Annie Bananie en Europe

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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 πŸ˜› )

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 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 πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ˜›

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 πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ˜›

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 πŸ˜‰

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!

January 2020

January 2020 has been a dark month for China and the city of Wuhan. Never would I have thought that the place I now call home would be in international spotlight, but overnight, everyone knows Wuhan because of the coronavirus outbreak. Everything was paused in China, and Wuhan was placed in lockdown with no entry or exit allowed. Till now, Wuhan has been on lockdown for almost a month, and the crisis is still ongoing in China, with many people dying and families falling apart. In the midst of darkness and despair, I put together several photos of night for the month of January, all with a single theme – there is darkness, but there will be light.

Night falls in the quiet village of Wanghe, my husband’s hometown. No one ever expected that anything could disturb the peace and serenity felt here.

Deserted street on the HUST campus. Most students have left the campus to go back home for Chinese new year.

Quiet alley in Gora, Hakone, the first stop on our 10-day honeymoon in Japan.

Side street in Ginza area in Tokyo, Japan, late at night. Even in a metropolis as prosperous and flourishing as Tokyo, night instills a sense of tranquil solemnity and protects the city folks in their dreams.

As the plane landed in Hokkaido, the sun left behind a colourful trail in the dusk as if saying, “Sayonara, see you tomorrow, enjoy your evening πŸ˜‰ “

Residential area in Otaru, Hokkaido, where the guesthouse we were staying at was located. The city was covered in snow and it seemed as if everyone has gone into hibernation.

January 2020 was actually an important month for me personally as a lot of events took place. Jian and I held a wedding banquet in his hometown, after which we went on our honeymoon in Japan, after which…we couldn’t get back into Wuhan. As a result of the lockdown, we’ve been staying in the city of Dalian in northeastern China for around 20 days and counting. Trains and flights are still suspended, as is work in most companies, so we’re stuck until the coronavirus situation gets better in Wuhan and Hubei province. Till then, we hold on to the belief that there is darkness, but there will be light.

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