Annie Bananie en Europe

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July 2020

Well there goes July. This month, Wuhan experienced an excessive amount of rainfall and as a result, the hot temperatures were slightly delayed and we got flooding in return, blah. In other news, J and I just came back from a short getaway to Guilin, a popular tourist destination in the province of Guangxi in southwestern China. It was good to finally be able to get out of the familiar for a bit – definitely a much-needed break.

Impressive cloud formations outside Guanggu 7th Road subway station in Wuhan, early in the morning.

View of villages and surrounding mountainous areas in Yangshuo, Guilin, during a motorcycle ride. Guilin is known for its beautiful karst hills and landscape that look like oil paintings.

More karst hills near Yangshuo, this time as seen with the setting sun from the Gongnong Bridge over the Yulong (meaning “meeting dragon”) River, a tributary of the famous Li River in Guilin.

View from my perspective as I was laying down to rest in a pavilion during a long(ish) hike in 36-degrees-Celsius weather…lots of stops and sweat required.

Evening falls in Yangshuo, which is relatively quiet because of COVID-19. Normally this town would be full of tourists, especially foreigners, but the tourism industry has really taken a heavy hit this year all over the world.

Lights hanging from the ceiling at the guesthouse that accommodated us during our stay in Guilin.

Brief pottery experience in Yangshuo! In about an hour I only got the hang of moulding the clay into a simple circular bowl/dish – fun but not easy!

Check-in at my workplace – that’s my expression of “it’s too early and I’m not ready for work”. Yep, not embarrassed at all posting this selfie – sometime I like it in its most natural, rawest form, heh.

Selfie time with Mr. J <3, at a Japanese restaurant that was decorated with abacuses on the wall.

In summary, Guilin was great aside from the fact that we went in scorching heat. August will (should) be an entire month of monstrous heat in Wuhan – bring it on, summer!!

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.

June 2020

The Japan honeymoon series was the longest I’ve written in a while – check it out if you haven’t yet! But back to the monthly summary posts. The end of June marks the halfway point of 2020…WHAT! Half of 2020 is over…how did this happen…huh. So far this hasn’t been the best of years for obvious reasons, and one wonders what the second half of 2020 will bring. Let’s first recap the month of June and see what we’d been up to.

The term “retaliatory consumption” (or “retaliatory” anything) has gone viral in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. The term is used to describe the act of spluring in spending, after the outbreak ends, in response to forced reduced spending during the outbreak. Here we see what I think is “retaliatory going-out”. Once everything has been restored to more or less a “normal” state in Wuhan, people can’t wait to go and find themselves in the all-too-familiar comforts of the crowds of the big city (near the Jianghan Road commercial district here). Ah, cars, shoppers, street vendors, no discrimination, everyone gets a spot on the road even though there is no order to be seen! I guess it ain’t really Wuhan without the crowds and disorder…

J and I went to Jianghan Road to see if the city has recovered but we didn’t expect to see THAT many people, though we shouldn’t have been surprised. We did by chance stumble upon a place that sold amazingly delicious crispy beef buns. I only have a photo of the process of making these buns and don’t have one of the finished product (I do, it just doesn’t look SUPER impressive) but trust me – they were SO GOOD. SOOOOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOOD. Street food doesn’t get better than this and I’m gonna have to go back to Jianghan Road for this very bun again!

So, has the outbreak ended in China? Hard to say – “experts” will say that it will not end completely and we’ll have to anticipate living with face masks in the long run. Not exactly too pleased by the restrictions but you gotta do your best to be a law-abiding citizen and not create fears…most of the time πŸ˜‰

Wednesday morning, 7:40 am, arriving at the office for a meeting at 8 am, *yawn*. The sun was only beginning to wake up so forgive me for not yet being fully awake @_@

This classy bookstore was a new discovery in June. I only went because I had a Β₯50-off coupon for any purchase over Β₯150 that only worked for vendors in the “culture and tourism” category (I was too late that week for the dining coupons), which included bookstores. Anyway, in addition to buying several books, I took my time enjoying the rare tranquility that was in the bookstore (there were perhaps only two others there aside from the store employees).

Entrance to the station where I sometimes take the subway home from work. I don’t often do this as the station is approximately 2 km from my workplace, and I usually take the bus with my coworker. But when I do pick the subway, I scan a shared bike and cycle there within 8 minutes.

A major event that happened in June was moving in to the condo that we bought! This would have happened in March if it weren’t for COVID-19, but there are no “ifs” in life, so June it was. Here’s one of the shelves that I’ve set up so far, mostly with random stuff so that the shelf doesn’t look empty. Hopefully the place doesn’t get too cluttered too soon πŸ˜›

So…food??? Yes, food. I mentioned earlier that there were coupons that could be claimed, and that’s actually the Wuhan government’s way of encouraging economic recovery by promoting consumption after the city began opening up again amidst COVID-19. Coupons of four categories (dining, retail, supermarket, and culture/tourism) are released every week and if you’re quick to click, you may be lucky enough to get one. J and I usually go for the dining ones because well, one must eat (not to mention that I love food too much πŸ˜› ) That explains why we had so much good food this month…

…and if you thought that was all, you’d be wrong. We still cooked at home a couple of times a week, but those coupons were certainly great incentives (*ahem* excuses *ahem*) to dine out. I guess the plan to encourage spending really worked…at least on us. Contributing to the economy, can’t go wrong with that!

July so far has brought us a lot of rain – A LOT OF RAIN. This is the storm before the calm (AKA the period of flooding before the hottest summer days arrive). To myself – endure and survive, then enjoy!

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??

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