a long wait for age-statement japanese whisky


We all knew this would happen, but it’s still very sad. Suntory just announced that they’ll stop selling Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17. Whisky takes time to age; there is no way of fast forwarding a 12-, 15-, 18-, 21-, 30-year process. All Japanese whiskies we see nowadays are NAS. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with NAS, we trust the master distillers. The boom in 2014 cleaned out Nikka’s stock, so the image of shelf upon shelf of Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Taketsuru and others won’t return till at least 10 years from now.


Meanwhile, any single malt especially Yamazaki, Yoichi or Miyagikyo that can be found are selling for higher and higher price. Nikkei chart of prices.

japan winter light festival

We’re prepping for our trip to bangkok next week. Looking back at my records, last January we went to Japan. Tokyo and Hakone for a week. Sake tasting, Fuji, onsen in the snow, Tsujiki, drugstore shopping. All fabulous.

May be one day we can make it to the winter lights festival at Nabana No Sato, a botanical theme park in Kuwana City. Looked at google maps and Kuwana is just 30mins’ drive from Nagoya. Absolutely stunning pics.

Blue mountains:

Cherry blossoms:


There are other winter light festivals around Japan: Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nagasaki, Sendai, Kanagawa, Tochigi, and Nagoya itself. Didn’t fully realise there are so many! Definitely trip planning time.

vending machines hokkaido

via colossal, all images ©Eiji Ohashi


I can’t stop looking at these from Japanese photographer Eiji Ohashi, who photographed vending machines in Hokkaido at night. This combines so many of my likes: Hokkaido, vending machines, photography, stillness. There are over 5 million vending machines in Japan, selling everything from the usual drinks and snacks to toys and clothing. They’re located inside buildings, outside buildings, on roads and, in rural areas, in the middle of a field. What Ohashi-san did, was notice how the light from the machine would shine on its surroundings:

vending machines downtown or in the wilderness, placed to stand in solitude, are an image of loneliness. They work tirelessly, whether it is day or night.


They’re especially beautiful when covered in snow. It’s almost like they stand there in defiance of whatever the elements throw at them.

This is part of a series called Time to Shine, more on his website.

nagoya trip summary


Finished writing up trip and uploaded pics. This was a fantastic trip, and I’m very glad I insisted on going to a new destination rather than Hokkaido or Tokyo. It was a bit hectic, we tried to cram probably one or two stops too many, but we both agree it was worth the hassle. Having a car really, really helped. Some numbers:

  • duration: 8 days, 7 nights
  • hotels: 4 total
  • distance driven: 882km (548 miles)
  • pics taken: 976 original, trimmed to 696 in 6 sets


Total spend excluding personal shopping around USD2,200 per person. The package was decent value, notwithstanding the 4 nights that the agent incorrectly booked. They confirmed they will refund my credit card, so it’s all good. Transport was expensive, between car rental, tolls, and the alpine route ticket. Looking a past Japan expenses, transportation is always expensive.


flickr sets:

Some more interesting pics. Takayama traditional house:

Saw a group of customised motorbikes in a car park at Takayama:
tak183bike tak185bike

Cannot get enough of the view from our onsen hotel room:

Koi kites at Shirakawa-go:

Tilt-shift Shirakawa-go village:

Sake, sake, sake:
tak093sake tak174sake
tak112sake tak233sake

Trolley bus through Tateyama tunnel felt like something out of a sci-fi film:

Waiting for the bus, and then two comes at the same time:
alp141snow alp142snow
alp143snow alp144snow

Kenrukuen panorama:

kan236chaya kan238chaya

Manhole covers:
ngo008manhole shi187manhole

nagoya trip day 08: flight

Checked out at 10am. We had loads of time, slowly wheeled our luggage across the station to catch the train to the airport. In retrospect we should have left our bags with the hotel and gone looking for chicken wings, but ah well.


The counter wasn’t open so we took our luggage with us to the food court. Had a decent local fish chirashi, then some shopping at muji and the pokemon store.

Flight was full, but we’d strategically picked aisle seats in the middle section and the seat between us was vacant, so yay. Watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which was very enjoyable. Too tired to get the bus home, took a taxi.

nagoya trip day 07: suganuma, nagoya


Sniff sniff, our last full day. It’d been a hectic trip, we probably tried to cram in too much. But all of the places we visited had been worth it.

Went to a bakery café at the station for breakfast, bought additional bread and doughnuts for the road too. Went to the supermarket to get apples, and bought a small bottle of sake.


The drive to nagoya was just over 3hrs so we had plenty of time, setting off at 10.45am. Around half an hour in, we saw the signs for gokayama so we decided to take the detour. Gokayama is another world heritage gassho heritage village like Shirakawa-go. Somehow we ended up at Suganuma despite following the signs. No matter, what a revelation. Smaller than Shirakawa-go but so much more peaceful and with only a handful of tourists. All the houses were concentrated around a small area and there were even workers working to replace the roof of one of the houses.


Lunch was soba, fried tofu, hida beef buns and unfiltered sake. All the delicious food we have been trying on the trip. The other side of the main village, through a short tunnel, were more gassho houses. Completely empty, until we noticed a map that said it was a youth camp. Probably the off-season and it seemed like a great place to camp in the summer. Both Suganuma and Shirakawa-go offered ryokan accommodation; next time it’d be something we will consider. Tha facilities would be basic, no air-con and likely shared bathrooms, but the villages offered tranquility and the opportunity to get away into nature.


Long drive back to nagoya and the GPS took us to some odd building, not our hotel. Google maps to the rescue, it was just a few blocks out. The hotel was a higher class business class hotel than the no-frills one we were supposed to be booked into. Double the price. Really nice room with large beds, a sofa and a large bathroom. Top floor with floor length windows offering views of the city. Just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We went to the petro station, returned our car (882km total, less than one tank of petrol and an eye-popping ¥18650 in tolls), walked to Jins to get our glasses and did some drugstrore shopping.


Seemed like the Chūbu region is more famed for cooked food than sashimi so we walked around the station looking for chicken wings. This izakaya we came across was cozy and had a great Friday evening atmosphere. Our new favourite drink was umeshu soda and we ordered 10 chicken wings, plus an assortment of other small dishes. Another new favourite was cucumber with miso, this we could make at home easily.

Last minute shopping at lawson’s then back to hotel to pack and rest for the night.

nagoya trip day 06: kanazawa market, kenrukuen, higashi chaya


At last, a leisurely day with no huge pressure to wake up early. First stop was the fish market, which after more walking than we preferred, we found a place that served sushi. We both got the tuna, ikura and crabmeat chirashi. Some Korean tv crew came into the restaurant whilst we were eating and filmed some tv star eating the restaurant’s largest sushi dish at one of the outside tables. It attracted a crowd, but we were never sure who the star was so we focused on eating our meal. The sushi was okay, nothing special. Had grilled eel and fish at another nearby stall and then we left for our next destination.


The highlight of Kanazawa was Kenrukuen garden, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. It had all the elements of great garden design like tranquility, harmony, water feature. Although it was fairly crowded, we never felt bothered and we could always find a quiet spot. There was a beautiful lake, and the trees and flowers were in perfect harmony with each other. A great place to walk around, breathe in the fresh air and take in the features.


Even the shops outside were nice, we bought even more folders and I got a salty soda which tasted like upmarket fizzy pocari. We saw a group of three women in kimonos, whether they were geishas or just women in traditional costumes we didn’t know.


From the garden we drove to higashi chaya tea house district. Traditional wooden houses in a pedstrian district, the houses used to be inhabited by geishas, hence the tea house aspect. Lots of picture opportunities and we stopped at a teahouse–iced matcha for me, hot matcha latte for mm and we shared a tea-flavoured chiffon cake. One thing we did resist throughout the day was the gold leaf covered ice cream that seemd to be everywhere. Kanazawa produces the majority of Japan’s gold leaves and these ice cream are supposed to be unique. Problem was, gold leaves are tasteless and we didn’t see the point of trying plain vanilla soft serve. We had green tea and sesame ice cream near kenrukuen and it was much better.

A few minutes from higashi chaya across town was a shopping district. We hadn’t done much shopping on this trip so it was nice to stop by tokyu hands. Bought some stationery and mm bought more cosmetics. Looking at google maps we saw a nearby chicken restaurant. We were early so were the only customers. The chicken skewers and chicken wings were nice, but nothing to write home about, so we went back to the hotel for ramen, bath and dessert in our room.

Our travel agent had been in touch throughout the past two days, trying to find a hotel for us in nagoya. Not successful, so we’re keeping the one we reserved ourselves.

nagoya trip day 05: tateyama-kurobe alpine route

6.30am alarm, we set off before 7.30am. The destination was tateyama-kurobe alpine route 立山黒部, or alpenroute as they shortened it. This region of the japanese alps get huge amounts of snow every winter and the buildings at the top of tateyama are snowed in until they can get snow ploughs going in march. A narrow corridor gets opened along the road up to the hotel at the top and the snow can reach 20m. A few years ago they realised they could turn this into a tourist attraction, and in typical Japanese fashion, came up with a route that goes from Tateyama up the mountain, along the snow corridor, down via ropeway and cable car to Kurobe dam on the other side. Several different modes of transport on one ticket. There are also a couple of companies that lets people drop off their car and then pick it up on the other side. We opted for a return from Tateyama to Kurobe dam and I bought the ticket online earlier, with a specific start time of 10am.

The GPS guidance up to now had been stellar. The navi systems in Japan allows us to enter a phone number of the destination as well as name. There was a hiccup this time round to Tateyama, almost at the end it took us to a steep footpath with an abrupt dropoff on the driver’s side. I shouldn’t have followed it but I did. Luckily we got through and rejoined the road, but it was scary for a moment.


We had experience with a planned, organised route through a sightseeing area before when we did the Hakone loop, but that didn’t prepare us for the sheer mayhem that was the alpenroute. We joined the queue at 9.55am for the 10am cable car, which was completely full. It took us up a 24% incline to the next stop where we joined another queue for the bus, which was also full. So full that a few people had to sit on the additional tour guide seats that opened up between the regular seats. The bus trip was almost one hour, and it took us from temperate temperatures to snow. Then we drove through the snow corridor, literally a corridor opened up with walls of snow either side of the road.


We made an executive decision once we got to Murodo, the end of the bus leg and where the snow corridor attraction was. The place was pandemonium, people everywhere. The reason was it was around noon, and people who started their journey on both the east and west points on the route were converging at the same time on Murodo. Since we were going roundtrip as opposed to one way, we decided to get to our end point, Kurobe dam, then make our way back, to avoid the crush. So it was a matter of hopping on even more modes of transportation: a trolley bus that went through a tunnel in the mountain, the ropeway and another cable car.


It was a good decision. The dam was really peaceful and the weather was good. Took around 15mins to walk across to the other side and then it was time for lunch; I had katsu-don and mm had tempura udon. Probably the most disappointing food on the trip so far, definitely below par and tasting like fast food. Served its purpose, filled us up considering we didn’t have a proper breakfast.


Went through the clouds on the way back up and down the mountain, which was an interesting experience. By the time we arrived at the snow corridor it was around 3pm and the crowd had thinned out somewhat. The snow corridor was basically a stretch of road leading to the bus stop, with one side of the road roped off for pedestrians. A sign at the end of the roped area showed where the snow was highest, 16m this winter. People queued up for pictures and the gentleman who took our picture tried to get a bus in the background. As it was nearing the end of the tour day, there were plenty of buses along the road, which was the perfect way of showing how high the wall was. To be honest, at that point we were quite tired from all the travelling and found the snow wall a bit underwhelming. The light didn’t give pictures as good as postcards and the snow wall itself wasn’t pristine white. Still very nice and an interesting sight.


The map showed a trail to a small lake at the back of the building and we thought we might try going there. Problem was the path hadn’t been ploughed and it was slippery to negotiate. We needed boots and poles. Gave up after about 100m and took the bus and cable car back to the bottom of the mountain. I like this pic that shows a bus coming up through the corridor. When we got back down the mountain to Tateyama station we still had a 1.5hr drive back to Kanazawa but it was a good day out and we were back in our room by 7pm.


The hotel recommended a nearby izakaya, around 5mins’ walk. Unfortunately it was full and everyone was smoking so we left and went to one across the road. It was a good choice. I had a much needed beer and we ordered yakitori, chicken wings, chicken cartilege and a really yummy asparagus-mushroom dish. They were sold out of beef and gizzards, and chicken wings too when we tried to order a second portion. We went back to the hotel, went to the bath and had the hotel ramen. Did laundry too, the washers were free and the dryers ¥100 for 20mins.

nagoya trip day 04: shirakawa-go


We asked for a window seat at breakfast and were not disappointed. What a view! The server told us that we were looking at umbrella mountain, the #1 mountain in Gifu Prefecture (Fuji is #1 in Japan, he acknowledged). The breakfast was even more satisfying than yesterday’s, if that was possible. The tray was positively brimming with smal dishes and we got to grill our own fish too.


We set off at 10am to head to Shirakawa-go 白川郷, around 1.5hrs. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage site of gassho thatched cottages, or steep high-sided thatched roofs intended to withstand the heavy snowfalls in winter. The name gassho meant prayer hands, because of the shape the roof made.


The entire site was quite crowded with many tour groups. There was the inevitable commercialisation of the village, with the main street full of souvenir shops and food stands. Didn’t detract from its natural beauty though; after the region attained world heritage status, the houses had to be maintained using thatched roofs but we could see a few that had been modernised before they got the status. We stopped at one of the shops that had a sake bar and ordered one sake and one unfiltered sake. The unfiltered one was absolutely delicious. The intense taste of the rice that was still present in the liquid, so sweet and so satisfying. We bought a jar to take home with us.


We didn’t go inside the houses that were open to the public. At the top of the village was a steep path that led to a viewpoint up the hill. Good exercise and worth the walk. Stunning views of the village, surrounded by green mountains and there was still snow at the top of the mountains in the background. I played around with the tiltshift app on my phone, the small lego-like houses were perfect for this purpose.


Despite the commercialisation, it was still a working village. Away from the main street, villagers were farming the land or in greenhouses. It wasn’t as remote as it seemed–there was no part of Japan that was truly remote–the villagers went about their business, there were plenty of cars around and we saw the post being delivered throughout the day. Lunch was soba with a small bowl of flavoured rice. The cold, refreshing soba dipped in sauce was the perfect lunch, not too heavy and no need for meat.


Explored the lower end of the village and stopped at a café-shop. I had iced matcha latte and mm had coffee. The matcha latte was just like green tea milkshake and better than ice cream. The shop sold cute accessories and stationery; I bought a couple of notebooks for my niece. We’d been stocking up on folders along the way and I had a good selection already.


The last stop of the day was the open air heritage museum. By the time we got there we were the last people to enter and the place was completely empty. Didn’t think the tour groups went there anyway. There were around 20 thatched houses that we learned were transported from the village to the museum and faithfully reconstructed. The interiors were large and open plan. We ventured up to the first floor of one but didn’t go to any more because the stairs were pretty steep and precarious. A couple of houses were showing videos of the village’s history and there was one video of how the thatched roofs were made. Very manual and intensive. Takes a lot of skill and knowhow to add the thick layers in the right way to ensure support and protection. Thick ropes and needles secured the bundles to interior beams.

From Shirakawa-go we headed to Kanazawa for the next 3 nights. When we got to the hotel we discovered to our horror that our agent had booked us on the wrong dates (June instead of May). The hotel front desk staff were wonderful, they got the manager’s approval to let us have a vacant room they saved for emergencies even though they were officially full. Additional cost, but we would claim this from our agent. We discovered the next hotel was also booked for the wrong date and the staff called for us, even though it was a different chain. Unfortunately there were no rooms so first thing we did when we got to our room was hit up hotels.com. Pretty full but I was able to find a room near the station. It was nice to have a bigger room for 3 days, the room was probably saved for VIPs as it was on the top floor and larger than the usual rooms.

Pretty tired after the long day so we walked to the station, found a supermarket and bought sushi to eat back in our room. The hotel had a sento, aka public bath. A small indoor pool, an even smaller outdoor pool and a sauna. The water didn’t feel like onsen water, we could smell chlorine. The sauna was great and much needed after a long day’s walking and driving.

nagoya trip day 03: takayama


Breakfast at this hotel was served in the restaurant, which was a change. A nicely presented selection of small dishes, with fish as the protein. What was outstanding was the miso heated over shiso leaves: a combination of salty, sweet, smoky. Yum.

Drove out to Takayama, parked in town today. Typical efficient Japanese carpark, only a few spaces with automatic sensor. A ramp comes up underneath the car when it senses movement, when we leave we pay at the machine and it tells us how much. The ramp lowers and we have 3 mins to move the car. We had been noticing yesterday, so were on the lookout for cheaper hourly places.


The destination this morning was miyagawa morning market by the river. Mainly stalls selling fruit, vegetables and some craft. A mix of local and tourists. We bought really huge juicy apples and sake from a sake shop. Stopped at a coffee stall run by an elderly lady. Two things on the menu-coffee and iced coffee–I was even okay with the coffee provided I added lots of cream. There was a sign that the stall had been in business since 1975. We felt proud to be part of its history.


Lunch was at a butcher shop-restaurant. Weekday lunch special, A5 hida beef that we grilled at the table, this time cut in cubes. The best beef on the trip so far in my opinion. Polished off with a bottle of cold sake.


There was more time to walk around Takayama old town, and by the end of the afternoon we had covered almost all of it. It being a monday, there were definitely fewer people than yesterday and we were able to spend more time exploring the souvenir shops, sake shops or take pictures of the traditional wooden houses.


There was even a visit to a miso / soy sauce shop and they were serving samples of miso soup. Discovered the souvenir find of this trip–plastic folders! We’d gotten to the point of not wanting to buy too many souvenirs, and tired of always buying the same mochi or sweets. Folders are cheap, useful and make great souvenirs.

We saved enough time to drive to a drugstore we saw yesterday. Bought tea and mm bought some cosmetics.


Time for onsen before dinner, and a little time to sit at the rest area to have a cup of tea or coffee too. The rest area looked out onto the deck, if we had more time at the hotel it would be so peaceful to sit out there and absorb the mountain view.

Kaiseki dinner started with a really refreshing yogurt liquor. The starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling. Hida beef was cooked as a shabu shabu, and the soup was used to make udon at the end. We were both full by then but the udon was so good we managed to eat a bowl each.

Time to pack and sleep.

nagoya trip day 02: takayama, onsen

Our hotel included breakfast. It was pretty much a mad scramble with around a hundred people in a canteen-like dining room with long tables and everything self-serve. Curry, rice, scrambled eggs, sausages, heaps of salad, fruit. I made tea from hot water. Even though it was a mad scramble, everyone was well-mannered and organised. No shouting, no pushing, no cutting in line. There was even a queue to return dirty trays and people wiped the table after them using the cloth provided. This is what I love about the Japanese people.

We checked out and crossed the street to pick up our rental car from the toyota rent-a-car office. Spending time on research means picking the correct location. Our car was a blue Aqua, which is the local equivalent of a Prius C so basically we were renting Ryan for a week. Added ETC card rental because we knew there would be lots of tolls.


Attempted to go to the central market but it looked closed so we headed straight onto the motorway towards Takayama. Easy 1.5hr drive. We drove around the town, through the middle of the mass of tourists at the old town area and ended up at a shopping street 10-15mins’ walk from the station. Parking there was free, ostensibly for the shopping street only so we made sure to visit there first. Already we saw stuff we love: Japanese sweets and local sake. The nice lady gave us samples and we tried valiantly to communicate with each other using broken English and copious domo arigatou gozaimasu.


We walked around the old town quickly to find lunch. We knew we wanted hida beef, the local speciality that has similar marbling to kobe and matsuzaka beef. We chose the grilled thin-sliced A5 grade hida beef rice set. It was served hitsumabushi style, with condiments and broth. Fantastic. Tender and juicy beef and everything so well balanced.


We had around 2 hrs after lunch to explore around town. Saw part of the old town main street, bought cute ceramic ornaments, sampled more sake. Ate green tea ice cream that was disappointing (too icy). Bought fruit and tea at the supermarket. Walked back to the shopping street to buy souvenirs and a bottle of sake from the nice lady.


We were on a schedule. It was around 1hr’s drive to the onsen hotel and we wanted to get there before 5pm. It’s a big sprawling hotel with several wings. Luxurious lobby and an entire shelf of yukatas so we could pick the pattern we liked. We found out our dinner slot was at 8pm so that meant we had time to rest. Our room was absolutely wonderful and totally exceeded our expectations. It was a suite! The bedroom was tatami, with low mattresses and more than enough room to lay our suitcases out. Then there was a sitting room with sink and fridge, and a massage chair. The view from the sitting room out to the garden was spectacular, there was a small stream and daffodils just beginning to appear. Best of all, we had our own onsen bathtub, wow. Everything was clean too, so it wasn’t a case of not wanting to touch or use the tub.

There was time before dinner to go to the onsen. There was a large indoor pool, a couple of tubs outside and an outdoor pool. Not too crowded and all very nice. Oh, a low temperature sauna too. We needed the relaxation of an onsen, it was great to just soak in the hot water. Fresh milk was available for free in the small sitting area outside the baths, we shared one bottle so as not to ruin our appetite.


The restaurant was quite posh and as usual the kaiseki menu had lots of courses. Started off with an alcoholic aperitif, then starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling before the main course. It was the local attraction, hida beef, which we grilled ourselves at the table. Really yummy. Finished off with beef pot, rice and dessert.


Even though we’d already used the onsen, I wanted to wash my hair because of the grease and smell from dinner. So I used our private onsen tub. It was okay, took a long time to fill, by then I was bored so I only soaked for a few minutes.

Long day travelling, picturesque traditional town and an outstanding hotel room. Totally worth it.

nagoya trip day 01: flight, nagoya

Early start, 5am alarm because mm was setting off before me and I wanted to make sure she got up. I was planning on catching the 6.30am bus, managed to catch the one before that. It was standing room only! Seemed like I was sharing the bus with airport workers going to work and a few travellers catching early flights. Since I was early I went to get the pocket wifi before meeting mm. Check-in was easy and we were inside quickly. Breakfast was eggs I made yesterday (perfectly soft boiled if I may say so myself) and sandwiches mm made. The alternative would have been Mcdonalds and we only got tea and coffee from them.

The flight was almost full. I got us adjoining aisle seats when I checked in, on purpose. Watched La la land which, for all the hype, was a little disappointing. Not the sort of film I watch on planes.


The plane was a litte early. We checked the transportation board and confirmed that the limited express train was the best way. The information centre had a helpful hand-drawn leaflet too, so cute. Only 30mins to Nagoya main station. Our hotel was around 10mins’ walk and the only difficulty was figuring which direction. Pocket wifi and google maps took care of that. We were only there for one night, so the no-frills business semi-double room suited our purpose.


The area around the station was full of modern buildings and posh shops. Our first destination was Jins glasses shop. My research showed us it was at the station mall and we found it easily enough. Quite comical, trying to get my eyes tested and barely able to communicate with the optican there. I have the frame which I bought in Tokyo and it’s ¥5000 per feature–I needed graduated lenses and I added UV-sensitive coating. Economical price, and I’ll get the new glasses in 1 week.


More research told us foodwise we should be trying the unagi hitsumabushi. The eel in Nagoya are fatter and tastier river eels and they grill the entire fish instead of steaming then grilling in other locations. The idea is to add flavour and smokiness. Hitsumabushi means to sample three ways: plain, then with condiments, then dipped in a dashi broth. We found a restaurant in a mall next to the station and gave it a go. It was definitely tasty, as expected from well executed unagi. Plain, with wasabi and with broth were all great. I ended up mixing the eel and rice with wasabi then eating with the broth.

On the way back to the hotel, we visited drugstores we noticed earlier. Bought snacks and a 2l bottle of tea for travelling. We only started noticing drugstores last time in Tokyo, turns out they have an enormous selection of toiletries, cosmetics but also snacks, household goods, gadgets and interesting stuff.

trip research: food

For our nagoya-takeyama-kanazawa trip (read the first post, there are beautiful pics) there will be the usual sushi, sashimi, seafood, ramen, izakaya food but on top of that the region has speciality food that we will want to try.

hida beef


Kobe and matsuzaka beef are famous all over the world for their tenderness, marbling and, well, high prices. Hida beef, or hida-gyu, is lesser known but have the same high quality taste and marbling. In order to be labelled hida-gyu, the meat must come from black-haired Japanese wagyu cattle bred in the Gifu prefecture and fattened for at least 14 months. The meat must be certified to be graded 3, 4 or 5 by the Japan Meat Grading Association. They take their meat grading very seriously in Japan.

Gifu cattle first started being reared as meat as opposed to use for work in the 1980s. Hida beef has won numerous awards in the Wagyu Beef Olympics. Yep, they do take their beef seriously in Japan.

The onsen hotel in Takayama where we will spend 2 nights includes the typical kaiseki dinner. The dishes page has numerous pics of hida beef and we think we’ll be able to enjoy at least one meal with hida beef shabu shabu or grilled. I’m sure we’ll want to try it more than once ao I’ve been doing research on other restaurants in the area that also offer hida beef and have a list.

There are also street stalls selling hida gyu-man or hida beef buns. These will be nice snacks. Or we may even be crazy enough to buy some to bring home.



Nagoya is one of the top regions for producing river eel. Hitsumabushi is a style of unagi-don that is ubiquitious to the nagoya region. The difference is in the preparation: the eel is grilled vs in other regions it’s steamed then grilled. I can just imagine how much more smoky flavour there is in the grilled eel.

The most well known hitsumabushi restaurant in nagoya is atsuta horaiken; they have been preparing eel over charcoal grill for 140 years. And being Japanese, they have suggestions on how to savour the meal:

  1. taste the eel as is
  2. taste the eel with condiments served (spring onions, ginger, nori)
  3. add green tea
  4. eat as you like — ie whichever favourite from the last 3 methods

Unagi has gotten expensive over the years, especially wild river eel which is fattier and more tasty than ocean eel. We’re thinking this will be dinner on our first night.

gold leaf ice cream


Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaves. The latest craze is wrapping soft serve ice cream in gold leaf.

Seems more of a gimmick. To me, edible gold is one of the Stupidest.Ideas.Ever because it’s literally flushing money down the loo. Gold leaf ice cream is around ¥1000, or US$9. Normal soft ice cream is probably 1/4 or 1/3 the price.

But we may still give it a try, if only for the instagram moment.

p.s. again, not my pics. Google image. No copyright infringement intended.

next trip: nagoya region


We just finalised our next trip. Mid-May, to Nagoya. We’re excited because it’s a new destination in Japan. We’ve been to the Kanto area (Tokyo), Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto) and Hokkaido; the central Chubu area is a natural progression to add to the list.

We only have 8 days and poor Nagoya is basically going to be overnight stops at the beginning and end of the trip so we won’t get much chance to explore the city. We will be spending most of our time in the GIfu prefecture, at Tateyama 高山 and Kanazawa 金沢.

There are a number of absolutely stunning attractions in the area. In the Mt Tateyama area is the Tateyama Kurobe alpine route 立山黒部. This area is called Japan’s northern alps, and it gets a massive amount of snow because of the winter monsoon phenomenon. Atlas Obscura explains:

Frigid Siberian air streaming south and east across the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Japan generates snow clouds, which unleash their flakes as they approach land. The phenomenon is similar to lake-effect snow in the U.S. But while the Great Lakes can freeze over, effectively shutting off the snow machine, the Sea of Japan stays open all winter long. Coastal mountains such as Mt. Tateyama amplify the snow.

Parts of the region gets up to 40m (1500 inches) of snow a year. During winter, the area is closed. Every March, they start the arduous job of clearing the mountain road. Heavy machinery is employed and snow blowers blow snow off the road. By mid-April the road is clear, with a narrow path wending its way up the mountain surrounded by very tall snow walls. A few years ago, the enterprising local council had the brilliant idea of making this snow corridor a tourist attraction. In true Japanese fashion, the visit to the national park is well organised and there are a series of connecting transportation across the area: cable car, ropeway, bus. The stopping points include Murodo, which is 5mins walk from the snow corridor and also has great views of the surrounding mountains. The route ends at the eastern end at Kurobe dam, and there is the opportunity to walk across the dam to view the reservoir.


Another must-see destination in the area are the remote villages of Shirakawa-go 白川郷 and Gokayama 五箇山, famous for their distinctive farmhouses constructed gassho-zukuri styled, which means “like hands in prayer.” The sturdy structure and steep thatched-roofs means the houses can withstand large amounts of snowfall. They are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites:

The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.


The third notable attraction would be #1 on any other trip. Kenrokuen has been described as one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Set in what was the grounds of Kanazawa castle, its name means “garden of the six sublimities” or spaciousness, tranquility, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and magnificent views. According to traditional landscape theory, these are the essential attributes of a perfect garden design.

We realise we do not have enough time. The trick is to enjoy the trip, try not to rush and spend more time in fewer places rather than trying to hit everything.

p.s. these are not my pics; I haven’t been there yet. Gakked from tourist information sites.

hotel hunting in japan

I’m helping out a friend who will be travelling to Japan for 2-3 weeks. Tokyo–>Hakone–>Kyoto–>Osaka. Her first time in Japan so I’m sharing my notes of places to visit, things to do, food, markets, transportation. I hope it’s useful.

The current focus is hotels. Budget is €80. What we found out, and are advised by frequent travellers to Japan, is to consider business hotels, or bizunesu hoteru. Seriously, read that out loud and marvel at the Japanese language. These business hotels, quite a number are part of a chain, are not only for business people. They’re no frills, reasonably priced and well located (next to a train station for instance). No frills means no gym, no room service, and some only change bedding every 3-4 days. The rooms will be functional and, since it’s Japan, quite small. But also since it’s Japan, they will be clean and the service polite and efficient.


We stayed at a Tokyu Stay hotel last time and there was a small kitchenette and a washing machine in our room. A small seating area in the lobby served simple breakfast in the morning and a coffee machine served free coffee the rest of the day; there were also the ubiquitious vending machines for drinks and snacks. A helpful notice board showed nearby restaurants. The front desk helped us book a taxi for 5am check-out. The trip several years ago we stayed at a Superhotel and they had a daiyokujo hot spring bath on site. Next time I’ll also include Daiwa Roynet and Dormy Inn when searching for hotels.

That’s in cities. What we are finding is that Hakone hotels are much more expensive, €100 rooms are really basic. Not a big surprise because hotels there are mostly hot spring resorts that also include dinner.


Sigh. Hakone. Now I want to go there again. Go to Moto-Hakone, stare at Mount Fuji, go back to the hotel and have a full course kaiseki dinner, soak in the onsen and sleep on tatami mats. Heaven or not.

trip write-up

Trip is written up.

day 01: tokyo, sake tasting
day 02: hakone, hotel onsen and massage
day 03: hakone sightseeing circuit to moto-hakone, hakone-machi, lake ashi (with fuji view), owakudani, gora, open air museum
day 04: tokyo, new hotel, new glasses, old whisky tasting, old conveyor belt place
day 05: tsukiji, toyota car city, odaiba
day 06: ikebukuru, pokemon mega centre, shopping
day 07: ueno shpping
day 08: flight

flickr sets: tokyo | hakone


One thing I have to mention, that we are extremely grateful for, is the pocket wifi we rented. Worked out to be local$96, or around £10, for the entire trip. Pick up and return at the counter at the airport and good connection via the Softbank network throughout. We left it on all day, and on a full charge it lasted around 8hrs. Since we both have external batteries, it was simply a matter of recharging it for about an hour in the middle of the day to ensure it lasted till we got back to the hotel at night. At one point we had both iphones, my ipad, and both macbooks connected and it was fine.

japan trip day 08: flight home

4am alarm, ack. Checked out at 5am and the hotel had called a taxi for us. The short trip to Tokyo station was ¥1230, no wonder people rarely take taxis. I’d done research and found keisei bus that goes from Tokyo station to NRT for only ¥1000. This compared with ¥3000 for TCAT and NEX train. We saved the map of the bus station on my iphone and the taxi driver found it easily. We would have struggled. We had aimed for getting the 5.45am but were early enough to catch the 5.20am.

Check-in for the flight was fast, and we had to wait outside at the waiting area for security and immigration to open at 7.15am.

Breakfast was ramen at the self-service restaurant and all too soon it was time to board!


Last view: Mount Fuji from the plane. Hazy but visible and with no cloud cover this time.

Slept through almost the entire flight. This was a rare airplane–no tv screen whatsoever, not even a main screen. That’s very rare nowadays. This meant a quiet flight though, everyone had gotten early for the flight and most people were sleeping.

The plane landed early at just after 1pm but there was a long delay waiting for our luggage to come out. Original estimate of getting home at 3pm revised to 3.30pm. I took a longer way home via the station to avoid traffic.

japan trip day 07: ueno shopping

Shopping day. Headed to Ueno, to the pedestrian shopping street we remember from last time. Breakfast was ramen, something warm to give us energy for the day.

First discovery was another ¥100 shop. Bought laundry and cleaning supplies. I’ve been looking for brillo pads, it’s on my UK shopping list, and I was happy to see them in the ¥100 shop. Then it was onto more drugstores and more cosmetics and toiletries shopping.


A little reward for me was really nice green tea ice cream from a shop specialising in green tea. They let us sit inside the shop to finish the ice cream too. There was more shopping, and we also bought fish and ikura to take home. It’s cold enough and we asked the shop to wrap the items carefully.


Good thing we bought fish at Ueno, when we got to Tsujiki the shops there were all closed. Lucikly the restaurants were still open so our last dinner in Tokyo was fatty tuna don with a side of ikura, uni and salmon. The uni was the best on the trip.

Back to the hotel for packing and finishing the bottle of sake. The fish we put outside on the balcony, it’s colder than inside the fridge.

japan trip day 06: ikebukuru, pokemon centre

tok105salmontuna tok108clam

Brunch at the 24hr seafood restaurant nearby. Salmon and tuna plus clam sashimi and flame-grilled clam. Everything was fresh and delicious.


Took the subway to Ikebukuru, such a contrast to our hotel area. Most shops were closed near us but Ikebukuru was jam-packed full of people. Eventually we made our way to the pokemon center at sunshine city. A huge store, with statues of pokemons inside. The most striking is pikachu riding on charizard near the entrance. There are also other gen 2, 3 pokemons we don’t know.

tok289pikachu tok292pokemon

Shelf upon shelf stuffed with soft toys, accessories, souvenirs, trading cards. I bought the 2 soft toys my niece wanted and a few small souvenirs for friends still playing pokemongo. Bought a gengar soft toy for myself and a charizard collectible figure. Oh, and splurged out on a go+. The store was lured but not many people playing. Hakone was okay in terms of pokehunting but Tokyo has been disappointing. Pidgeys and rattatas everywhere. Some eevees too but that’s it.

Time for tea. We found a traditional coffee house near the station. Tiny cheesecake and iced coffee. I’m finding the coffee in Japan drinkable if I add lots of milk and a little sugar. It’s not very strong. The negative of a traditional coffee house is they allow smoking, like at certain restaurants and in all izakayas. Ironic, that smoking isn’t allowed on the street but inside confined spaces like restaurants.

Walked back up the pedestrian shopping street for Tokyu Hands and drugstores. Toiletries and cosmetics are much, much cheaper and mm spent a lot of time looking at them. I bought some eye masks for mum and face masks for sis. Mostly I browsed around waiting for mm to finish. Kinda boring.


We wanted grilled beef for dinner. The first place we went to, at 5.30pm, was full. Do they eat early or what? A little further away we found a place that advertised 8 different cuts of IIRC wagyu beef for ¥6800. The different cuts included sirloin, filet, tri-tip, skirt and tongue. Very well marbled and melt-in-the-mouth. We also ordered a plate of vegetables for grilling and a salad, which turned out to be banchan. We wondered if it was a korean place. No matter, the beef was delicious.

Back on the pedestrian street for more drugstore shopping, found a ¥100 shop too. We ended up walking up and down that street 6 times today.

japan trip day 05: tsukiji, odaiba

First things first, breakfast at Tsujiki. By the time we got going and got there it was more like brunch. It being a saturday, the market was packed. We went to the outer market and easily found two spots at the sushi place. Ordered tuna-don with a side of miso. The tuna was okay, we thought the quality would be better for ¥1600 per bowl but still nice.

The plan today was to visit Odaiba, the artificial island at the SE corner of Tokyo. We visited there many years ago, and it’s changed a lot since then. Many more buildings and spots for visitors. We took the monorail from Shimbashi station all the way to the other side of the island. Our destination was the Toyota car city at megaweb. It’s truly a city, with 2 level of huge exhibition space. Current cars in production on one level, we liked the new Tank and Roomy, which is indeed roomy. Distinctive Japanese box-like cars, with small abrupt boot and sliding rear doors for easy access.

The upper floor is devoted to racing cars on one side and future cars on the other. We were immediately drawn to the kikai, a cute concept car with visible parts, like the car equivalent of Pompidou. Very cartoonish, and it’s may be hard to envision driving one on the road. This is the vision of the future. There are other futuristic cars too, all electric and aerodynamic.


The other side of the upper level is a display of Toyota racing cars. A large screen gave a first person view of driving a racing car, and it’s the deep vroom of a powerful engine that is the draw. We queued up to play a playstation driving game in recaro seats. Haha, no wonder we don’t play games, we were dead last.

Lunch was beef hotpot with udon noodles and wild vegetable tempura at one of the restaurants in the outlet next doors. We were quietly enjoying our lunch when the lights dimmed, shutters between the balcony (where we were sitting) and the main restaurant came down and we heard screaming coming from downstairs. A young pop singer came on stage and started singing. No idea who she is, but it seems like she has a lot of fans who were singing along, cheering and clapping. Bonus free entertainment.

tok251gundam tok265bridgestatue

It was almost sunset when we made our way around the outdoor areas of Odaiba. It was cold and very windy, we had to struggle to walk part of the way. Nice sights though–a Ferris wheel, a gundam statue, sculptures, the fuji tv building and a replica of the statue of liberty against the backdrop of the rainbow bridge that looks like Brooklyn bridge. A little NYC in the middle of Tokyo.

The subway back towards our hotel brought us to Mitsukoshi, so we walked around the food, stationery and kitchenware sections. My feet were hurting by then so I took a seat while mm did more shopping. Didn’t go out for dinner, bought oden ingredients, tuna sashimi and crab meat at the supermarket for dinner in our room. Great to put our feet up and enjoy some sake too.

Took advantage of the washer-dryer in our room to do laundry too.

japan trip day 04: hakone to tokyo

We had planned to go to the outlet at Gotemba but the transportation timings didn’t work out so we decided to check-out and go back to Tokyo early. We were selective with breakfast, it was salmon today but it was overcooked and I found too many bones for my liking. I liked the natto though, I should get it more often at home.


There was a little time between the shuttlebus dropping us off and train departure so we walked around the area around the station and mm looked after our suitcases whilst I did some pokemon hunting to hatch a few eggs. I caught a farfetch’d at the hotel a couple of nights ago but haven’t played during the day. Bought a souvenir can of Hakone beer for the train ride.

The train was faster than the outbound journey. We refilled our pasmo and took the subway to Kanda, around 6mins walk from the Tokyu Stay serviced hotel. We were too early so we left our luggage and went off to Tokyo station. It’s as huge as we remembered and with construction, it took us a few wrong turns and a lot of google mapping to get to the Yaesu end. Now we were in more familiar territory. Popped into the pokemon shop to find soft toys for my niece, visited the whisky shop to check out their collection and headed to our first Tokyo destination–Jins for glasses. The service at the shop was spectacular, and the prices were really good too. The optician helped us pick frames and checked our eyes. Normally glasses are ready in 30mins but with my prescription it’ll take a week so I wasn’t able to get new glasses. I did buy a frame for ¥5900 though, a bargain. Waiting for mm to get her eyes thoroughly checked and she can get new glasses. Ah well.

tok082whisky tok085whisky

As compensation (for me), we went to Hasegawa and tasted a few whiskies. No more aged whiskies in Japan nowadays, everything’s been bought up. The Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Taketsuru NAS samples were a poor substitute, but pretty decent. Also tried a Yamazaki umeshu which tasted like sweet plum juice. Saw some compass box bottles so I tried Asyla and Spice Tree, not bad.

tok066ikura tok064fattytuna

Dinner was at Hanamaru conveyor belt sushi restaurant. We got there shortly after 5pm and there was already a queue! Waited around 15mins, and the food was as great as we remember. Everything was our favourite: fatty tuna, ikura, uni, scallop, prawn. There as a special white fish a chef brought out that was really good but we don’t know what fish it was.

Picked up mm’s glasses and took the JR to Shin-Nihombashi station, literally around the corner from the hotel. Saw a supermarket at the opposite corner which got us really excited. Stocked up on tea and fruit.

japan trip day 03: hakone sightseeing loop

Breakfast at the hotel is buffet-style. Again, traditional japanese food–grilled fish, pickles, egg, rice, congee, miso soup, tofu, natto. Average in taste, but lots of food so we were stuffed.


The plan today is to do the Hakone sightseeing circuit. Most guides say take the anti-clockwise route: train to Gora, cablecar then ropeway to Owakudani then Togendai, pirate ship cruise to either Moto-Hakone or Hakone-machi, walk the cedar path then bus back to Hakone-yumato. I was reading another leaflet last night which described the opposite routing. We decided on the clockwise routing, getting to the furthest point then making our way back. That turned out to be an excellent decision.


We walked to the station and caught a bus to Hakone-machi. It was a different bus than we wanted to catch, but it got us to where we wanted to go, so no complaints. It was cold when we got off the bus, and windy too so we estimated it was near or just below freezing. Hakone-machi is a small tranquil village on the south shore of lake Ashi. The sun came out just as we were walking along the lake and blessed us with a perfect view of Hakone shrine and Mount Fuji in the background. Fuji was partially covered by clouds but enough of it was visible. Peaceful and beautiful.


The next stop was Hakone-machi, about 1.5km away. The guides say either take the bus or walk along an ancient cedar-lined path. So we took the path. The trees shielded us from most of the wind so it was less cold. It was a nice walk that took us to the Hakone checkpoint. We didn’t go inside, just poked around the shops nearby.


I was most interested in a statue of a runner at the pier in front of the ekiden café. I’m sort of familiar with the concept of university and corporate running teams in Japan and have heard of the Hakone ekiden, one of the most prestigious ekiden with a course between Tokyo and Hakone run by university teams. I didn’t have time to go inside the café but it was still nice to see something running related.


We caught the next sailing of the pirate cruise ship towards Togendai. Here was when we had a first inkling that we made the right decision to take the clockwise route. The ship was quite crowded, but we were able to still find seats. This was in contrast to the large crowd that got off the ship doing the loop in the opposite direction. Definitely when we reached Togendai and got on the ropeway, we were one of very few passengers, with all the other gondolas going the other direction full of people. We could vaguely see Mount Fuji whilst on the ropeway; it was hidden behind more clouds, we were very lucky we saw it at the lake.


The ropeway stopped at Owakudani, a geothermal valley with steam and sulphur emissions. I remember being able to walk around last time we visited but the paths were all closed. The view of the valley wasn’t great, but we saw something cuter: someone made a mini-snowman on the fence facing one of the steam vents.


Part of the ropeway was closed for repairs so we took the replacement bus to catch the cablecar downhill towards Gora. It was past 2pm already and we were getting hungry. A stop at a small restaurant for tempura soba was just the right ticket. After lunch we caught the train for one stop, we had the freepass so why not take full advantage.

hak246museum hak282museum

The last destination on our loop was the Hakone open air museum. We’re both not huge art fans but we were so glad we took the time to visit. The museum has mostly sculptures, curated at spots inside the grounds. Extremely interesting pieces by artists from around the world.


One of the attractions of the museum is the Picasso collection. No photography allowed inside unfortunately. There were a number of paintings, a series of bull-fighting sketches and numerous sculptures and clay work by the master. The collection showed us his progression from a more traditional style to cubism to his very distinctive style. Well worth the visit.


Another piece in the museum is called the curved space — diamond structure. It’s a large jungle gym plastic installation designed along the lines of the covalent bonds in a diamond. The inside is hollow and they allow kids to play inside. The space is too small for adults otherwise I would have tried to climb inside for a bit.

We stayed in the museum until closing and caught the train back to Hakone-yumato. Missed the shuttlebus so decided to walk. Just as well, the sake shop was still open and we bought a small bottle to enjoy in our room.

hak364tarofish hak369beefstew

Dinner was actually worse than yesterday’s. The presentation was lovely but we didn’t find any of the courses tasty: appetisers were bland, sashimi was tasteless, simmered mushrooms were good, taro and fish were okay, the beef stew was gluggy and we struggled to finish it. The nicest thing of the meal was the sweet kiwi fruit we got for dessert.

Time for onsen, relaxation and bed.

japan trip day 02: hakone

For some reason my alarm didn’t ring, but I was only 10mins late, getting up at 8.10am. Made tea, packed up, checked out and caught the shuttlebus to the station. It was rush hour at Shinjuku, so imaging the sheer volume of people rushing about.

We found the Odakyu line counter and bought a 3-day Hakone freepass. Of course not free, ¥5640 that enables us to travel to and from Tokyo and Hakone and all the transportation within the Hakone sightseeing area. We didn’t catch the next train, opting for one half an hour later so we could get breakfast. After wandering around for about 10mins we decided on the place nearest the platform, curry rice. Sounds strange, having curried hamburger or egg with curry sauce with rice for breakfast. It was exactly the hot, filling breakfast we needed. The place was also full, so it’s not such a strange idea after all. There was a little time before boarding the train, we went to the food area of the department store and used our newfounded knowledge to buy a seasonal special new sake.


For ¥890 we took the romancecar limited express. Not much of an express, the advertised journey time of 1.5hrs was more like 2hrs, but the train was comfortable compared with the regular commuter trains. An enjoyable train ride on a sunny blue sky day.


A ryokan shuttlebus (¥100) took us to our hotel, Hakone PAX Yoshino. Very traditional large Japanese spa resort hotel. It was only around 1pm so we couldn’t check in yet. They stored our luggage and we walked back to Hakone Yumato village to explore. The hotel is along the local river and it was nice to stroll with the sounds of flowing water next to us. Not a lot of traffic although there were more visitors that we expected.


First interesting sight was a shop selling dried flat fish. They set up a couple of small charcoal grills outside and encouraged people to grill pieces of sample fish. It was fun! The fish tasted really nice, there were different varieties and different flavourings. I found there to be too many bones, but mm was interested in buying some home. The shop also had fishballs, dried fish snacks and all sorts of pickled seafood. Love the pickles, but the glass jars are too heavy.


Lunch was delicious soba. I had wild vegetables (beans, mushrooms, bamboo shoots) and mm had the local specialty, yam that was grated and made into a paste.

The walk to the end of the shopping street and back didn’t take long, even though we lingered at any shop that grabbed our interest. Bought a couple of bags of snacks.

Went to the onsen before dinner. There are two baths, one inside and a rock bath in an outside area. We had the onsen mostly to ourselves as the other guests opted for early dinner at 6pm. Our choice of dinnertime at 7pm proved to be a wise one.

hak343sashimi hak344udon
hak347beef hak349dessert

Dinner was the typical multiple course menu at an onsen hotel. A selection of appetisers–eel sushi, taro, prawn with uni, chicken with radish, herring roe–started the meal. Sashimi, udon and vegetables cooked at the table, grilled cod, fish dumpling, baked beef, pickles followed. Rice was from a pot cooked at the table. Dessert was almond pudding, caramel tart and grapefruit. The food was decent, not spectacular. The presentation the usual Japanese high standard.

We spotted a poster for massage, so after resting for a bit after dinner we took turns getting a full body massage. Couldn’t do it together as there was only one lady in charge of the massage station. The massage area was in a really nice relaxation room so we stayed there keeping each other company.

Another relaxing day. Tried to relax and not hurry.

japan trip day 01: tokyo, sake tasting

5am wake up, leave home 6am. Taxi to airport express, very quick, got there around 6.30am. Went to pick up the pocket wifi from the counter and waited for mm at the check in desks. Everything was straightforward and we boarded the plane at 8.30am. Flight was around 4hrs, and it was also straightforward at the Tokyo end, we landed around 2pm.


The airport limousine bus was ¥3,100 per person, took 1.5hrs and we checked into the Shinjuku New City hotel just before 5pm. Quickly dumped our bags and went downstairs but we missed the shuttlebus by a few minutes. Instead of waiting 20mins for the next one, we walked towards Shinjuku station in search of dinner. There was a maze of side streets around the station that had shops and plenty of restaurants. We spotted one that had a sign out front that said last day. Upon investigation, they were having a sale and it was the last day. The special on sale was dipping ramen, for ¥500. For an additional ¥200 we got a plate of roast pork slices, bamboo shoots and an onsen egg. The serving of noodles was very generous and the entire meal extremely tasty.


We google mapped to our evening destination, Kurand sake market. They have an all-you-can-drink sake deal, a large selection of around 100 sakes in a large wall fridge. In addition, another floor was plum and other fruit liquors, and yet another floor was sochu. The very reasonable price is ¥3240 for the entire evening session. For ¥5950, we reserved spots at a sake lesson. The instructor, Chris, is from the UK and a certified sake sommelier and sake educator. We were tired, from waking up early and the flight, but were interested enough to stay alert during the 2hr lesson. We learned about the history of sake (first brewed 2000 years ago for religious offering purposes), what it’s made from (rice, water, yeast, koji), the different types of sake, the specialness of the rice (denser with a bigger white inside), the process of making sake (rather like whisky), how to classify dryness / acidity, and much more. We learned that there are different types of cups and which one to use for which type. We can read a label better now, a negative number means sweeter and a positive number means dryer; with acidity is also a factor. And of course, we got expert tasting of more than 10 samples.


After the lesson finished, we stayed and tasted even more. They don’t sell sake on premises, although they have a shop. We took pictures of the labels of our favourites so we can look for them. The purpose of the sake market is to introduce sake made by smaller independent breweries. Many breweries are now operated by younger tojis (sake masters), similar to how craft breweries have taken over much of the beer landscape.

Even with the large bowl of noodles, we’d consumed a fair amount of sake so we tipsily wended our way, with the aid of google maps, back to our hotel. Showered and crashed into bed immediately.

tokyo trip research

Started doing consolidation and research for the trips. No need for Tokyo, have notes from last time. Cancelled the superhotel in favour of an apartment hotel in ginza, overall ¥17k savings, or one night. Yes, it means we won’t have onsen bath in Tokyo but since we’re at an onsen hotel in Hakone I’m okay with it.

Spent a lot of time on Hakone research. We last visited Hakone last century when we first started working. My ex-boss’ secretary’s husband owned a travel agent that was one of the first ones to specialise in Japan, and they’ve grown so much since then. Anyway, I have vague recollections of the trip–our first Japanese onsen, riding the local bus, visiting a volcanic valley–but no notes or even photos. It was before the days of evernote, flickr or even my website. I hadn’t switched to digital camera then so there may be physical photos in one of the boxes.


I remember going on a cable car and a gaudy pirate ship on a lake. Turns out they’re part of the hakone loop. The hakone free pass covers all transportation in the area and they even recommended a circular route:

  • hakone-yumato –> gora by tozan train 35mins
  • gora –> sounzen by cable car 10mins
  • sounzan –> togendai by ropeway 30mins get off at owakudani
  • togendai –> hakone machi by pirate boat 30mins
  • hakone machi –> moto hakone by boat/bus 10mins or walk 30mins
  • moto hakone –> hakone-yumato by tozanbus 30mins

We’ll likely do the loop, or part of it. If we have time, I’m going to suggest visiting yunessun hotspring amusement park, which has 2 sections: a regular onsen and a swimsuit area that has wine, sake, coffee, green tea baths as well as waterslide, sauna and pool. Found a discount coupon for 39% off a combined ticket. Must remember to bring swimming costume.

We’ll have 3 full days in Tokyo. Depending on how cold it is, we’ll go outside or stay inside at department stores. We went to ueno, shibuya, asakusa and meiji shrine last time. This time may be shinjuku, ikebukuro (pokemon mega center!) and the articificial island of odaiba. Fish market of course.

Japanese marathon monks

Something else I’ve been reading up on the last few days is the Kaihōgyō 回峰行 or circling the mountains meditation challenge that is undertaken by the so-called marathon monks of Mt Hiei, just outside Kyoto.

As part of a 7 year quest, a participating monk runs or walks 1000 marathons in 1000 days:

  • year 1: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 2: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 3: 30-40km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 4: 30-40km every day for 200 consecutive days
  • year 5: 30-40km every day for 200 consecutive days
  • end of year 5: survive 9 days without food, water or sleep
  • year 6: 60km every day for 100 consecutive days
  • year 7: 85km every day for 100 consecutive days

They don’t just walk along paths in the mountain, they stop off at places of worship too. It was moving to see in the film how people bowed and kneeled along the path of the kaihōgyō in order to be blessed by the monk.

The monks are part of the Tendai school of Buddhism, and only 46 monks have ever completed the challenge. Traditionally after the first 100 days, the monk must either complete the challenge or commit suicide if he fails. In practice, a solid selection process means no one has had to commit suicide for over 100 years. Upon successful completion, the monk achieves the revered status of living Buddha and become celebrities.

They don’t walk or run with the type of gear used by modern day runners. Their shoes are handmade from straw and they wear their white monk’s habit. What’s most amazing, as writer and runner Adharanand Finn discovered when he met one of the monks and tells a story of someone meeting a marathon monk on the last day of his challenge, expecting to see his feet all swollen and sore.

“But they were smooth and clean,” she says. “As though he had been floating over the ground.”


The term marathon monk was coined by John Stevens in his book of the same name. Himself a marathon monk, with 35 years experience living in Japan and an expert in aikido, this is a book I’d love to read.

The reader will learn about the monks’ death-defying fasts, their vegetarian training diet, their handmade straw running shoes, and feats of endurance such as their ceremonial leap into a waterfall

Perhaps not to buy. I don’t think the library has it, it’s a shame.

japanese whisky price explosion

Posted a bunch of classifieds today, all sorts of stuff for sale. Within an hour, I got a response for a hand blender we never used. Walked down to the station to exchange–the buyer sent her son, hahaha.


Clicking around the website, found some whiskies for sale. This is Yoichi 10, for sale at equivalent of US$240. This was what we saw at Nikka distillery in 2014:


Distillery price of ¥4,643 translates to US$40. Granted, distillery price was the absolute lowest available. I don’t have Yoichi 12; I have even better: 2 bottles of 15yr and a bottle of 20yr. I bought the 20yr at the distillery for equivalent of US$190. I repeat, open market price for a 10yr is $240; I bought a 20yr at the distillery for $190.


Here’s another for sale. Miyagikyo 12 for US$330. I bought mine in Japan for the equivalent of US$70. I also have a bottle of 15yr for just under US$100. Miyagikyo distillery is located in Sendai, around 120km from the Fukushima nuclear plant that was devastated after the tsunami in 2011. Even though at the time the distillery didn’t suffer damages, I always think people will be wary of the water quality in whiskies down the line. Miyagikyo is very rarely seen outside Japan, which adds to their value. Personally, I prefer it to Yoichi so I began looking out for them early on in our Japan travels.

It’s unreal, seeing Japanese whiskies advertised at prices that are multiples of how much we paid. It’s another sign of the serious shortage of Japanese whisky, and how aged expressions will soon be no longer available. This definitely bumps up the prices. Holy cow, how much is my Yoichi 20 worth? If I bought it at US$190, and open market is running at 5x that, it’s worth, gulp, almost US$1,000. Or more, since older whiskies are always more expensive.

Not that I’ll ever sell, mind you.

bookstore-themed hotel tokyo


via boredpanda, a cool place to consider next time we visit tokyo is the book and bed hotel, which will open in November. It’s a hostel which is based on a theme of a bookstore because:

dozing off obliviously during your treasured pasttime is the finest “moment of sleep”, don’t you agree?



They will have 1,700 English and Japanese books and comics available, to be expanded to 3,000. The books are not for sale, just reading.

The accommodation is basic, more like capsules built inside bookshelves and shared bathrooms. Free wifi. At ¥4500 (USD37, £25) it’s aimed at the backpacker end of the market. Ikebukuro location is another positive. Then again, we prefer a little more comfort and private bathrooms. Probably not as suitable for us. Still very cool.



japanese miniature meals

The combination of reddit and Japanese things gives new meaning to weird. These are, for want of a better description, miniature happy meals that you make by mixing packets of powder with water and microwaving.


This kit by Kraci and called Hamburger Popin’ Cookin’ kit DIY candy, is available on amazon. Apparently taste of the real things (burger, fries, ketchup, cola) as opposed to candy flavoured. There are other kits: sushi, donuts, cake. A 9 box bundle is also available for only $15.47 (plus shipping). Tempted for the silly fun factor.

not the superhero runner

8.5km 1.12.30hr 8.32min/km plus 1.5km walking

I took advantage of a little breeze and cloud cover to go to the park. It was still a bit of a struggle as the temperature was high and I was dripping with sweat very quickly. Argh.

Need something positive, and I came across an article in medium called the superhero runner. The author’s son (age 5) is British and was born in Japan and lived there till he was 2.5 years old. Naturally he feels a connection with Japan. His parents are also avid runners so when his homework was about his own personal real-life hero, he wrote about Yuki Kawauchi, the “maverick” civil servant runner from Saitama.

Kawauchi is fast, very fast. 2:08 at the 2011 Tokyo marathon, multiple victories in a year and a member of the Japan world championship team. He is also one to buck the system. In Japan, professional runners are part of a coporate or university team. Kawauchi still has a day job as a government clerk, pays for his own expenses and generally does things his own way.

Great role model for a 5 year old.

Even better news is that after his dad tweeted his homework, the folks at Japan running news passed on the image and Kawauchi sent a response:

I’m not quite the fastest in Japan yet but I’m very happy to hear that English children know and value that I try to be competitive and to never give up. I will keep trying to really become the fastest in Japan. Thank you.

houshi ryokan — family owned for 1300 years

Houshi Ryokan in Awazu Onsen is the oldest family-owned hotel in the world and second oldest owned hotel. Beautiful ryokan, beautiful onsen, beautifully shot video. Sad too. The ryoden passes down through the eldest son and the current owner, Zengoro Hoshi, is the 46th generation. His son died suddenly, and the film also focuses on Hoshi-san’s daughter, and her struggle to take responsiblity for the business, responsibility and pressure she hadn’t thought was hers.

tokyo day 05: shopping, shopping, shopping


Checked out early and had breakfast at a bakery café at the station. Today’s plan: last day shopping.

My niece’s request for a pokemon soft toy at the shop at the station was checked off first. I took a video of the shelves and she picked the toy she wanted, way to go social media.


Back to Ueno and bought a case of giant peaches, ikura, unagi, pickles, snacks, popcorn and scented sys masks. We made time to stop for green tea ice cream at a specialist green tea shop that was delicious. They had benches inside the store, and also served us green tea to follow the ice cream.

Back to the hotel to repack, both of us managing to squeeze everything aside from the 5kg case of peaches into our suitcases. Wheeled the heavy suitcases to the other side of Tokyo station to go back to Hanamaro conveyor belt sushi. More tuna, salmon, scallop, squid and ikura sushi.

Narita express train to the airport, a little more complicated and harder than the limousine bus, but we prefer to skip the traffic. Dropped our bags, went through immigration and onto the duty free. There was whisky and sake tasting, we bought more yoichi 15, so value for money at ¥5,500. Final shopping was for snacks, there was a potato snack that was limited to 5 per person and we saw people with their full limit. We were more restrained, only one each. Chocolate popcorn, green tea roll cake and mm bought kitkat cheesecake.

Loaded with shopping and happy memories, we were just in time for boarding. I’d checked us in early on Sunday and grabbed exit row seats. The flight wasn’t full so we had the whole row. The flight was 45mins early but bags were delayed. I was home just after 11pm.

tokyo day 04: shrine, shopping, puffer fish

tok0024sushi tok0025soup

Rain most of the day, pretty miserable. We started the day late as usual, headed to Kitte mall next to Tokyo station for brunch at Nemuro Hanamaro conveyor belt sushi, this is our favourite place in Sapporo and I was happy to see that they have a branch at Tokyo. We had ikura, scallops (3 plates), tuna, salmon, hamachi, some other white fish and a bowl of yummy crab soup. 15 plates including the soup for ¥5,000.

tok0026shrine tok0027shrine

Took the subway to Asakusa, one of the older areas of Tokyo. The major landmark is Sensō-ji, the oldest shrine in Tokyo, founded in 628. The pedestrian street leading up to the shrine is lined on both sides with stalls selling souvenirs, kimono, fans, snacks and sweets. The area surrounding the shrine is also made up of small streets lined with shops and restaurants.

It had been raining throughout the day and it got steadily heavier. We sought cover at a coffee shop where we enjoyed a coffee (for mm), tea (for me) and cakes. The place only had one table occupied when we went in, but it filled up quickly with people with the same idea.

We walked around a little more in the area, both at the small streets and at a couple of department stores. Found a supermarket and bought some snacks and cakes. There was a food store at the basement of Seibu that turned out to be a Walmart branded supermarket, wandered around there too.

tok0028puffer tok0029puffer

The reason we stayed in the area and waited around for dinner was because we came across a restaurant that served fugu, or puffer fish. This is the highly poisonous fish that requires very careful handling, that chefs must be specially trained and certified before they are allowed to prepare it. The waitress told us that a set is enough for two, so that’s what we ordered. Small dish of starter, fugu sashimi, fugu hot pot and congee made from the soup. One set, with two drinks came to just over ¥5,000. No one said fugu is cheap.

Stopped by the whisky place near the station to sample some more whisky. In addition to the Amrut fusion I bought earlier, I bought a Yoichi 15, a 500ml Miyagikyo NAS and the green Ichiro’s malt.

Our last night at the hotel, same routine of going downstairs to the onsen then peaches for dessert.

tokyo day 03: ramen, shibuya, shrine, yakitori alley


Did not sleep well last night, woke up between 3-5am, didn’t wake up till 10am. Luckily we had no particular plans. It ended up being decent timing, we went to Rokurinsha at Ramen Street Tokyo Station, which supposedly serves the best tsukemen in Tokyo, if not the country. This style of ramen is called dipping ramen, with the noodles (absolutely excellent) and soup (thick, full flavour) are served in separate bowls. We take some of the noodles, dip it into the soup and slurp to our heart’s content. There is a permanent queue there, we got there around 10.50am, just in time for them to reopen at 11am for lunchtime service. Still had to wait around 30mins, totally worth it.


Next stop was shibuya, the pedestrian crossing outside the station is arguably the world’s busiest intersection. The best view, from my research, is at the 1/F window of the starbucks right at the crossing. Good view.

tok0017market tok0018market

A 10min walk from shibuya is the weekend farmer’s market at the united nations university. Fantastic looking produce — fruits, vegs, flowers, honey, bread, pastry as well as small food trucks that look exactly like the ones at the real food market in London. We rested for a while with a drink of sangria from one of the trucks (alcoholic for me, non-alcoholic for mm).

tok0020shrine tok0021shrine

From the market we walked around 20-30mins through the harajuku champs elysee (same wide street with trees either side, same designer shops) to the meiji shrine set inside yoyogi park. A pleasant walk in the grounds, we stopped for a drink — coke float for me, coffee for mm. The shrine consisted of several large buildings, when we entered we joined the locals in the hand washing ritual. No photography was allowed at the main shrine, where people were praying.

tok0022yakitori tok0023yakitori

It was already 5pm so we debated where to go for dinner. At first we thought of going back to tsukiji but since we were only 1 stop from shinjuku we decided to go to Omoide Yokocho, otherwise known as memory lane or the more local name of piss alley. The narrow alley is situated next to shinjuku station and consists of dozens of tiny yakitori stalls. We went to one that proclaimed that it serves the best yakitori in Tokyo. A mother and daughter team ran the place and we had a mixed chicken and pork platter, green peppers and squid grilled skewers. Washed down with a beer. The place started getting busier as we left.

Back to the hotel later than the past 2 nights, by the time we made it downstairs to the onsen it was 8.30pm. Soaked for half an hour, had peaches and yogurt back in our room.

tokyo day 02: park, lake, market shopping

tok0006lake tok0007shrine

Breakfast at the hotel, buffet of rice, soup, stewed vegetables, salad, fish and fruit. Filling enough for us to skip lunch. We were in no hurry and didn’t leave till around 10.30am.

The destination today was Ueno 上野 to visit the park. Inside the park were several museums — the national museum, museum of science & nature, children’s library, art museum, a concert hall, a zoo and a few shrines. Didn’t go into the museums or the zoo, took a few pictures at a small shrine.

tok0004lotus tok0005lotus

A major feature of the park was a lake, divided into three sections. Two of the sections were in fact lotus ponds. Not all the flowers were in bloom, there were a few visible, very pretty. It took us a couple of hours to walk around the park.

tok0008alley tok0009freak
tok0010fish tok0011fruit

A few minutes from the park was Ameya-Yokochō アメヤ横丁, a rabbit warren of streets and alleys that make up a crazy open air market. The street is also called candy shop alley, but nowadays there are shops selling clothes, shoes, fish, fruit, toys, bags and many other things. Crowded on a Saturday. We stopped at a conveyor belt sushi place for a few plates of sushi, bought a few odd items from a pharmacy, some clothes and socks from the Uniqlo across the way.

tok0012unadon tok0013peach

Early dinner of unagi don (grilled eel on rice). It was only around 5.30pm so the place was a quiet oasis from the bustling street outside. Very delicately flavoured eel, really nice and not too filling.

Got back to the hotel early and went down to the spa again. Not too busy, at 7pm most people were probably out at dinner. Soaked in the spa for about half an hour, then back to our room for dessert of giant peaches we bought at the market. Very juicy, really sweet and delicious.

tokyo day 01: flight, tsukiji, whisky, spa

Long day. Flight was at 1am so we were at the airport at 11pm on Thursday. Check-in and everything else were quick so we found ourselves sitting at the gate with 2 other 1am flights. The plane was full, and the crew turned the lights off as soon as the plane levelled at cruising altitude. We were given a sandwich box which we saved till we landed at the airport. Landed around 6.15am, we were out at arrivals by around 7am. We sat, had breakfast of ham & cheese roll, chocolate muffin and a few pieces of fruit.

My research told me to get the NEX express train, by showing our foreign passport we get a 50% discount for the one way ticket to Tokyo station. A good deal. Our hotel is right across the road from the station. 9am was too early to check-in, we left our luggage there and made our way to Tsukiji fish market. We were too late to see the world famous tuna auction or any of the wholesale activities, but there was lots going on at the market.


We joined the queue for one of the small restaurant stalls for lunch — it took about an hour of queuing until it was our turn, there were lots of people and the restaurant only sat 12. We ordered hamachi, uni and salmon roe chirashi. The ingredients were fresh and we were pretty hungry, not as good as the fish in Hokkaido though. After lunch we had coffee in a very old-fashioned counter café. I had a milky coffee which tasted great even to this non-coffee drinker.


Walked around the market some more, both the wholesale area and the more familar outside area with dozens of stalls and restaurants. Had a snack of tamagoyaki (egg roll) for only ¥100. Washed down with green tea.


Walked to Shimbashi station and took the Yamanote line back to Tokyo station. Still too early to check in so we visited the department stores as well as the maze of underground shops at the station. Found an absolutely amazing liquor store with shelf upon shelf of whiskies, rum, brandy, vodka and all sorts. The best thing, they let you taste 10ml of many bottles for a small fee (¥100-200). We tried Amrut single malt and fusion — award winning from India and a Revival (3yr) plus Komagatake 10 from Mars distilery. All 4 are very unusual and hard to find. The Revival is supposed to be limted edition but at 3yrs it was like grain whisky and not worth the ¥10,000+ price tag. Our favourite was the Amrut fusion.

Dinner was tempura and soba from one of the station restaurants. We were really knackered by then, it was only 6pm. We went back to the hotel to find that they had already placed our bags in our room and everything was sorted. After choosing our pillows we made our way to the small spa to wash away the day’s dust and tiredness. Early to bed.

more tokyo trip planning


Flight is confirmed, just need e-ticket. Hotel is booked. We decided against ryokan: the ones with availability weren’t as conveniently located as we like and we like the hot spring bath in the hotel we found.

So most of the day was doing research on things to do, possible day trips, food and, very important, where to drink and buy whisky. Everything is neatly organised in my evernote notebook. We’ll be there for almost 5 full days, arriving on the red eye at 6.25am and leaving on an evening flight. Even found some bargains: the NEX from Narita is half price for non-Japanese and sanrio puroland (aka hello kitty land) is almost half price after 3pm.

Then I remembered to check out /r/tokyo. Thanks reddit for the monthly travel megapost of ideas. Attractions, getting around and lots of tips. I know this already, that there are very few free wifi hotspots in Japan, but I didn’t realise there is free wifi at 7-eleven and starbucks, providing we pre-register. Other options are renting sim card or pocket wifi.

This being reddit, I learn that sumo season hasn’t started but we may be able to go watch the training, there’s a place in shinjuku with ¥120 beers and we must


The robot restaurant in shinjuku can only exist in Japan. It seems to be an insane combination of giant robots, flashing neon, cosplay, dancing, wrestling and more. Hmm, may be we’ll see if we have time.

tokyo short trip planning


Possibly the only good thing about living here is the proximity to Japan. We can go to places like Hokkaido or Kansai or Tokyo at a moment’s notice. Which is what we are doing, Tokyo for a long weekend, this weekend. Every time we plan a holiday, we skip Tokyo in favour of other more unusual places, because in our minds it’ll always be there. We’ve both travelled to Tokyo for business, but it’s been many many years since we actually visited for holiday.

I had to remind myself of the various districts and what to do:

  • tsukiji fish market of course
  • ginza for shopping
  • shinjuki 新宿 for more shopping and busy area
  • shibuya 渋谷 for the iconic busy crossing, shopping at Tokyu Hands and Takashimaya plus proximity to the Meiji shrine
  • ebisu 恵比寿 for restaurants and izakayas
  • roppongi 六本木 for bars and clubs
  • akihabara 秋葉原 for electronics and otaru stuff
  • ueno 上野 for park and zoo
  • asakusa 浅草 for a bit of history, culture and religion
  • odaiba お台場 artificial island with a bridge, beaches, exhibition halls and shopping

And that’s not including Tokyo Disneyland, Sanrio Puroland (aka Hello Kittyland) and day trips to places such as Hakone, Fuji and Yokohama.

I also had to remind myself how enormous the entire greater Tokyo area is. Superimposed on a map of the UK, it takes up most of the Midlands. Almost 40 million people. We are looking at a hotel near Tokyo station, which is 60mins by express train from the airport and 25-30mins from the popular areas like shibuya and shinjuku. It’s a newer hotel, good price and has its own hot springs bath.

hokkaido day 8: sapporo, travel home

sap218centralmkt sap221centralsalmon
sap232cuttlefish sap236crab

Woke up at 7am and left the apartment at 8.15am. Drove to the central wholesale market, which turned out to be immediately behind the curb market. Huh. Lots on sale there, at wholesale prices and unfortunately quite large portions too. Walked over to curb market for brunch: uni & ikura rice (never get tired of it), live cuttlefish sashimi, whole crab. Bought some fresh seasonal asparagus, nicely wrapped up for the flight. Went back to central market and was a little panicked when many stalls had already closed. Oh no!! The stall i wanted to get king crab legs from was still open, but we couldn’t find one that sold soy ikura. With the language problem we resorted to fishing out a pic on my camera and we were so blessed that the young man we asked led us to another stall and talked to that stallowner for us. Phew. Must remember next time that the wholesale market closes before 11am.

sap530ichiro sap531ichiro

Then it really was time to head to the airport. Returned the car, got the shuttlebus and was at the terminal by 1pm. The check in counter wasn’t opened yet so we browsed around the shops and then looked for a place where we could sit and have a drink. Our blessed trip continued when we walked into a bar, thinking we’d have a yoichi or miyagikyo and then discovering, hidden on the top shelf, several bottles of ichiro’s malt. Wow. Ichiro’s malt is produced by the chichibu distillery, a smaller, independent distillery unlike the corporate suntory or nikka groups. We opted for a glass of the oak barrel blend and a glass of the ten of diamonds of the card series. The oak barrel was smooth and full of character, the outstanding one was the ten of diamonds which was rich and packed a punch. Sigh. What a great end to our trip, to find rare whisky at the airport.

We were probably overweight at check in, but the nice counter agent let us through. She also suggested to us that we should check in our seafood, wrapped in cold bags because the ice pack was considered liquid and couldn’t be taken as hand luggage. Combining our suitcases, the pillows and the seafood we checked in 5 pieces.

After check in, there was just about enough time for last minute chocolate and snack shopping and then duty free. Sigh, the prices inside the duty free were much lower of course. By then we were both whiskied out and didn’t dare buy any more. For future reference I guess.

Like the flight coming over, the flight was around half full. We had 3 seats between us, so we were comfortable. Dinner was fish, rice, macadamia biscuit and I had a beer. Watched Hobbit 2 and some of the Fall. Divided our seafood shopping at the airport then caught the airport express and taxi home. Tired, loved the trip and can’t wait to go back.

hokkaido day 7: otaru

otaru011road otaru026market

We slept in a little today, no onsen or laundry to do early morning. Left at 9.45am to drive to otaru. Since we were going to be there more or less the full day, we drove a little further from the central canal area and found a reasonably priced car park. Maximum for any 24hr period was ¥1000, which was acceptable. The car park was also near the central market, and we did some seafood shopping there with a friendly shopowner. Bought salmon roe, mentaiko (pollock roe 明太子), squid pickle and nori pickle. We were close enough to the car to be able to take our shopping back. It was cold enough, I wasn’t worried they they would spoil.

otaru042lunch otaru049crabbroth

The walk to central otaru was around 20mins, by then we were quite hungry as we hadn’t had breakfast. Lunch was at a branch of the same restaurant we went to at sapporo curb market. More uni & ikura rice, grilled cuttlefish, abalone sashimi and a sweet bowl of crab legs in clear broth.

otaru077chocstraw otaru057icecream

The main attraction of otaru’s main street is shopping. Our shopping was mostly chocolate and snack focused, although mm also bought 2 handbags. Instead of getting large boxes, we found small individual packs of chocolate and biscuits to bring back to our families. The thinking was that we didn’t need the fancy box packaging. Bought chocolate covered strawberries, mochi and truffles. Sampled a fair number of chocolate, cake and biscuits too at various shops.

Tea treat was ice cream. They had one with 7 flavours, but we were quite full so we opted for 3 flavours: grape, milk, melon. More chocolate shopping, glassware browsing, we slowly made our way back to the car.

On the way back to central sapporo, we stopped at shiroi koibito chocolate theme park. The park itself had closed so we just went to the shop to buy their famous biscuits.

Headed to susukino and double parked so we could visit a whisky shop. I bought a miyagikyo NAS 500ml and miyagikyo 12. Didn’t dare buy anymore because of the weight, eeek.

sap491hanamara sap515price
sap497fishroe sap503searsalmon

Dinner was back at hanamaru, we got the hang of filling out the order sheet and I even managed one myself. Back to the apartment to pack our bags, really not wanting our holiday to end.

hokkaido day 6: sapporo

We woke up early to do laundry, which was one of the advantages of staying at an apartment as opposed to a hotel. All told the apartment wasn’t that much cheaper than a hotel, we wanted a different experience for our trip. We had bought brioche from café denmark yesterday so we had breakfast in the apartment while waiting for the laundry to finish.

Destination in the morning was the historical village of hokkaido. I’d read about it on my research and really wanted to go. Luckily we had the car, it would have been a bit of a hassle to go by public transport. We were also lucky to have a coupon from the shiraito onsen hotel.

sap300street sap311noodle

sap398temple sap420stationmaster

The village consisted of 50-60 buildings from all over hokkaido, dating from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. There were all sorts of buildings: inns, shops, post office, distillery, newspaper building, temple, church, farmhouse, residental homes. Some, if not all, the buildings had exhibits inside of furniture or equipment from that time. A guidemap suggested a 1 or 2 hour walk, but to explore the outside and inside took longer. We didn’t mind, we were completely enjoying ourselves. It rained and dropped sleet and was very windy so we were running from building to building. It also felt like we were the only visitors at times. Again, we didn’t mind.


We were quite cold by the time we finished the tour, having covered about 75% of the village. Stopped at the cafeteria for much needed coffee and tea.

Next destination was outlet shopping. We had lunch at the food court, a great value meal of seafood donburi, tempura and soba for only ¥1080. The outlet itself was a bit of a let down and we quickly finished browsing through all the shops including the more interesting farm shop.

nikkabar192barcollection nikkabar206flights

Parked the car back at the overnight car park near the apartment and took the subway to susukino to visit the nikka bar. It was still quite early so we were the first customers. A nikka whisky fan’s dream bar, it had all the nikka whiskies plus a lot of other whiskies and liquors. We sat at the bar and had 2 flights: yoichi 10, 12, 15 and miyagikyo 10, 12, 15. It was the first time we tried miyagikyo and I like it better than yoichi. Guess we’ve decided on the next distillery visit, heehee. To finish, we tried a simple taketsuru NAS.

sap472kushidori sap477beefveg

Took the subway back to JR sapporo and had dinner at kushidori, a chain yakitori restaurant. Even after 9pm we had to wait for a bit, and were lucky to sit at the counter with an unimpeded view of the grilling stations. Had beef, ox tongue, chicken gizzard, chicken gristle, pork with asparagus, okra, mushroom, pepper and I had a half & half beer (half dark, half light).

#69: new restaurant sapporo: hanamaru

sap260hanamaru sap264hanamaru

Tasks #69-73 are to try 5 new restaurants in 5 different cities. This counts as the first one.

After an extraordinary busy day of travelling that brought us from jozankei to nikka distillery to otaru to sapporo, we checked into our airbnb apartment and thought about where to go for dinner. We had researched and seen the queues at the famous hanamaru conveyor belt sushi restaurant and thought we should see if the queue was a reasonable size. And because it was already past 8.30pm, there were only about half a dozen people in the line.

sap269order1 sap274order2

There is good reason why there is a permanent queue outside. The food is fantastic. Fresh and simply delicious. We asked for an english menu and quickly figured out how to order like a local. We had uni, squid, ikura, ikura soy, crab roe, salmon, blue fin tuna, medium tuna, scallop — total stack of 14 plates. It was a feast.

hokkaido day 5: jozankei, nikka, otaru, sapporo

joz331bfast joz337tofu

Another early wake up day to soak in the spa, we went back to the outdoor one. Breakfast was as delicious and as extensive as dinner. Salmon, rice, tofu, egg and bacon cooked at the table, natto, soup and orange slices. We said goodbye to the proprietors, who were so fantastically hospitable and old fashioned they waited till we were in our car and bowed goodbye to us.

Our last exploration in Jozankei was the small shiraito waterfall the hotel was named after. Very small falls, and the bridge was not accessible because of snow. A very pleasant half an hour walk before we left for our next destination.

nikka008building nikka027distillery

About 1.5-2hrs’ drive brought us to the nikka yoichi distillery where they make, duh, single malt yoichi. What a magnificent distillery. Architecturally looking like a distillery in Scotland, with many of the same features and equipment. We were free to walk around the grounds ourselves to see the mill, mash ton, fermenter, pot stills and warehouses. A series of videos in various languages inside many buildings gave commentary on the whisky making process.

nikka106tastebar nikka116taste

The walk ended in the tasting room where we sampled yoichi 10, tsuru blend and an apple wine. Beautiful view of snowy mountains from the tasting room, it gave the whole tasting an unforgettable atmosphere.

We had lunch at the onsite restaurant. Lamb shabu shabu in two broths — whisky and red wine. After lunch we went to the museum bar for more selection. We picked special ones and were pleased that the bartender was generous with his pours:

  • yoichi single cask 15 — cask strength, quite strong
  • yoichi 20 — slightly peaty, smooth
  • yoichi apple brandy barrel — bit rough, not our favourite
  • taketsuru 21 — no wonder it won all sorts of awards
  • taketsuru 25 — brilliant, brilliant blend, at ¥1600 for a shot pretty expensive but top quality

Spent a lot of time at the shop deciding on what to buy. They had everything and we wanted to buy everything. Had to balance want against space in our luggage. In the end I bought:

  • yoichi 20 — one of the ones on my list
  • single cask 10 — small 180ml bottle
  • single cask 15 — small 180ml bottle
  • single cask 20 — small 180ml bottle
  • yoichi 10 small 180ml bottle — may be for silent auction
  • taketsuru 17 small 180ml bottle — also for silent auction
  • taketsuru 21 4x180ml bottles — worked out to be cheaper than 700ml


On the way back from yoichi to sapporo we passed otaru and we couldn’t resist stopping. It was around 5pm and many shops were closed or were closing so it was just a short visit. Went to the canal to take night time pictures as we had never been to otaru after sunset.

sap251spt sap253apt

By the time we got back to sapporo it was dark. Luckily the gps found our apartment easily, we double parked while we unloaded. I found this apartment on airbnb, on the 10/F of an apartment block near hokkaido university. Quite dorm like the building and the apartment, which was very small with a tatami room, a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We went back downstairs and spent a little time trying to find an overnight car park. The saving grace was the pocket wifi that came with the apartment which meant we could use google maps.

sap263hanamaru sap273order2 

sap275ikurasoy sap271bluefintuna

After we got sorted and parked it was around 8.30pm already. We headed to 6/F stellar place to see if the famous hanamaru conveyor belt sushi. We only had to wait for about 10mins because it was late. No wonder there is a permanent queue outside. The sushi was fresh and fantastic. We observed other customers who didn’t take their plates from the belt, instead ordered freshly made by writing their order on an order sheet. Undeterred, we asked for an english menu and were happy that it came in 5 languages. We were able to copy the mainly kana (as opposed to the more familiar kanji) characters from the menu to the order sheet. Elated when the chef delivered our plates, meaning they understood our writing, yay! Okay, mm did all the writing, but I contributed by helping to read the menu. We had uni, squid, ikura, ikura soy, crab roe, salmon, blue fin tuna, medium tuna, scallop — total stack of 14 plates.

Did some basic grocery shopping at the station kiosk — milk, coffee, snacks. Negotiated the tiny shower and went to bed, another happy day.

hokkaido day 4: jozankei, shikotsuko

joz136spa joz138spaoutdoor

Woke up at 7am to soak in the other onsen at the hotel. They switch in the morning, so this one was the male onsen at night. Two indoor spas, an outdoor one and a steam room. I like this outdoor one, the temperature was perfect. We tried them all before breakfast.

joz143bfast joz152salad

Lots to enjoy at breakfast too. Salmon, stuffed squid, rice, soup, fish balls and freshly squeezed apple and vegetable juice. We weren’t in any hurry so after breakfast we decamped to the lounge to chill before it was time to checked out. After we paid our bill we even managed to fit in a visit to the shop and bought massage pillows. Then it was off to explore the Jozankei area for the day.

joz169road joz178snowtrees

First stop was the dam, which also had a viewing platform over the valley. Unfortunately it was still closed for the winter. We could see how the area had much more snow than in Sapporo proper. The roads were all ploughed, but the packed ice at the side was quite thick. There was also an extremely loud continuous announcement that sounded ominous — probably telling whoever was in the area that the dam was closed, or perhaps it was so loud to scare off the bears, who knows.


joz193shikotsuko joz198shikotsuko

Drove about an hour to lake shikotsu 支笏湖. When we rounded the corner and saw the lake for the first time we said “wow” at the same time. So beautiful. It’s the second deepest lake in Japan and is surrounded by 3 volcanoes. There is a small touristy development with hotels, a visitor centre, some restaurants and in the summer there are paddle boats and sightseeing cruises. Not a lot open at the off season, still nice to walk around the breathe crisp fresh air.


joz237tempura joz252owlcafecoffee

Lunch was tempura and soba at one of the few restaurants there. Simple family style restaurant producing quality food. Stopped off at café owl for coffee and tea. Another small quaint place we had the whole place to ourselves. Ah, that’s the life.

joz289hotelroom joz295spa
Drove back to Jozankei and there was enough time to explore the park and part of the river. There was a suspension bridge over the river but access was blocked by ice. So we went ahead and checked into our next hotel, shiraito onsen, a small family-run ryokan. It was funny, communicating with the elderly lady who ran the place. Mostly using sign and body language.

The tatami room was more basic than at the shogetsu grand, as was the onsen. The so-called outdoor spa was one bath probably max 3 people with a glass door opening out to a courtyard. Enjoyed the soak though.

joz303dinner joz318grill
Another fabulous kaiseki dinner, and we realised we were the only guests at the hotel. Lovely dinner, huge menu with course after course after course served. Starters, salad, sashimi, chawanmushi, tempura, soba, rice, soup, a gigantic platter of grilled crab, fish, ribs and finished with yuzu ice cream.

Tried the indoor onsen after dinner — two spas that were quite, quite hot. Long day, quite tired so we turned in early. This hotel was small enough not to have wifi, so it was a good excuse to get some rest.

hokkaido day 3: sapporo, jozankei

Woke up to mm wishing me happy birthday, yay. Breakfast was a the café denmark inside the station shopping complex — egg curry roll, brioche and I had a royal milk tea which was basically normal tea made stronger than their normal weak standards. Checked out of the hotel, not before trying the free massage chair at the lift lobby and also discovering they had a lounge with free coffee. Ah well. Had some difficulty finding the car rental place, we were a little confused with google maps before realising that the office was next to Sapporo subway station and not the JR station. It was actually just a couple of blocks from our hotel on the same side of the street. Ah well.

sap184curbmkt sap191curbcrab

Drove 20mins to curb market and found a parking space around the shops. Unlike the covered nijo market, curb market had seafood shops lining both sides of a stretch of the road. Lots and lots of crab, crab and more crab. We had lunch at an upstairs restaurant, which we remember from last time. Uni & ikura rice, grilled cuttlefish, grilled corn and a bottle of beer to share. Yummy. Dessert was melon slices from one of the shops on the street.

joz011cafe joz014cake

After lunch it was off to leg 2 of our trip, to Jozankei onsen. It’s only about 45mins’ drive from Sapporo, on a regular main road. Small village with several hotels, a couple of shops and some cafés. It was too early for check in so we stopped at a traditional café. Tea, coffee, toast and pound cake. Very quaint and European style, down to the delicate china and wooden tables.

joz022hotel joz046honey

We were staying at two different onsen hotels at Jozankei. The first is the Shogetsu Grand, a more commercial and larger place. Lovely view of the river valley from our tatami room. We unpacked and made our way to the lounge for tea, coffee and to sample their honey bar. They had something like 15-20 different types of honey to try, from flowery ones like lavender and rose to fruity ones like apple and pomegranate to odd ones like sunflower and something woody. Crackers and yogurt were available to go with the honey. So relaxing, just sitting there at the lounge.


joz070spaoutdoor joz072spaoutdoor

Even more relaxing was the onsen itself. A very large spa with 3 indoor pools at different temperatures, an outdoor spa and a steam room. Obviously you’re not supposed to take pictures in an onsen, but we sneaked them while no one was around. Great soak for about an hour until it was time for dinner.

joz083setting joz101papillote
joz115riceeggsoup joz122dessert

Dinner was amazing. It was served in our room, and like all kaseki meals it consisted of neverending courses. Umeshu appetiser with small plates of starters, fish, sashimi, pork meatballs cooked in broth at the table, pumpkin and pork rib en papillote, chawanmushi, flavoured rice, soup and a seasonal sakura pudding with blueberry vinegar. Even though we were full it wasn’t the type of bloaty fullness associated with overeating. Most of the dishes were vegetable or seafood, only a small amount of red meat.

After laying around and allowing the food to digest, we headed down to the onsen for another soak. The relaxation was topped off with 10mins at the massage chair (¥100) and then it was time for bed. What a great day.

hokkaido day 2: sapporo


Buffet breakfast at the hotel. We saw the offer yesterday when we checked in, of ¥1030 per person and thought we should try it. Great Japanese breakfast of rice, fish, noodles, salad. Went back to our room to call around for car rental and got a good offer at Nissan, we’ll pick the car up tomorrow.


sap044clock sap053tvtower

Lots of walking today. First to the red brick former government building, clock tower, odori park and nijo market. It was a little cold and because it’s low season, not so packed with tourists everywhere. Nice. We even found a large ¥100 shop where we bought some chocolate, bargain chapstick, coke and folders.

sap081nijooyster sap088nijoclam

At nijo market, we stopped at one of the shops and had the most exquisite oyster and clam, freshly shucked in front of our eyes. Less than ¥2000. One thing great about Japan, even the public loos at a market are clean and have heated toilet seats.

sap100susukino sap117ramenalley
sap125ramencrab sap126ramenpork

We continued walking to tanukikoji shopping arcade. By that time my knee was started to be a little painful so we took things slowly. Not too much to see or shop, although we walked almost the length of the arcade. Next stop was susukino, the entertainment district. A kindly traffic policeman directed us to the ramen alley, we picked one place that served miso ramen and watched as the chef made the dish in front of our eyes. I had crab leg ramen and mm had pork ramen. Delicious late lunch.

sap140cake sap146cake

It started snowing a bit as we walked back towards the station. Stopped at mitsukoshi to scout out their whisky selection — not extension although we tried this great ¥5400 sake that was tempting. A little further along we spotted a sort of dessert food court, just in time for tea and to rest my knee. Out of the large selection, we both picked strawberry cake. One was a feathery chiffon cake and the other had an outer wrapping of pancake, interesting and gave a different taste and texture.

sap155uniikurarice sap157squidriceokra

Back to hotel and rested for a bit. Dinner was at a restaurant on 6/F Stellar Place, one of the station shopping complex. It was a pre-birthday treat for me, we had deep fried asparagus, live squid sashimi, uni & ikura rice and umeshu. Lovely peaceful setting, with a window seat looking out at the city lights.

Walked around the shops after dinner and got some coffee, dessert and a beer from the convenience store.

Lots of walking today, from 10am to 4pm, with rest stops. My knee survived the day, the discomfort wasn’t as much the actual walking, it was more to do with wearing the brace all day.

hokkaido day 01: travel, sapporo

sap002station sap006hotel

Woke up at 5.30am, showered and out of the door at 6.20am. Already checked in so depositing bags was easy and fast. I had 12kg and mm had 13kg, fully prepared for lots of shopping.

Breakfast of macaroni and toast at the fast food place opposite the station, then it was train to the airport and a looksee around the duty free. Tasting of various Glenfiddich samples before boarding. The flight was only about 40% full and we had first row bulkhead. Lunch on the plane: vegetarian pasta, pickled salad, macadamia biscuit. I watched American Hustler for the first time, it was good.

Arrived at Chitose around 3pm. Fast immigration and luggage retrieval. We walked around the huge airport shopping mall, trying to resist starting our shopping. JR train to Sapporo station and our hotel was located directly across the station. The room was a semi-double, we declined to upgrade for an additional cost.

sap011yakitori sap015chickenveg
sap017friedcheese sap022tofu

We collected a bunch of leaflets from the lobby to figure out where to eat. Decided on yakitori and identified a place north of the JR station. About 10mins’ walk through the station shopping complex. It was a nice meal: chicken skewers, vegetable skewers, sashimi, grilled fish, fried cheese, tofu and umeshu. I also had a glass of fuji blend whisky that was cheap and quite strong. One thing about izakaya places is that they allow smoking, so when we started getting surrounded by smoke, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walked around the shopping complex looking for dessert. At the ESTA food court, found gelato. I had blueberry and mm had mint choc. Then it was back to the hotel, shower and rest.

30in30 #20 mm birthday treat


Task #20 in 30 in 30 is to treat mm for her birthday.

Our Hokkaido vacation is partly a treat for both our birthdays. We arrived at Sapporo and checked into the hotel late afternoon. First order of business was to find dinner. I’d already suggested that our first dinner here would be at yakitori, so we could enjoy a drink and order a bunch of skewers. We got a restaurant map at the hotel and found a small but popular place about 10mins walk. We both had umeshu and we ordered mixed chicken, vegetables, grilled fish, sashimi, tofu. Made a toast for her birthday, a great start to our vacation.

japan trip photosets, links


Finally all 900+ pics are uploaded to flickr and the 8-day trip written. Trip report is organised by day on main page and into the 3 centres in the travel section. Same content. Easy reference listing here.

Main page (old website):

  • day 1 part 1 — friday 13 sept — flight, car, yamazaki distillery
  • day 1 part 2 — friday 13 sept — wakayama market, shirahamakan onsen hotel
  • day 2 part 1 — saturday 14 sept — shirahama beach, engetsu island, toretore market
  • day 2 part 2 — saturday 14 sept — sandanbeki, senjojiki, public onsen, sunset
  • day 3 — sunday 15 sept — shirahama errands, nasty weather, rinku premium outlet, kyoto
  • day 4 — monday 16 sept — kyoto koyamizu temple, sannen-zaka, ninen-zaka, philosopher’s walk, nishiki market
  • day 5 — tuesday 17 sept — arashiyama flood cleanup, tenryuji temple, bamboo forest
  • day 6 — wednesday 18 sept — breakfast at kyoto, travel to osaka, shopping, dotonbori wagyu beef bbq dinner
  • day 7 — thursday 19 sept — osaka kuramon market, doyugasuji, takashimaya, uniqlo, dotonbori kobe beef shabu shabu dinner
  • day 8 — friday 20 sept — osaka kuramon market, underground shopping street, heading home

In travel section:

Flickr sets:

japan trip day 8

osaka kuramon market, underground shopping street

osa242uni osa253oyster


We packed up all our shopping, tearfully left our old sneakers behind and checked out of our hotel in the morning. They were fully booked so couldn’t offer us late check out. Stored our luggage at the concierge and headed back to Kuramon market for breakfast. Smarter this morning, we didn’t over-order. Got the same fatty tuna as yesterday, supplemented with a freshly opened uni.

The rest was snacking along the market street. Freshly shucked large oysters, red bean sweets and extensive tea tasting with a really nice proprietor at the tea shop. Bought powdered green and barley tea as gifts.

Went back to Uniqlo to pick up our trousers and walked around the underground shopping streets. Bought onigiri for home, mochi for Mum and had a quick lunch of ramen at a small place underground. Never knock these small home-styled places, the soup for the noodles was tasty, I had the pork bones one and it was milky white as it should be.

heading home


All good things must come to an end, albeit briefly. All too soon it was time to head back to the hotel, get our suitcases, repack and make our way to the airport. Taxi to nearby Namba station, where we had bought reserved seats on the rapi:t airport express yesterday. It was a little more expensive, but we were guaranteed seats in a comfortable, fast train as opposed to fighting against ordinary folks on a commuter train. Worth the extra, especially since we were both very tired and fell asleep for most of the 30min journey.

Ah, back to the scene of our original crime. The bench where we had our first breakfast a week ago, the vending machines, the Toyota car rental counter. Sigh. Check in and immigration were straightforward and soon enough we were inside strolling through the duty free. We had reserved space for duty free purchases but were slightly horrified to find mostly Suntory products. Yamazaki 12 or 18, Hibiki and Hakushu. Where were the Nikka products? We didn’t want the fancy samurai warrior bottle, and was really hoping for a Yoichi or Taketsuru.

Thankfully, it was mm’s sharp eye that spotted the Taketsuru 21. Phew. We had enough time to sit at the bar for a farewell drink of Hakushu 12. And then it was time to board. Cry, cry, cry.

A bit of silver lining. We both got upgraded, mm to business class and me to premium economy. A bit bummed that we couldn’t sit together but it was just for 3.5hrs. The flight was actually too early, the gate wasn’t ready for us and we had to wait while they found some staff to put blocks on our wheels and drive the passenger bridge out. Hilarious. Luggage came out fairly quickly and we called a taxi to take us directly home.


Our suitcases were full. Lots of biscuits and mochi and sweets. Powdered tea and blueberry vinegar. Plus a lot of heavy bottles:

  • special edition umeshu from shirahama
  • mature umeshu from wakayama market
  • miyagikyo 15 from the wine shop at nishiki market kyoto
  • taketsuru pure malt 21 from kansai airport
  • sample bottle of suntory old whisky, from family mart
  • sample bottle of royal whisky, from family mart
  • mars komagatake 22 from takashimaya osaka
  • nikka black clear from family mart

The sample bottles are for fun and probably will never be opened. Same with the Nikka Black Clear. The umeshu I’ll treasure and hoard until a special occasion. The whiskies will get added to the masterlist, currently at 46 so making it 49. They will be opened, eventually. I’m still working on the currently opened bottles of Glengoyne Burnfoot, Ardbeg 10 and Yoichi. Next on the list is a bourbon or rye.

The last time we went to Japan was to Hokkaido in 2008, just before I left for Chicago. Japan is and will always be one of my favourite holiday destinations. It’s one of the very, very few reasons that makes Asia tolerable for me.