Annie Bananie en Europe

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Honeymoon in Japan – BONUS POST!

Of course seven posts weren’t even enough to fully document the amazing honeymoon trip to Japan, so I decided to write a final bonus post. Whereas the other posts in the series were location- or theme-based, for this post, I went through all of my photos again and picked out some unposted ones that I particularly liked, in no specific order. Hope you enjoy them too!

The sun was preparing to set moments before landing in Seoul Incheon Airport in South Korea, where we were scheduled for a connecting flight to Tokyo Narita. With the help of Google Maps, I have identified the horizontal island in the middle as Seonjae-ri and the large one on the right as Yeongheungdo by their shapes and location πŸ˜‰

Lake Ashi in Hakone was one of the highlights of our trip and we especially enjoyed exploring the surrounding areas on foot. After we descended to Lake Ashi from Owakudani by ropeway and before we walked the Ancient Cedar Avenue, we made a detour to Onshi-Hakone Park (“onshi” means heavenly/divine gift), which offered a great panoramic view of Lake Ashi. There was also a beautiful path in the park that was lined on both sides with old trees that I don’t know the names of, making it almost a tunnel. We spent quite a lot of time there even though it was an unexpected find along the route.

Before the boat tour on Lake Ashi, we stopped for lunch at Togendai Lakeview restaurant, where we got a curry omurice and an order of sausages with rice. Even though it was a tourist area, the food was surprisingly not ridiculously expensive and the quality was still up there!

An experience that I wrote about in the Hakone post was eating Wagyu beef at Itoh Dining by NOBU. This was my second wagyu beef experience (Kobe beef the first time in 2018) but the first for my husband J, so we made reservations to sit right by the counter so we could see the chef’s every move. The anticipation was building long before the raw ingredients even appeared on the grill…

…and there he was, preparing the wagyu beef like a piece of art. I definitely wouldn’t mind another serving…heh. For the full description of how the food tasted, please read the Hakone post.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that this trip became much more interesting with a selfie stick, which I was using for the first time – I know I’m behind the times. I never liked selfies but having someone to share precious moments with changed that. (1) J and Annie at the Ancient Cedar Avenue near Lake Ashi; (2) J and Annie at Odawara station before taking the slow train to Tokyo; (3) J and Annie at the entrance of Waraku in Otaru, where we had conveyor belt sushi for lunch; (4) J and Annie at Otaru station before heading to Sapporo.

We really had a nice surprise with the snow on our last day in Hakone – look how pretty the snow made everything!

Pre-flight meal at Narita Airport terminal 3, while waiting for our flight from Tokyo to Hokkaido. The terminal itself was designated for low-cost carriers but there were still a variety of food options – another plus for Japan. J and I ordered different types of noodles but we both got gyoza as a side. I love gyoza but they’re essentially dumplings and I feel like I can get them all the time in my daily life, so I don’t go out of the way to get the Japanese type very often. But they are so delicious that I can’t resist sometimes!

Little figurines sitting on a bench in Hakone-Yumoto, near Tenseien, a hot spring resort. They were connected to a wire so I assumed that they’d light up during the evening. It was too bad that we didn’t stay in that area after sunset – the light displays would have been quite lovely, I bet.

While window-shopping on Sakaimachi Street in Otaru we came across more “figurines” – sake in bottles in the shape of little snowmen?

Here’s a more humble landmark of Otaru aside from the canal or Sakaimachi Street – a statue of Bunko the firefighting dog. When Bunko was a puppy, he was rescued by firefighters during a fire and ever since then, grew up with the firefighters. During his 24 years on Earth, he would participate in firefighting missions as part of the heroic team that guarded the city. This statue commemorates the story of Bunko and look – someone put a sweater and hat on Bunko to keep him warm! J seemed to like him a lot too πŸ˜›

Final photo to wrap up this bonus Japan post – sunset in the distance as I was waiting for the flight from New-Chitose (Hokkaido) to Dalian (where I’d end up stranded for two months because of COVID-19). Starting the post with a sunrise and ending it with a sunset would have made it a perfect circle but alas, both were sunsets, which were lovely just the same.

Honeymoon in Japan, part 7 – Ski lesson at Teine

Perhaps one of the most anticipated parts of our honeymoon in Japan was the ski lesson in Sapporo, more specifically at Mount Teine. Neither J or I have ever skied before (that time during a middle school trip where I “skied” for one hour doesn’t count) and a lot of people are shocked – how are you Canadian but haven’t skied before??? Well uh…I just haven’t? Sorry for disappointing you as a Canadian!

But now I can say that I have skied…in Japan! C’mon, one of the main reasons people go to Hokkaido in the winter is to ski, so we had to seize this opportunity. A brief search for info led me to the web site of the Teine ski resort. A bit of background here – Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972, and some of the skiing events were held at Teine. Today Teine is popular among locals and tourists alike, and the Sapporo Teine ski center offers a variety of skiing and snowboarding lessons for people of all ages and levels. Best part is that it’s only a 15-minute train ride from central Sapporo. Done deal, we were going to Teine for our first REAL skiing experience!

J and I opted for the one-day beginner’s lesson for 17000 yen per person. It was recommended over the half-day lesson by many reviews, and we figured that we went all the way there anyway, so we might as well get the full experience. Off we went for a lot of crashes and falls…

A shuttle bus (not free) took us from the Teine train station to the Olympia Ski School. There was snow aplenty, alright, and in fact it was snowing as we were on the bus. The careful reader would notice that the clock reads approximately 4:35 in the photo – no we were not there that early. This photo was taken at the end of the lesson, while we were waiting for the 5 pm bus to take us back to the train station πŸ˜‰

When we arrived at Olympia, I was surprised to find that there were lots of schoolchildren! They seemed to have their gear ready to go and they looked like they knew what they were doing more than we did. We were told later on that kids in Hokkaido go skiing quite often in the winter as part of their school curriculum, so they get training and exposure to the sport at a young age. Supposedly Japan has had quite a few Olympic skiing medalists too!

We had made a booking well in advance (price included gear rental) and as soon as we got to Teine Olympia, we headed for the rental area where the staff fitted us with gear that was our size. This includes skis, poles, boots, ski wear (jacket and pants), gloves, beanie, and goggles. Took a while to put everything on, and walking in those boots certainly made me look like a wobbly doll…!

Ahem, yep, I think we were ready…? Looking badass and ready to take on the world, one mountain at a time, starting with Teine. Little did I know how many times I would almost break my bones when I stepped into the falsely gentle snow…

Well at least J looked happy here as we started our morning training session. We were a group of approximately 20 people (some were only there for the half-day lesson so the group was much smaller in the afternoon) with four staff members, including one instructor. The morning session consisted of simple lessons of basic techniques and manoeuvres. We got the hang of how to handle our skis and poles and practised skiing down a small slope several times.

Not sure what I was doing here or whom I was talking to, but you can see here that the snow had no sign of stopping, at least not in the morning. By the end of the morning session I must have fallen at least three times due to my inability to control my movement and RELAX! J seemed to be doing pretty well – zero falls in the morning, impressive!

The lesson continued in the afternoon after a long lunch and we were headed for a 1.7-km (if I remember correctly) beginner’s downhill trail to test our skills. Exciting! On the way we saw these kids who, once again, knew exactly what they were doing and were probably going to take on the expert hills or something. I’ll stick to my beginner course, thank you very much!

No photos of my actual falls and crashes were taken, but believe me, there were quite a few instances where I was positive that I lost a tooth or broke a bone. I often lost balance and was too nervous to react, and the staff even had to come rescue me and reset my skis several times! Sorry guys! As a result my body was hella sore the next day and I felt like someone had punched me like a sandbag. The pain was NOT pleasant, but it was a necessary part of any learning process, especially a physically demanding sport. Then again I also never learned to properly skate, probably for similar reasons…oh well! Overall still a very fun experience, as you could see from my happy face here…probably just after getting up from a crash!

At the end of the lesson J decided to relax in his own way – by chilling (literally?!) in the snow?! Aren’t you cold, sir? Seems like something I’d do as a child in Canada, rolling in the deep, fluffy snow πŸ˜€

And here is one of the friendly staff members that accompanied our lesson, Stephen. I actually got a selfie taken with all four staff members, but my phone DIED right after and the photo ended up corrupted! I was unable to get them all together again after the lesson ended but I managed to catch Stephen before he left. We talked for a while and I found out that Stephen comes from a skier’s family in California, and he’s been in Sapporo for five years. Lots of sharing of stories, and J and I were so thankful for the help that Stephen offered during the lesson, especially at the beginning when I didn’t know how to put on my gear!

To end this post (and the entire Japan honeymoon series) I present you this photo of a badass-looking bald guy (can’t see his face but you can tell he’s badass) with the cutest backpack ever. It was so adorable that I wanted to go hug him – the backpack AND the bald guy. It actually amused me greatly and for a moment I forgot about the pain in my body πŸ˜›

And that’s it, folks, the end of the 7-part series on my honeymoon with J in Japan! It was such an unforgettable trip for the beginning of our marriage, and we certainly hope that this wouldn’t be our last trip to Japan πŸ˜‰ If you want to catch up on the previous posts in this series, go for a click: part 1 – tidbits of Hakone; part 2 – snow in Hakone; 3 – brief stop in Tokyo; 4 – little Otaru; part 5 – food in Otaru; and part 6 – exploring Sapporo. Till next time πŸ˜‰

Honeymoon in Japan, part 6 – Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido

The final destination of our January honeymoon was Sapporo, the capital city of the northernmost island of Hokkaido (also prefecture) in Japan. We decided to stay three nights in Sapporo so that we’d have one full day to explore the city and another full day to do a ski trip at Teine (next post).

The fifth largest city in Japan, Sapporo is famous for its annual snow festival that takes place in February. Just as we missed the lights festival in Otaru, we missed the snow festival in Sapporo by only four days! Well, some parts of the festival were already ongoing but the ice sculptures weren’t open to the public till three days after our departure date. Bummer – just another reason to go back to Sapporo in the future πŸ˜‰

I’ll start the post this time with photos from J’s morning run. Yep, no chance that we’d skip the ice and snow this time. It seemed like he ran along the Toyohira River and passed by the Sapporo city hall (orange-red building) and Nakajima Park, close to where we were staying.

After J returned from his run, we headed to the hotel restaurant for a buffet breakfast, which was included in the room rate. There was an abundant variety of breakfast items (eggs, salad, meat, buns, etc.) and beverages, which left us both full and satisfied!

We headed out after breakfast and wandered around Sapporo without a planned route. Well that’s not exactly true. I had a preliminary list of places that I wanted to visit, the main one being the top of Mount Moiwa (via cable car) for a panoramic night view of Sapporo. However, the cable car was suspended because of strong winds, so that had to be cancelled. Well then, let’s just be spontaneous and just go wherever our footsteps lead us!

By the time we had arrived in Sapporo, the COVID-19 outbreak had already gotten out of hand in Wuhan. We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get face masks after we got back to China, so we decided to buy some from Japan. In fact, a lot of drug stores in Japan had already sold out of face masks, and the few that had them in stock limited purchase to one to three packs per person. One store had a sign that said, “Hang in there, China! Hang in there, Wuhan!”

Let’s talk about food. When I visited Japan in 2018, one of the best meals I had was tonkatsu, which is deep-fried pork cutlets. Even I myself was surprised how such a simple thing could taste so good, and I decided that I must have tonkatsu again this time around. So for dinner on our day of arrival, J and I went to a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu (Matsunoya, which is apparently a chain). I ordered the pork loin and oyster set while J got the pork loin and mackerel set. Free refills of miso soup and rice were included in the price – score!! Oh, the food was oh-so-tasty!! Once again I am puzzled how Japanese people make plain pork taste so good????? The meat was so tender and juicy and the flavour just oozes out of every bite…one of us should have gotten the tenderloin to see if there was any difference. (I also order a cold tofu on the side because why not πŸ˜‰ )

Another food quest was finding a good cheesecake as an afternoon snack, which happened on day 3 (day 2 was Teine). There was something inexplicably appealing about a smooth cheesecake and again, the one I had in 2018 in Osaka was unforgettable (ranked second in best cheesecake, after the Polish cheesecake in Glasgow). So J and I went around and finally decided to have coffee and cake at Tokumitsu Coffee, right next to Odori Park.

Between J and I, we got a slice of cheesecake, toasted baguette with ham and cheese, an iced coffee, and a hot coffee – supreme combination! As the cafe was on the second floor of a building, we got a lovely view of the city center and took our time relaxing, me writing in my journal and J putting together his own mini-summary of the trip so far.

Grand finale goes to…shabu shabu!! What could be better than hot pot in mid-winter in Hokkaido?? I had originally wanted to go to a restaurant named Zen, but when we arrived we were told that we needed reservations as the restaurant was full!! Noooooooo!! It was such disappointment as I was anticipating it for so long, but I guess it was just THAT popular – add that to the list of reasons to go back to Sapporo. So then we looked for another shabu shabu place and the second place we went to was also full. Our third try led us to a place called Hatake no Shabu Shabu, and thankfully they seated us immediately! The problem was…there was no English menu, like the yakitori place in Otaru, but thank goodness for Google Translate! We actually wanted to splurge and go for the wagyu beef menu but ended up getting the regular unlimited beef and pork set, which was still pretty amazing! The serve was also exceptional, making this a pleasant and memorable experience as a whole. Still I would definitely have to go back to Zen for the wagyu beef…I’ll be back, Sapporo!

Wandering the streets of Sapporo around the Susukino district in the evening, with a streetcar approaching. We found out later that Susukino was sort of the red light district of Sapporo…won’t post the ads that we saw on the sign, heh.

I didn’t include a photo of the Sapporo Clock Tower in this post, even though we visited it, but here is one of the clock tower as an ice sculpture. I think the ice version looked a lot cooler (NO PUN INTENDED, BELIEVE ME…) than the real thing πŸ˜‰

Walking through Nakajima Park on our way back to the hotel, J and I were ready to say goodbye to Sapporo and Japan. I liked the vibe of Sapporo and the fact that it wasn’t super crowded for a large city. J also mentioned that we didn’t have Sapporo beer even once in Sapporo…what??? Well that’s reason #3 to go back.

So the conclusion is that I have three reasons for going back to Sapporo in the winter in the future: (1) we missed the snow festival, (2) we didn’t get to eat at Zen, which actually made me quite upset 😦 (though Hatake was a great alternative), and (3) we didn’t drink Sapporo beer. It still puzzles me how beer escaped my mind during the entire trip…

There is one more post in the official honeymoon series and that is about our ski day at Teine. There was a lot of excitement but also no shortage of crashing and falling involved…

Honeymoon in Japan, part 5 – What to eat in Otaru

If you noticed that I didn’t mention food in the previous post, you’d be right. That was because I decided to dedicate an entire post to food in Otaru! I don’t think Otaru is particularly known for its food scene, but the meals we shared in Otaru were anything but boring. As we were staying at a hostel, we prepared simple breakfast both mornings and had the chance to talk to the students who ran the hostel while we were eating in the common room. This left us with four dine-out meals – two lunches and two dinners.

We arrived in Otaru in the evening and wanted to head straight to our accommodation, but not before eating dinner because we were hungry!! It was super cold outside, so we decided to find somewhere near the hostel and grab a quick bite, whatever it was. Turns out that there was a yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) place nearby, so we wasted no time getting there. The place was called Daikichi Yakitori and the exterior looked…spooky? Hmmm…

We entered and were greeted by a server, who seated us by the counter. The restaurant was very small and cozy, being able to seat perhaps no more than 20 people. The owner and server spoke very little English, J and I spoke almost no Japanese (aside from the customary beginner’s phrases), and there was no English menu!! Hmm, this would be interesting and would require some coordination and a lot of pointing. As a result, we relied on Google Translate and educated guesses based on photos on the menu. We did realize, of course, that this was a restaurant specializing in grilled meat (mostly chicken), and we noticed later that there was a diagram on the wall that summarized exactly what part of the chicken each item referred to. Very helpful!!

So then J and I pointed to items on the menu and ordered a bunch of random stuff, some without knowing what the item was. Fingers crossed that they’d be good…and they were delicious!!! In fact, we liked the food so much that we went back to the same place on the second night, and it was the only restaurant during the entire trip that we went to TWICE! Minimum order was three sets per item, and our choices included (from both nights) but were not limited to: chicken thigh, chicken skin, pork belly, shiitake mushroom, green peppers, grilled potato, grilled chicken on rice, and tea-soaked rice.

On the second night, we were seated at a table as opposed to the counter on the first night. This seemed like quite a popular place among locals, what I imagined a typical izakaya would be like. The chef was the only one behind the counter and the server was his only helper. Even though we were unable to communicate efficiently, we really adored this old guy!

We invited the chef to join us for a photo on the second night, after the other diners have left and he was relatively free. I made sure I told him “honto ni oishii!” (meaning “really delicious!” in Japanese) before leaving the restaurant, and he was glad that we enjoyed the meals!

Now, onto the next meal – lunch. We were told that Otaru had some excellent sushi restaurants, and I had looked up some beforehand and shortlisted three conveyor belt restaurants. Not being able to choose wisely between them, I asked the students at the hostel for a recommendation, and one of them mentioned “Waraku”, which was one of my shortlisted options. Well then, no need to choose, Waraku it is! We arrived just at the right time to be seated – if we entered five minutes later, there would have been a 25-minute wait!

The conveyor belt sushi experience in Kyoto was unforgettable for me so I had pretty high expectations for this one. It was J’s first try at conveyor belt sushi, and while he found it a fun experience, he was not nearly as excited as I was. In total, we had 15 plates of various prices, but I’ve picked my top three as follows:

#3: egg & mayo gunkan! This was even a surprise for me because I don’t usually order it, but the sweet egg just dissolved in my mouth and it somehow became one of the highlights of the meal!

#2: unagi (grilled eel) sushi! This gem is a classic at any sushi meal and I certainly didn’t want to miss it in Otaru, where supposedly some of the best sushi in Hokkaido is found. Amazingness on a plate!

#1: fatty salmon belly!! The salmon belly was actually also my favourite last time I had conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto, and there’s a reason for it. The melt-in-your-mouth feeling is one of the best sensations ever, so much more enjoyable than regular salmon. I liked this so much that I wanted another plate, and after waiting for a while without seeing it on the conveyor belt, we asked the chef directly, only to find out that it was sold out!!! It was THAT good that even though it was on the expensive end, it was gone too soon. So then I got a plate of salmon belly (not fatty, slightly cheaper) and while it was still good, it was lacking that oh-my-goodness factor that the fatty salmon belly offered. Ultimate delight, indeed!

I’ll end this post with something that may seem too ordinary, but is anything but ordinary during a trip. First up is our final breakfast before departure. After his morning run, J returned with a bunch of stuff from the nearby supermarket (mini-croissants, apples, soy milk, instant noodles, cheese), which served as a meal in itself. Then, while waiting for the afternoon train to Sapporo, we got something very simple for lunch…a two-piece meal at KFC!! We almost never eat western-style fast food during our travels but this was one exception πŸ˜› Then it was bye bye Colonel Sanders, bye bye Otaru!

Next up: Sapporo in two posts, with a must-have experience that was new to both J and I. Can you guess what it is??

Honeymoon in Japan, part 4 – Otaru, a winter wonderland

The second part of my honeymoon in Japan with J was in Hokkaido and the first stop was Otaru, a port city 45 minutes away from Sapporo by train. Several friends recommended Otaru as a day trip from Sapporo, but we stayed there two nights as we wanted to take it easy and enjoy the city to its fullest. From Tokyo, we flew to New-Chitose airport and immediately the cold hit us. It was mid-winter in the northernmost part of Japan, alright!

Like in Hakone, we stayed in a hostel/guesthouse in Otaru, but it felt more like a homestay as the hostel was a large house in a residential area. Otaru itself had a quaint small-town vibe but there was no shortage of tourists, even during the winter. In fact, many people come specifically during the winter for the Snow Light Path Festival, which happened in February and which we unfortunately missed. Still, Otaru had its own charm to offer.

Perhaps Otaru is most well known for the canal that runs right through the city. All of the points of attraction are pretty much within a 20-minute walking distance from the canal, making it where most tourists are concentrated. During the Snow Light Path Festival, the area surrounding the canal is supposedly decorated with hundreds of candles and lanterns that radiate during the night!

To be honest, I’ve seen my fair share of canals so this one in particular wasn’t anything new or fascinating for me, but J and I still had to take the obligatory selfie πŸ˜›

Aside from the Otaru canal, Sakaimachi Street is another main tourist attraction lined on both sides with small shops selling food and souvenir, especially hand-made glass crafts, which Otaru is known for. There were also several museums for people who enjoy browsing museums, but neither J nor I was museum-minded, so we skipped most of them.

The exception was the music box museum. Actually, I’m not even sure if we went into the museum part because what we saw was a huge area with perhaps thousands of types of music boxes on sale. They were so colourful and pretty and instantly put me in a delightful mood! I could tell that the quality of the merchandise was top-notch, with a lot of attention to detail on each music box. But of course, the prices were proportional to the quality and we were happy with just browsing around, thank you very much!

Around Sakaimachi Street, there were also some snow sculptures of well-known characters, including Snoopy and Totoro. Also this happy snowman seemed to be completely ready for winter with its blue hat and scarf πŸ˜€

I mentioned in one of the previous posts how grateful I was that we brought a selfie stick along with us, and we certainly took full advantage of it in Otaru. Well OK, maybe J got a bit tired of my constant request for taking selfies together but in the end he gave in πŸ˜› Walking by Otaru canal by night, it already seemed sparkling with light and we thought that it was gorgeous the way it was, so missing the Snow Light Path Festival wasn’t that disappointing after all!

I randomly noticed a block of snow floating in the water and remarked that it looked like a heart. Not long before it disappears completely…

Slowly we made our way back to the hostel, which was a bit of a distance from the city center (approximately 20 minutes on foot). Daylight at least provided some warmth but the temperature dropped quickly and drastically as night fell!

The area around our accommodation was extremely quiet and deserted, with not a single person in sight. It even felt a bit spooky at times but we rather enjoyed the silence and serenity and much preferred them over the bustling lights of city night life.

And here are some bonus photos, again from J’s morning run. The things I miss by not going running with him…bah!!! But then again running outdoors in the coldest days of winter, in the snow…again I send my admiration and respect to my beloved husband. He managed to capture some really great views of Otaru on his phone!

Bonus #2: pre-departure from Otaru, at the train station. From Otaru, we would take the local train to Sapporo, where we’d stay for our final three days in Japan. Goodbye, Otaru, it’s been a fun time!

But something else is missing, no? Could it be possible that I didn’t write about Otaru’s…food? Aha, I figured this is enough for one post and saved the better part for the next entry. Coming up next – yakitori and sushi, spoiler spoiler πŸ˜‰

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