Annie Bananie en Europe

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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˜‰

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 able 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˜‰

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