Annie Bananie en Europe

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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 😛

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 😀

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 😛 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 😉

Honeymoon in Japan, part 3 – Stopover in Tokyo

Part 3 of the Japan honeymoon series is about Tokyo and will be relatively short because of the lack of photos taken in Tokyo. After Hakone, J and I stayed one night in Tokyo as a stopover before our flight the next day to Hokkaido. I originally planned to stop by several places in Tokyo but we were both tired from the train ride and decided to rest early. I probably took fewer than three good photos and so I wasn’t going to write a post about Tokyo at all, but as I was organizing all of the photos from the trip, I realized that J had taken some gorgeous pictures…during his morning run on the second day!

You see, one thing I really respect and admire about my husband is his stamina and ability to run long distances and his perseverance to get up early and run almost EVERY SINGLE DAY! Clearly travelling didn’t stop him and actually prompted him to go farther, as he only had limited time in the capital of Japan. It was his way of seeing parts of a city that we probably would never have otherwise come across. To that I say, “Well done, sir, and I’m ashamed of myself for not being able to run two minutes without feeling like I’m about to faint.” 😦

About Tokyo, most people would put it at the top of their list when travelling to Japan, but I skipped it both in 2018 and this time around. Somehow I got this impression that Tokyo is just another modern megacity with lots of crowds and lots of lights, and it would probably be too similar to, say, Shanghai or New York (haven’t been to the latter). For that reason, it hadn’t attracted much of my attention, but I am curious about places such as the Shibuya Crossing, Akihabara, Senso-ji, and the Tsukiji market. Also, exploring a place like Tokyo would require many more than two or three days, preferably five or more, so it will have to wait till a future trip. But I will get to you again, Tokyo, and see what you’re all about. For now, let me take you on a virtual run through the eyes of my husband.

Passing by the outer limits of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, which is surrounded by a moat. J commented that the walled area was much smaller than what he’d expected for an ancient imperial palace.

Public art – sculptures of three nude men standing on a platform in the middle of a small pond. I won’t pretend I know where this photo was taken…

Orange tree! We actually saw quite a few of these in Hakone-Yumoto and even bought some oranges from the supermarket. Fruit was super expensive in Japan and our purchase was really just to see if the oranges were THAT good. They were alright, nothing too spectacular in my opinion.

School children likely on their way to class, probably first or second graders that remind me of the anime Chibi Maruko-chan, a childhood favourite!

Another view of the moat, from another side of the Imperial Palace. (I had to approximate the location where this photo was taken by zooming into the original photo, identifying the text on one of the buildings to figure out what company it was, consulting Google Maps, and matching it with the tracked route of J’s run 😛 )

Red-orange facade of the Marunouchi building, which is the side of Tokyo Station facing the Imperial Palace that I had missed out on. I know nothing about architecture but online sources suggest that there were elements of Renaissance architecture that went into its construction. Reminds me a bit of the Place du Capitole in Toulouse and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

Now that I’ve discovered that my husband is actually a hidden pro runner-photographer (pretty nice photos too), I’ve decided to include some of his photos in the upcoming posts (realized this after I’ve picked out all of the Hakone photos already, so none of his were featured in the two previous entries). His photos offer some view of cities from perspectives even I had no idea about – maybe I should take up running??? Next stop would be Otaru in Hokkaido – stay tuned!

Honeymoon in Japan, part 1 – Tidbits of Hakone

In mid-January, J and I went on our 10-day honeymoon in Japan. I hesitated blogging about it because (1) we took way too many photos that would take ages to sort, (2) it would definitely have to be split up into many sections, and (3) I’m lazy. But then I took a look at the photos again and decided that I can’t NOT write about such an amazing trip. Yeah, it did take a bit of time to pick out photos and write the posts but it was an enjoyable process that reminded me of how much I love travel and writing, even more now that I can travel with and write about the person I love the most!

This was my second trip to Japan and J’s first, me having been to Osaka, Nara, Uji, and Kyoto in 2018. The itinerary went as follows: three nights in Hakone, one in Tokyo as a stopover, two in Otaru, and three in Sapporo. The two main events were (1) Hakone to see Mount Fuji (spoiler: we didn’t see it) and (2) Sapporo for skiing. We wanted the honeymoon to be as leisurely and relaxing as possible, so while we did have a general itinerary, we didn’t force ourselves to stick to it as we didn’t want to rush. As a result, we there was no strict schedule and we could be as spontaneous as we wanted to be.

First, Hakone, or more precisely Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. From Narita airport we took a train to Odawara, where we transferred to the Odakyu line for Hakone-Gora. As we were staying three nights, J and I each got a 3-day Hakone Free Pass, which included unlimited rides on all public transportation within the Hakone area (trains, ropeway, buses, etc.) and discounts/free entrance to some attractions. Getting the pass was certainly a no-brainer here!

In Hakone, we stayed at Hakone Tent in the Gora region. It is a chic hostel/guesthouse offering private and shared rooms, with the advantage of having two private onsens (hot springs)! Hakone is known for its onsens so this is a huge bonus for those on a budget (like us) who want to try an onsen but don’t want to pay a fortune for luxurious accommodation. The two of us booked a traditional double room, which was quite spacious and had futon-style beds for a good night’s sleep. Probably the best accommodation in our trip even though it is “shared” (bathrooms, common areas, etc.)

We had two full days plus a half day in the Hakone area, so on the first full day we decided to explore Hakone-Yumoto, which is the main tourist hub and onsen resort town. The railway between Yumoto and Gora was suspended because of maintenance, which was quite a disappointment, and we had to take the replacement bus through winding roads to travel between Gora and Yumoto. Some plans did not go as expected because of last-minute changes. For example, I had originally intended to visit the Little Prince museum, but I had read mediocre reviews about it and decided to skip it. Instead, we opted to spend more time in Hakone-Yumoto, exploring its shrines, old streets, and tranquil riverside paths.

We wandered a little farther away from the town center and chanced upon this waterfall near Tenseien, a large onsen resort hotel. I wondered if the fact that there was a huge rock in the shape of a phallic figure, sticking out from the water and wrapped around by a thick, golden rope, had anything to do with penis worship in Japan.

Because Yumoto was the central tourist hub, we had most of our meals there (there weren’t that many options in Gora, where our accommodation was located). Lunch on day 1 was an oyakodon (chicken and egg with rice) for me and soup soba for J, and dinner was tempura for me and a vegetarian udon for J. On day 2, I had a sashimi set whereas J opted for the grilled fish meal. Of course we shared everything so no one missed out 😉

Day 2 was spent going on the classic Hakone tourist route, which included a ropeway over Owakudani (volcanic valley) and down to Lake Ashi, a boat across the lake, a walk through the Ancient Cedar Alley, and a brief stop at Hakone shrine. First up, ropeway over the smoking volcanic valley where sulfur is actively released into the air! You could definitely smell the putrid odour of rotting eggs, alright. You could also supposedly see Mount Fuji from here on a clear day but clearly the day was not clear so…no Mount Fuji from Owakudani.

Well then let’s take a selfie with a cardboard Mount Fuji in case we ended up not seeing the real thing at all the entire day 😛

Next up was the boat tour on a pirate ship across Lake Ashi. Sitting at the lakeview restaurant for lunch, we were able to see the two pirate ships and the scenic view in the distance. It reminded me a bit of what you’d expect to see at Loch Ness or Loch Lomond in Scotland. And nope, still kind of cloudy so no Mount Fuji in sight, even though Lake Ashi supposedly offers one of the best views of the conical giant. Gotta save my luck for the next trip to Japan 😦

Next destination was a bit off the tourist path. It was a short trail next to Lake Ashi lined with tall, majestic cedar trees on both sides, hidden from plain view if you didn’t know where the entrance was. The sun and the way the trees were spaced out gave me a chance to play a little with the lighting and I was quite happy with the way this photo turned out.

At the end of the cedar trail, we continued walking a bit until we reached the Hakone shrine. By now I had seen quite a few shrines in Japan (mostly the ones in Osaka and Kyoto from the previous trip) but J was quite curious about them. One thing that intrigued me was how politics can appear anywhere, even in a shrine. On those boards where people write their wishes, we saw one that said “Fight for freedom, stand with HK (Hong Kong)”, probably in reference to the pro-democracy protests that were taking place. Right next to it, there was one that said, “HK belongs to China”. Coincidence? I have a feeling one of them was put next to the other on purpose, and the order remains debatable. I won’t share my perspective on political topics, but if the shrine were open to visitors now, the boards would most likely all say, “Gone with COVID-19″…

View of Lake Ashi from the shore where we got off from the boat tour. We could have backtracked and taken the boat back, but we missed the last departure of the day. So we waited for the bus to take us back to Hakone-Yumoto, completing one loop of the tourist route.

Now for one of the highlights, which I left till the end: lunch at Itoh Dining by NOBU! Before our departure from Hakone, Jian and I dined at Itoh Dining by NOBU, which is a well-known restaurant for wagyu beef. Wanting to stay on a budget, we went during lunchtime and each ordered the wagyu steak lunch menu. At 3500 yen per person, it was quite a steal, starting off with a beautiful and refreshing salad (also soup). In addition to your normal lettuce and tomato, this particular salad had ingredients that I couldn’t name. I would guess that there was broccolini and very thinly sliced and deep-fried tofu skin. Great start and looking forward to the highlight coming up!

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand next we have…our wagyu steak! We made reservations to sit by the counter so we could get a close view of the entire cooking process, and it was so much fun seeing the chef cook the food to perfection step by step. Obviously we didn’t expect huge portions – in fact each portion was 90 g and cut into 8 pieces, so you get a little more than 10 g of heavenly juiciness in your mouth per bite. The beef was topped with thin slices of fried garlic with a bit of pepper and a light sauce (not sure what it was) on the side. This was just wagyu steak and not even A5 Kobe beef, but somehow it tasted even better than the Kobe beef that I had two years ago in Osaka (and it was a lot cheaper). For the first time I finally felt that TRUE buttery melt-in-your-mouth sensation that everyone was talking about when you eat good wagyu beef, and I was savouring each and every bite so delicately that I didn’t want the experience to end. There was rice to go with the beef, and it was very necessary every other bite or so, or else it became too buttery and heavy. This was the case even though the portion was so small, so you can imagine the amount of flavour that was contained within the meat! Now I can truly say that this was the most delicious piece of meat that I’ve ever put in my mouth and I hope it won’t be the last time. Itoh Dining by NOBU, you have impressed me!!!

To finish off the amazing wagyu steak meal, we were served panna cotta and coffee as desserts. The panna cotta was light and pleasant and the coffee was the perfect conclusion for it all 😉

I’ll end the first honeymoon post here (that was long!) but there is more Hakone to come in the next post. Hakone gave us a little surprise on our final day that made it the icing on the cake (possible pun and foreshadow)…with a cherry on top. You’ll see!

My stories 04: Tim Hortons in Dalian

In February and March, J and I were stranded in the city of Dalian in northeastern China because Wuhan was on lockdown and we were unable to return. One day, I found out by chance that Tim Hortons opened two stores in Dalian, one of which was right next to the hotel where we were staying! Since this Canadian coffee chain entered the Chinese market (called Tim’s in China), it has successively opened stores in three cities (the other two are Shanghai and Zhengzhou, and I had already visited the first one to open in Shanghai last year). About Tim Hortons, its status in Canada is like that of Starbucks in the US – you could almost find one on every other block. The Canadians’ enthusiasm for Tim Hortons is no less than the Chinese people’s love for bubble tea. It’s not that the coffee is amazing or anything, but it is the taste of home that is irreplaceable. Grab a large dark roast double/double – mmm, such rich and familiar aroma that brought me a touch of colour and nostalgia in an unfamiliar city!

Large dark roast double/double with a Cesar chicken wrap. The wrap was mediocre but the coffee was desirable. I never had the dark roast in Canada and upon trying it for the first time in Dalian, felt that it was a bit too strong. I went back another day for a normal coffee double/double and immediately that authentic, familiar taste came back. Still, my favourite was the large steeped tea double/double, which I got during my third and final visit to the Dalian location. Unfortunately the steeped tea did not live up to my expectations 😦 Maybe Tim Hortons will come to Wuhan eventually…?

In and out of my comfort zone

While looking through the MiMe (now part of CeMi) members on the web site today I realized that a lot of my former colleagues stayed in the lab after they finished their PhD. This made me think of two things. First of all, would I have been able to stay if I wanted to? I guess that is based on the premise that there was a project I could have applied to and that they would want me to continue working there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay in MiMe or Glasgow – in fact, I had gotten so used to that life that it was perhaps easier to stay if I had the choice. This leads to my second point – stepping out of my comfort zone. I hadn’t thought of this in-depth but I ask myself now: was coming to China stepping OUT OF or INTO my own comfort zone?

There was a transitional phase between my departure from Glasgow and arrival in China, and obviously the deciding factor was J (my fiancé), but China was constantly hovering at the back of my mind as I was struggling to make a decision, even before I met J. Thinking back, I owe myself a round of applause for not looking back on this important decision (though I often complain about the downsides of China), being assertive, and MAKING IT HAPPEN.

It is often tempting to stay in the comfort zone rather than venture into the unknown. The path may be foggy, and it will be difficult to see the way. It takes some courage to accept change. The fog won’t fade away, but you will learn to see with new eyes.

For a long time, I’ve had this confusing identity crisis where I feel like a mixed product between western (Canadian) and oriental (Chinese) culture. Still, I always felt like I could and would identify myself as Chinese, no matter where I am. In that sense, by coming to China, I was actually stepping INTO a zone of comfort – familiar language, good food, and physically looking like everyone else around me. At the same time, China has perhaps been much more of an anti-comfort zone for me, especially in terms of expectations, cultural norms and phenomena, work habits, weather, etc. I had expected the challenges and knew that it would not be easy living here, but I was less ready than I thought I was. It’s not about being capable or incapable of adapting to the new environment and lifestyle, but the struggle to resist assimilation into a person whom even I would despise, because of the influence of my environment – that is ultimately what I fear and want to avoid.

Several points emerge from this. The fact that I say this means that there are people around me whom I despise (perhaps unjustifiably), and I attribute this to the way they are due to cultural norms. I also place the majority of the blame on environmental and cultural influence, and even though it can be resisted, it takes the patience, stamina, and wisdom of a saint, which I do not have. I acknowledge completely that this is a hypocritical statement but my opinion remains. This also brings to light my inherent arrogance and lack of empathy, which are areas that I have to work on.

The entire experience so far has been a tug-of-war between me, myself, and I. Society, culture, and the world are not obliged to change for any one person, so I will have to continue adapting to, accommodating to, and accepting – with principle – even the things I cannot seem to comprehend. The conclusion? There is no real comfort or discomfort – the process of bettering oneself will always be filled with pain and tears, but it is also during those moments that I realize how lucky I am compared to most people, who may not even know the meaning of “comfort”. It is indeed as much a lesson of gratitude and satisfaction as it is of self-discipline and self-development.

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