woman Defying Patriarchal Standards
    Living in a patriarchal society, Samburu women find safety living in Umoja Village. | Photo: Ken kahiri on Unsplash

    Meet Rebecca Lolosoli, a Samburu Woman Defying Patriarchal Standards

    Umoja Village, founded by Rebecca Lolosoli, is a female-led safe haven for homeless women, domestic abuse survivors, sexual assault victims, and young girls escaping child marriage and the cultural practice of FGM.

    Rebecca Lolosoli was in the hospital recovering from a brutal beating when she decided to create a safe place where only women could reside. Her crime? Educating women in her village about their human rights.

    In 1990, Lolosoli and 14 other women took the bold step to establish Umoja Village in Kenya’s Samburu County. Only women and their children are allowed to live there, and no men are allowed. The village’s full name is Umoja Uaso. The word “umoja” means “unity” in Kiswahili while Uaso Nyrio is the river nearby.

    The village is female-led and has grown to include homeless women, domestic abuse survivors, sexual assault victims, and young girls escaping child marriage and the cultural practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Many were thrown out of their communities for bringing shame to their families and, as a result, became outcasts. 

    According a 2015 article in The Guardian, there were 47 women and 200 children living in this village at the time of publication. 

    The majority of the women come from different parts of Samburu County. Members of the Samburu tribe are semi-nomadic pastoralists who practice polygamy and live in groups of five to 10 families. In this tribe, women and children are perceived to be forms of wealth. They are to be seen, not heard. Decision-making is left mostly to the men who are the tribe’s protectors while women’s roles are as caregivers and domestic laborers.

    Unfortunately, a vicious gender war has played a large part in Umoja’s progression. “Men have always been against us,” Lolosoli says. “They’ve unsuccessfully filed cases against our village in court. Even my former husband attacked our village and threatened to kill me, but I did not give up.” Women’s safety has been a long-standing issue in Umoja Village due to the numerous threats that villagers have received over the years. 

    “Men have always hated our village. They have also unsuccessfully started their own ‘male-only village’ because they could not understand how we, as women, have thrived without men for such a long time,” Lolosoli says.

    In this patriarchal society, it is considered taboo for women to own land, and less than two percent of Kenyan women own titled land. The village defied that cultural norm by applying to own the title deed of their land in 2019; in 2021 the county government of Samburu issued a title deed to Umoja villagers for grazing land. After an interview with Thomson Reuters, the local administrator, Henry Lenayasa said this feat was not only for Umoja villagers but all Samburu women. 

    Lolosoli explains the lengthy and turbulent 34-year journey it has taken for the village to reach stability. “We used to sell vegetables that we bought because we did not know how to farm. We were not farmers.” 

    After the vegetable venture failed, the village decided to sell traditional jewellery to tourists. “We have been helped by government bodies that understood the needs of our village,” Lolosoli says. “KWS [Kenya Wildlife Services] took us to Maasai Mara to learn about the craft business. The Ministry of Culture and Kenya’s Heritage and Social Service have also helped us greatly.” 

    The women earn a living by selling traditional Samburu jewelry at the Umoja Waso Women’s Cultural Center and running a commercial, 14-acre tourist campsite along the Uaso Nyiro River. The proceeds from these activities support this resilient and resourceful community of matriarchs — game changers in tourism and in life —and fund the Umoja Muehlbauer Academy. The school educates the children in a culture where approximately 73% of women and children are illiterate, according to a CNN article

    This patriarchal hierarchy, the harm women have suffered as a result, and the village’s efforts to provide a safe place to live and livelihood to women despite these hardships has garnered international attention. CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and CNBC News have all covered Lolosoli’s journey and Umoja Village’s story.

    Mwende Mutuli Musau


    Mwende Mutuli Musau is a freelance writer from Kenya. She covers travel, culture, and food for an array of international publications. Mwende is an ardent African traveler who began exploring the world in her early childhood and it has become a part of her lifestyle. Mwende also has a passion for content creation; she actively creates travel content on Tiktok, Instagram, and Youtube. During her leisure time, she's a healthy girl who eats sustainably and is a fitness fanatic. Mwende enjoys spending time in nature, reading books, and yoga.

    Time to Read:  3 Minutes
    Storyteller: Mwende Mutuli Musau
    23 December 2022
    Game Changers

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    Meet Haseen Mohammad and Shahid Junaid, the master weavers preserving the silk-weaving traditions of Varanasi, India
    Varanasi is known for its hand-woven silk tradition with origins tracing back to the 16th or early 17th century. | Photo: Sabah Gurmat

    Meet Haseen Mohammad and Shahid Junaid, the master weavers preserving the silk-weaving traditions of Varanasi, India

    Varanasi was once home to a rich, hand-woven silk tradition passed down through generations of artisans. Today, inexpensive materials and mass-production processes dominate the silk market, but some master weavers continue to produce these meticulously hand-woven brocades.

    Several yards of sumptuous silks lay piled all over the flat, white-mattressed floors of Haseen Mohammad’s warehouse, as inquiries and orders from women across the country keep coming in through a stream of WhatsApp messages. In his late 50s, Mohammad is regarded as a “master weaver” amongst the Indian city of Varanasi’s once-bustling tradition of rich, silk fabrics. 

    Often regarded as one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, this city is famous for its spiritual tourism, street food, and ancient ghats (riverfront steps) lining the banks of the Ganges River. But it’s also just as widely known for producing some of the world’s best silk saris. This is an age-old weaving tradition followed by generations of largely Muslim and marginalised caste weavers under India’s hierarchical caste system.

    Popularly known as the “Banarasi sari” or “Banarasi silks,” these meticulously hand-woven brocades feature elaborate detailing. The warp and weft of zari (yarn made out of silver and gold wire) is interlaced to produce intricate motifs and luxurious designs. 

    Tracing its origin to at least the 16th or early 17th century, this tradition of weaving silk brocades gained ground after the migration of silk weavers and traders from the westernmost border state of Gujarat, who left that region after a famine in 1603. The patronage of the Mughal rulers popularised this particular clothing, and it became synonymous with ceremonial and luxury wear. 

    While this tradition of hand loom silk weaving was highly prized for centuries, the past few decades have seen a massive shift to mechanised power looms. Today, after two devastating waves of COVID-19 in India and growing competition from power loom weavers, most manual weavers have been shut out of the business. Taking their place are cheaper and cost-efficient machines, Chinese yarn, and mass-produced fakes

    Mohammad, however, is one among the remaining silk weavers who only sells hand-produced weaves. A national award-winning master weaver with nearly 70 weavers working under him, Mohammad is a fourth-generation artisan based out of a narrow bylane in the city’s old Peeli Kothi area. 

    For weavers like him, and to the expert’s eye, the difference between the original hand-woven product versus the machine one is crucial.

    The silks are woven employing two techniques: kadhua/kadhwa and phenkua/phenkwa. Under the kadhua technique, each motif is woven into the silk individually instead of using a shuttle. This employs the use of trained artisans, who use an embroidery-like skill to weave threads in one-by-one. “That work can only be done through the hand loom,” Mohammad says. 

    Meanwhile, with the phenkua technique, the threads of the warp are thrown from end-to-end using a shuttle. (“Phenkna” means “to throw,” from which the term is derived.)

    “When COVID-19 began, several hand looms were shut down. It is probably a miracle that I survived. What earlier used to take 10 days, would now take 20 days for an order,” he says. “The position of hand looms is still so dire, that finding weavers who do this kind of work is very difficult.”

    Mohammad points out that, until the 1990s, approximately 75 percent of the silks were woven by hand, and 25 percent by machine-operated power looms. “But the position of today is the total opposite with power looms easily accounting for 75 percent of the weaving business today, and handweavers dying out,” he says. Mohammad estimates the city’s famous silks now retain “just 25,000 to 30,000” handweavers, with more than 150,000 now working on power looms. 

    “The entire USP (unique selling point) of the Banarasi silk tradition was that it was painstakingly woven by hand,” he says. However, today’s younger weavers heavily favour power looms or are migrating to cities like Surat and Bengaluru. “There is money in both power looms and hand looms, but the real issue is that the weavers of today don’t want to work by hand. The machine is easier. It doesn’t require that much concentration and skill.”

    Meanwhile, further south of Varanasi’s Peeli Kothi area lies Reori Talab, home to another set of hand loom master weavers’ families, including the abode of Haji Munna’s textiles. 

    Run by Shahid Junaid, the eighth-generation descendant of the 19th-century weaver Haji Munna, the family has been in the silk hand loom trade since at least 1844. 

    Sixty-one-year-old Junaid points out how most of the business has been carried out by local Muslims, largely from the maginalised caste of Ansaris in India’s hierarchical caste system. “People like us never had formal stores to sell these weaves. It has always been a family business, operated in our homes,” he said. 

    “I’d come back from school, keep my bags on these mattresses, and just sit and watch. My father had installed a hand loom inside our home, so we just learned it as part of the family tradition, despite having no master or teacher. For a long time, there has been a tradition in our caste community that we have to undertake this as our business,” Junaid said.

    In the basement of their house, hand loom weaving artisans painstakingly weave motifs such as the popular floral “jaal” (intertwined mesh) patterns into silks using the kadhua technique. The traditional Banarasi silk weaves have historically employed motifs such as paisleys, floral jaals, and shikargah, creating depictions such as of hunting scenes featuring men and animals or birds. Upstairs, the master weaver Junaid is surrounded by the finished products, which are ready to be distributed to commercial outlets and discerning fashion designers. 

    But even as brand-name designers across India flock to both Mohammad and Haji Munna’s Junaid, hand loom master weavers like them are dwindling in numbers. 

    Junaid explains one of the reasons this is happening: “More people are now headed toward power looms because of the paucity of skilled hand artisans. Also, hand loom is a cottage industry where if one artisan starts working on a specific product, then only they can operate the loom and no one else can replace them, otherwise the design is visibly different. 

    “With a power loom, the workers operating this machine can do so independent of the skill of their hands,” Junaid said. “So if one weaver falls sick, he can easily be replaced by another.”

    Sabah Gurmat


    Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist presently based in Mumbai, India. She is interested and curious about issues of human rights, culture, and gender, and has reported primarily on the same. She can be reached on Twitter.

    Time to Read:  5 Minutes
    Storyteller: Sabah Gurmat
    23 December 2022
    Game Changers

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    Sculpture Art, Access to Wildlife Reserves, and Urban Regeneration in Johannesburg, South Africa
    The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, offers intimate insight into a way of life from the not-so-distant past. | Photo: Michael Schofield on Unsplash

    Sculpture Art, Access to Wildlife Reserves, and Urban Regeneration in Johannesburg, South Africa

    The City of Gold is often seen as little more than a stopover en route to Cape Town, but Johannesburg (“Joburg”) has much more to offer. Joburg is a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis bubbling over with multiculturalism and pride. It’s a busy city with a small-town feel, a thriving food scene, and some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet. Local expert Sophie Baker lifts the curtain on the city’s secrets.

    Upon Arrival

    After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to Maboneng, at the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD). Because Joburg’s inner city has undergone something of an urban renaissance, it’s the best place to discover the beating heart of the city.

    The best time to be here is in the shoulder season. Think September, October, March, and April. That’s when the days are warm without oppressive heat, and the city is alive with people going about their day-to-day business.

    I tell first-time travellers to experience Joburg’s great food and wine scene, as well as to visit a rooftop bar for our incredible African sunsets that paint the skies different hues of red and orange. I also tell them to avoid sticking just to the Sandton area. Yes, it’s beautiful, modern, and definitely worth a visit — but there’s so much more to discover in the City of Gold. 

    People from here know better than to eat, shop, or stay at big international chains. Instead, they would rather support small, local businesses and feast on South African-produced food and wine. One particular local red wine varietal, Pinotage, is very popular with South Africans and should definitely make it onto your dinner table at least once. 

    The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the Apartheid Museum in South Johannesburg, because it’s an essential stop for those wanting to understand and experience what life was like for South Africans only a few decades ago. 

    Parents should take their kids to the Montecasino bird gardens or one of Joburg’s numerous outdoor activities because the city has such an abundance of natural life and green spaces — plus it’s a good warm up for safari!

    Food from the Heart

    Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, shisanyama or braai is probably top of the list — it’s one of those traditions all residents of the Rainbow Nation have in common. I like to go to the home of a friendly Saffa to really enjoy it, but if that’s not an option, there’s a good restaurant overlooking the Lonehill dam, aptly named The Braai Room. But South African cuisine is varied and the standard of restaurants in Joburg is high — whether you want Italian, Greek, Asian, or American, you’ll find it. 

    When we get together to celebrate, a good South African wine or an ice-cold beer is what people here traditionally drink. I like to gather my friends and go to Giles or The Station for a round.

    When I eat completely local, I will go to Les Creatifs restaurant. I know the food here is a celebration of traditional Zulu dishes with a fine-dining twist, served with excellent wines. For a more relaxed option, The Culinary Table in Lanseria serves relaxed breakfast and brunch fare, which is mostly grown in their very own farm garden. 

    Another two classic, iconic restaurants include popular steakhouse The Grill House, which serves top-notch South African meat, and Café Del Sol Botanico, an Italian bistro where handmade pasta can be savoured alongside carefully crafted cocktails.

    The part of town where locals come for traditional food is Soweto, or the inner city.

    Shopping Locally

    My city is known for making gold — or it used to be! Nowadays, there’s more of a focus on art and business. 

    The best food market in Johannesburg is Market on Main, where you can sample everything from artisan bread to huge group paellas. Both are in the CBD and can be visited one after another if you go on a Sunday. And the best market to buy everyday items like clothes and home goods (as well as delectable snacks) is The Playground. 

    I always take visitors to the Rosebank Sunday Market to buy real, local souvenirs. The products are varied, locally crafted, and unique, and the vibe is buzzing and energetic. And we know to avoid Sandton City because, despite it being a beautiful and upmarket mall, many of the shops can be found in any city worldwide. 

    Getting Deeper Into Johannesburg

    A great book to learn more about my city is “Born a Crime,” written by Trevor Noah. Known worldwide for hosting The Daily Show, Noah is one of South Africa’s most successful and beloved comedians. 

    Most people know about Sandton, especially businesspeople, but the Braamfontein area should also be visited because of the thriving food and art scene, luxury places to lay your head at night, the hipster haven coffee shops, bustling markets, and vibey boutique shopping.

    My city is a place people are attracted to because of the economic opportunities and the glitz and glamour of city life. 

    To really celebrate my city at its best, come during the spring because the purple jacaranda trees are in bloom, the weather is at its best, and accommodation is affordable. 

    Most people think of my city as a place to go for business meetings or as a stopover on the way to the Cape or Kruger, but really this is a destination to see what life is like in a modern South African city. 

    This is one of the best places in the world to experience safari, because we’re within driving distance of most of the game lodges and reserves. Locals are proud of that because it’s such a unique and humbling experience to see wildlife like lions up close.

    Getting Around Johannesburg

    One thing you should know about getting around my city is that there is very little public transport available, with the exception of the Gautrain. 

    The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is to rent a car or use Uber.

    Luckily this method of transportation also allows me to get everywhere quickly, easily, and in comfort. All drivers speak English, so it’s easy to communicate with them as needed. Plus, the roads are well-maintained and can get you just about anywhere your heart desires in the city.

    Outside The City

    To get away and into the outdoors, I like to head into Kyalami area, which has the second-highest density of horses in the world. 

    For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit the Magaliesberg and stop in for a bite to eat at Black Horse Brewery.

    Many people will head to Pilanesberg National Park if they want a weekend out of town, but locals know to go to smaller reserves like Madikwe or the Welgevonden. If those are out of your budget, Black Rhino offers a more intimate experience in Pilanesberg. 

    I really enjoy the view of my city from the Westcliff Hotel. It has a fantastic restaurant and balcony on the edge of a dramatic cliff that overlooks the entire city. Dress up, because you’ll want to take pictures!

    Connecting with Locals

    When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I head to Parkhurst, where there’s always a vibe thanks to an entire street lined with bars, restaurants, and boutiques to enjoy.

    To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to MooMoo’s in Pineslopes, where I take advantage of the “buy one get one free” daily wine specials and enjoy great food alongside live music over weekends. 

    The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is What’s on in Joburg, which gives you guides to all the local events. Another good resource is Facebook. 

    When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I browse the markets and boutiques, and then visit one of the many parks and gardens to enjoy a picnic and a hike. My favourite is the Botanical Gardens, which has plenty of quiet picnic spots and an abundance of fauna and flora.  

    The Marabi Club is my first choice for music because it’s the leading jazz club in the country, barely noticeable from the outside, and feels like you’ve stepped into a 1950s soiree once you get inside. And when I feel like dancing, I go to Sir James van de Merwe for the great view of the Sandton skyline, feel-good party music, and retro chic decor.

    Finding Solitude in Johannesburg

    When I want to go somewhere to sit and meditate about my incredible city, I go to Nirox Sculpture Park. It’s a beautiful green space full of dams and trees near the Cradle of Humankind, where contemporary art sculptures are dotted around the reserve. Each year, they have different artists in residence who each leave a sculpture as a token of their appreciation. 

    If I chose the one place that makes me most proud of my city, it would have to be Braamfontein, Maboneng, and One Fox areas because they show the potential that Johannesburg has when we focus on regeneration and upliftment. It’s a place where you can experience and appreciate so many different aspects of South African culture. Plus, it’s largely untouched by tourists, and you’ll find some of the city’s best hidden gems there. 


    When the Seasons Change, This City Shines

    Spring (September, October, and November) is the best time to see the jacaranda trees in bloom, visit before it gets too hot, and enjoy al fresco dining outside.

    I always recommend visitors explore the city in the early morning or late afternoon in the summer (December, January, and February) to stay safe from the heat. I also recommend you choose a hotel or accommodation with a pool (which is quite easy in Johannesburg), so that you can make the most of the warm days with a refreshing dip. There are often dramatic lightning storms on summer evenings that are spectacular to watch, as long as you stay safely inside. 

    The fall (March, April, and May) here is magical when you want to see wildlife at nearby game reserves, because the dry scenery makes it easier to spot them. The cooler weather also means they’re more active. 

    The winter (June, July, and August) is a great time to enjoy Joburg’s winter scene. It’s notoriously dry in winter so there’s no risk of rain, and warm sunny days are broken up by chilly nights where you can curl up with a South African red wine and tuck into hearty oxtail and bobotie in front of a roaring fire.

    Sophie Baker

    Local Expert

    Sophie Baker is a freelance travel, content, and equestrian writer with a decade of experience. She lives in South Africa and has been published both locally and internationally. When she’s not telling stories about the people, places, and cultures she’s encountered, she can usually be found cooking, tasting new foods and wines, or riding her horse. To find out more about her work or read more articles, visit her online or on LinkedIn.

    Time to Read:  9 Minutes
    Local Expert: Sophie Baker
    18 December 2022
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