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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜›

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 2 – It’s snowing in Hakone!

Part 2 of the Japan honeymoon series is dedicated to Hakone…again! While the previous post already outlined some of the special moments that J and I shared in Hakone, I felt that it was necessary to write this post separately because…it snowed on our last day in Hakone! Well, snow is not a big deal for me as I grew up in Canada, but it was an unexpected surprise for both of us and a farewell gift from Hakone.

We were told that Hakone doesn’t get that much snow (and we would be covered in snow when we were in Hokkaido anyway), and the previous two days were either cloudy or sunny with no sign of flakes or flurries. When I opened my eyes on our third and final day, I drew open the curtain in our room and was fascinated by what I saw. They weren’t just a few tiny flakes – all of Gora was covered in a sheet of white. In fact, it was still snowing in the morning, so with excitement I shook my husband to wake him up. “Look outside, it’s snowing!”

To be honest I’m not sure why I was that excited. I guess I had subconsciously wished for snow in Hakone and thought that we’d leave snowless until Hokkaido. But really, the scene was just too pretty. I opened the window and could almost touch the icy branches in front of me. I could have sung “The cold never bothered me anyway” loud and clear ๐Ÿ˜‰

The morning plan was to chill until 11:30 am, which was the time of our reservation for the meal at Itoh Dining by NOBU (see end of previous post), then leave for Tokyo with flexible timing. However, now that we’ve got this abundant amount of snow, we HAD to go out and take photos after lunch. J and I stayed in the common area in our guesthouse until around 11:15 am, and we left our luggage there and headed out for lunch and a final round of exploration in Gora.

During the entire time in Hakone, Gora only served as a place for us to stay as I assumed that there was not much to see in such a small town/village. Still, I was glad that we had some time left on our last day to see a bit of Gora. I also really like this long wine-red coat because the colour contrasts so well with green (trees) or white (snow). Good pre-trip purchase!

Our main destination was Gora Park and admission was 500 yen, but we got in for free with the Hakone Free Pass. The park was not large and I probably would not have found it to be anything out of the ordinary, but the snow really transformed it into a magical winter wonderland. Just look at how gorgeous those snow-covered branches are on those tall trees!

The tall, umbrella-shaped tree on the right was my favourite one in the park – yes, I made a tree my favourite. In the spring or summer, this place would have been lovely with colourful flowers and plants, but bare brown branches would have appeared so dull if we had visited a day earlier. Nice timing, Mother Nature, thanks! We were in such a pleasant mood that we sang and danced to (and recorded videos of) some snow-themed songs, including “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” and Jay Chou’s “Hair Like Snow”. There were others around in the park but we were not shy – anyone was welcome to join!

It was still cloudy and a bit foggy but we could see the mountains in the distance. Curiously, the Chinese/Japanese character for “big” appears in white in the mountains in the distance…huh??? Did someone carve out such area so that it would be visible if it snowed?

I was quite impressed that the fountain in Gora Park was so well maintained even during the winter – look at that crystal-blue water! Then again I should expect no less from Japan, well done. Also, I really have to thank whoever gifted a selfie stick to J because it was the most convenient gear we brought on our honeymoon. It was my first time actively using a selfie stick and now I’m hooked because I discovered how necessary it was for taking selfies at the correct angles, especially now that I have someone to take selfies with ๐Ÿ˜›

Another look at some branches dotted with snow here and there. Somehow I really like how the random line patterns of the thick and thin branches interacted with the snow that managed to stick onto them. It was almost like abstract art or fractals…by nature.

After the short visit to Gora Park, we walked slowly back to the guesthouse where we’d pick up our luggage and head for the train to Tokyo. On our way back, I saw again the huge “big” character on the mountain in the distance, and I was still super curious why it was there in the first place. On a side note, we had to get to Hakone-Yumoto first on our way to Tokyo, and by the time we arrived, there was ZERO sign of any snow. We then realized that only the high elevations got treated to snow (Yumoto was in a valley and Gora was atop a hill) and were once again grateful that we decided to stay in Gora and not Yumoto!

So that was Hakone in a nutshell, summarized in two posts. Of course, I could write on and on about many more details but that would make a mini-novel. Next up, a post that wasn’t going to exist – stopover in Tokyo ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ๐Ÿ˜›

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 ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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 couldnโ€™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 didnโ€™t expect huge portions โ€“ 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 didnโ€™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 Iโ€™ve ever put in my mouth and I hope it wonโ€™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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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!

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