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Traipsing Around Tokyo – Mt. Fuji & Hakone Tour

My dad & I had heard about full day tours one could sign up for in Tokyo, so we picked the Mt Fuji & Hakone tour. You can sign up for them at the Japanese Tourism Board outlet at Singapore’s Ion Orchard Shopping Centre, (www.jtb.com.sg), or simply ask your hotel to call the tour agencies to get you a tour. As we weren’t sure which pick up point would be the best for us, we opted to just ask our hotel concierge to call for us instead.

As the Gray Line tour suited our schedule & preference the best, we decided to go for it! It cost about $230 per pax (SGD) for an entire day’s tour. The only difference between this tour and the other is that it doesn’t go to the famous outlet shopping mall in Mt Fuji, Gotemba. So that was rather disappointing but oh well, we indulged in other ways! :)

As the bus zoomed past, I was really intrigued by the interesting architecture all around. Clearly, the japanese don’t just stick to their traditional type of housing. I saw various houses of all different designs & you could tell that their owners went all out to ensure that every nuance of the house fit their ideal. each and every single decorative and/or functional element of the house was in sync with the overall “theme”.

Part of our tour also included a cable car ride, which we took at the sixth highest point of Mt Fuji, Togendai. It was really different as the ride was really smooth and the windows were really clean! Which meant awesome photo taking time :) The scenery was breathtaking

 

The colours of the fauna were so rich & the expanse of the mountain seemed so vast. At that point in time, I felt so tiny, but really appreciative that I could be there to enjoy it all. It was altogether a very refreshing and tranquil experience :) & those photos aren’t the least bit edited! Post cable car ride, we went to visit the famous smelly sulphuric crater. After the fresh air, this smelled really bad. There are several health hazard warnings to inform tourists and locals alike not to stay in close proximity to the craters, as the air apparently isn’t good for you.

However, the waters from this crater (which is black), is apparently chockful of minerals and good stuff – so the locals who live there cook eggs in it to make black “onsen” (or half-cooked) eggs! I still remember the tour guide’s words,

There’s a famous saying in Japan

It’s about the eggs from the mountain water that is black.

If you eat one egg, you live 7 more years.

If you eat two, you live another 7 more years

If you eat three, you will live until you die.

That’s the story behind these black eggs.

Mystical powers or not, it was interesting to see for ourselves how the eggs were cooked & visit the various tourist shops located near the crater. The shops sold the eggs at 5 for 500 yen (approx $1.50 per egg) but since it was just me and my dad and we both didn’t feel like we could stomach eating all five of them (you can’t eat them when they’re cold, it’s icky), so we decided to give it a pass. oops! 7 extra years gone. haha.

& oh, did i mention, even doggies come up with their owners to the mountain?

Despite the fact that the standard of living in Japan is so high, it’s obvious the Japanese lavish their pets with gifts and grooming treatments, extravagantly so. But it definitely meant we saw really gorgeous pets though! These two dogs were up in the mountain to go for a pet spa.

So, so pretty! I wanted to bring one home, so badly! That said, it takes a lot of tender loving care & patience to maintain your pet so well. I’m not sure I could do as good a job as these owners did.

We followed up our journey with a cruise on a pirate ship! from head to toe, the ship was completely decked in pirate gear – it’s a pity no photography was allowed up close, otherwise I’d have taken really cool shots of the various rope knots they displayed and several other decorative elements. The interior however, was that of a normal cruise liner.

The winds were strong & most of the tourists on the boat chose to take shelter within, but my dad and I  decided to face the blast of cold air on our faces. Note to self, next time in such cold weather, moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!

It was about three o’ clock in the afternoon when we took this shot and you can see the graduated shadows due to the sun being blocked by parts of the mountain. I still can’t believe that such a huge Lake (Lake Hakone) could exist way up in the mountains.


At the end of the day, we were pretty darn satisfied with the whole day tour, though the long commute on the bus might’ve exhausted us a tad more than expected, a little bit. But comparatively, it was a tiny sacrifice compared to the once-in-a-lifetime experienced that we enjoyed :)

Traipsing Around Tokyo [Day Three] – Ikebukukuro!

Whilst in Tokyo, we stayed in one of the more active towns, Ikebukukuro!

As with any trip overseas, one of my favourite places to go to is their local convenience stores. It’s amazing how much you can glean about a culture from what a convenience store stocks. In Turkey, it was loads and loads of sweet stuff – & in Japan, they had lots of cooked & uncooked quick-to-go foods. It appears that the Japanese don’t often cook as home as much as their television dramas show, particularly in Tokyo where life is hectic and time is money.

Since it was winter, besides the fried foods, they also had yong tau foo style soups for sale. All you had to do was pick up a styrofoam bowl & fill it up with whatever ingredients you want. According to my friend, the 7 -11 fried chicken is really tasty, but we didn’t get to give it a try.

Here’s the street view near our hotel! Ikebukukuro is rather happening, with shopping malls opposite cram schools where students study like mad for their exams. Unlike our local and various other international universities, Japan doesn’t operate on an “honour roll” system. Rather, they go by the name of your school. So students study like crazy to get into a prestigious school & after that, all hell breaks loose. Just don’t flunk out while you’re in there.

An insane street crossing. Before (above), & after (below)

As I said, the weekday crowd in Japan pretty much kills the weekend crowd here in singapore. It was amazing, seeing so many people up and about. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so small & invisible..

So being the foodies that we are, we decided to try really awesome authentic Japanese Ramen!

We dropped by one of these tiny ramen shops in the alleyway (& apparently very good, according to my friend). Many of the Japanese restaurants have this vending machine ordering system. so basically the menu is on the machine & you drop your yen in before pressing your order. A ticket comes out, which you hand to the chef. It has a few pretty awesome benefits methinks,

  1. money doesn’t pass through the same hands that handle your food (hygenic!)
  2. they save paper coz they don’t have to print menus
  3. cuts down on the amount of servicing needed per customer
Of course, there were a few disadvantages to this system
  1. if you don’t know japanese, you can’t order because you have no idea what those japanese characters are saying.
  2. you can’t change your mind after getting the ticket!
But i guess it’s all part of the culture immersion that we were experiencing & it was a pretty novel experience – though we felt bad for hogging the machine for quite a bit. hahaha.
Pictured above is the main chef cooking our meal with some of his helpers. It was pretty amazing because many of Japan’s tiny restaurants have a bar concept where you can watch them do everything! & on the counter are our tickets stating our orders :) mmm! it was so yummy, & I’m getting hungry just thinking about it lol.
The head chef was super nice. Upon realizing that these camera crazy people (us) were tourists, he enquired if we needed aprons, in case we slurped & dirtied our clothing. So nice! Of course, we declined, since well, we know how to use our chopsticks & eat our food properly. haha.
At long last, our delicious meal! This is a medium sized bowl of ramen. It was huge. Too huge for us to completely finish! The stewed pork was insanely fatty & the noodles were very thick, quite different from the ramen in Singapore. The way they served it was also unlike what we see here. Cold noodles with a hot ingredients, accompanied by miso soup.
Post dinner, we walked around abit more & stumbled upon Krispy Kreme! Yumminess!
We then explored further & I was really intrigued by loads of things & forgot to snap pictures along the way, until I saw this really novel handphone concept.
You know how kids are always wanting to be like grown ups and want grownup stuff to look cool in front of their friends? Well these phones pictured above, are catered just for that. Not only are they cute & really cheap (about 50 yen, which works out to be $8 SGD), they’re not just useless toys but actual phones – with … get this, ONE BUTTON. & that one button dials directly to the kid’s guardian or parent. haha! It’s really cute. Their local service providers have specialised handphone plans for these too, that are really affordable. I think Singapore’s telecommunications industry should look into this.
& oh they had phones specialised for all types of age groups! old people who love going to onsens have waterproof phones with REALLY HUGE keypads etc. I found it really innovative & caring all at the same time. It’s nice to know that the Japanese think specifically for specific target groups & cater to their needs, instead of just flooding the mass market with one product.
Next up, our day tour to Mt Fuji & the famous Tsukiji Fish Market! :)

Traipsing Around Tokyo [Day two]


Our first stop? The streets of Harajuku. The closest equivalent in Singapore would be our Bugis Street, but the streets are more open, more spacious, and each shop has its own distinct style – though several of them do sell the same clothings. As individualistic & unique as the styles of the Japanese, each shop seems to cater to a specific type of customer, rather than to the general population.

One of the “types” of shops that definitely caught our eye were the imitation Johnny Shops. Johnny Jimusho’s Talent Agency is where most of the pop groups in Japan are launched from, & in Harajuku the johnny shop sells exclusive photographs of idols – even on a weekday morning, there was already a long snaking queue of women waiting to enter. So cue in these imitation shops that sell lower resolution, wallet to poster sized photographs of the idols & surprise surprise! There were shops that catered exclusively to girls, women and even men. haha.

My dad was rather shocked that so many of these shops could survive, & do a thriving business, no less. But I guess it’s all about the nurtured habits of their mass media culture? i.e. if you like a band, you can’t just buy their music or go to their concerts. You have to pick your favourite dude/girl from the band & buy her photographs as a show of your support/devotion…

Somewhat horrifying were clothing stores like the one above. My friend informed me that these were for special occasions, but it wouldn’t be shocking if someone wore them to Harajuku on the weekend. Rather much like most shopping areas, Harajuku is supposedly much quieter on the weekdays, but I thought that their weekday crowd is on par with our weekend crowd.

With their love for cosplay, we definitely saw some interesting characters ( though it seemed rude to just stop and snap photos of them, so i didn’t) – but one thing I noticed was that many of them seemed to be dragging tiny luggages along with them. Apparently they don’t leave their house in their cosplay clothings. Instead, they go to school/work, then change into their cosplay & pack everything in their tiny luggage bag. It’s a commendable amount of effort!

A girl shooting a commercial on the streets of Harajuku

If you’re thinking that food is really expensive, that’s not really the case if you’re lucky! Pictured above is a restaurant promoting its 1700 yen buffet (about $24 SGD) where you can eat all the food pictured above, provided you finish in an hour. Time seems to be an issue with most of their buffets there, but considering the huge variety of food & how yummy it looks, I would think that’s a pretty good deal!

It was a pity that we weren’t all that hungry that morning, otherwise we would’ve definitely tried this out!

Given that many tourists visit Harajuku as well, it was no surprise to see a tourist shop there. Japanese handicrafts and notebooks and this cute ninja decorative cloth.

Curiously, perhaps it wasn’t a weekend, the girls didn’t seem to be wearing anything really shocking. I did notice the absence of pants though. No woman in Tokyo seems to wear them. Instead, they preferred loose fit shorts, or short skirts. Very few of them wore skirts that were past the knee. & they all loved socks.

It struck me that Japanese girls are all very skinny because their favourite area of skin to expose is the mid thigh, just where their socks end & just before their skirts begin. *sigh*

Lucky for me, I went prepared & didn’t look too out of place with my own version of Japanese fashion. haha! Behind me is a beautiful wall of purple flowers, a random burst of flora & fauna in the busy streets of Harajuku :)

stay tuned for more!

Traipsing Around Tokyo [Day one]

on my recent trip to Tokyo, it was more of an exploration into what local life felt like, more so than the carefree journey of a tourist. It was stressful at times, amazingly enlightening, & I won’t deny that I felt the culture shock whilst I was there. That said, it was really an unforgettable trip & I can’t wait to go back again once the exchange rate falls to a more reasonable level, hahaha.

We booked a cheap flight to Tokyo ($560!) & had to switch between airlines ( Cathay to Japan Airlines). We had the luxury of a three hour break at the HK airport, during which I completely drooled at the HUGE Zara outlet there! We also had some hong kong delights.

Wanton Mee + Roasted Meat Set (Chicken & Goose). My dad was telling me how famous the roasted goose is in Hong Kong and that people buy whole birds home to eat. The crazy things Singaporeans do! Admittedly, it tasted good but I’m not sure I would go to that extent. bringing home an oily roasted goose wouldn’t be something I would do. I’d rather lug home lao po bing (old wife biscuit) or krispy kremes heheh.

& actually, it wasn’t that the food served to us on the plane was too small. It was just that on our flight there, the food served by Cathay really sucked. It was some gross chicken noodle that was sticky, starchy and urgh *pukeworthy* (I have to add a disclaimer here though, the food on Cathay on the way back from HK to SG was pretty good. So i guess that their caterer from SG sucks. oops!) They served haagen daaz ice cream on the way back too! haha.

In true backpacker style, my dad & I booked two single rooms at Sakura Ikebukuro Hotel. With a queen sized single bed and a deep tub in the bathroom, it was relatively luxurious for a cheap $70/night in one of the prime areas of Tokyo (Ikebukuro). Plus, the staff there were really friendly & we mostly spent our time traipsing around Tokyo instead of lounging around in the room.

Breakfast is most important meal of the day for me, so I was really happy to see this bread shop located really near our hotel. Whilst the Japanese seem to be quite experimental with their bread, the type of combinations they had was really unexpected (for me). Potato in bread, wasabi & all sorts of unique sweet stuff? I really had fun trying different breads each day for breakfast :) The most memorable would be its melon-pan (melon bread), which is something like the hongkong bo luo (pineapple) bun. just much bigger.

Unlike how Singapore only has two major players in the train industry, Japan has eight major train companies! all eight of them with train stations in Tokyo! For the most part, we took the Metro Line, because the Ikebukuro station located along it was the nearest one to our hotel. As it was relatively newer than the other stations, it was really clean and new.

No I am frickin’ not kidding you…

Differences amongst train stations aside, there were similarities in train station etiquette:

  1. there are carriages that are women-only during the morning peak hours
  2. Station masters stand prepared in the morning to push people into trains with their white gloves, before blowing the whistle to signal that the train is all ready to go
  3. Trains run strictly on time & are hardly ever late. The only time a train was late was due to an unforeseen death-by-train incident.
  4. Express trains skip stations. & there’s not much visible warning what type of train it is, so it’s not a good idea to just hop onto the first train you see!
  5. You have to queue before you get on the train. otherwise, prepare to be glared at…

Some of the train stations have underground bike parking & I haven’t seen such an interesting bike parking system before. There’s a metal contraption at the bottom that you lock your bike into – to ensure that the bikes are parked orderly & also to prevent theft… & you pay when you retrieve your bike from the parking place. They also have loads of lockers for you to keep stuff in at these parking places.

Given the love Japanese have for cosplay, it was a common sight to see many young japanese women and men dragging along small luggage bags, in which they packed their voluminous clothes & props. it’s quite a useful concept, i think!

I really liked the more outdoorsy trains though. It was nice looking out at the towns (though I shudder at how some residential buildings can be built so closely to the stations) & via the Yamamote line, we managed to travel to Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Yamamoto and Harajuku throughout our stay! All thanks to our wonderfully knowledgeable tour guide, Rachel :) Otherwise I have no idea how we would’ve navigated through the mess of it all…

Japanese Fashion [Part One]

O-hai-yo! Being back from the rising sun, I’m feeling awfully hot in this tropical weather, so it’s no wonder I’m pretty happy to be cooped up in the air-conditioned office all day (but sigh, who likes to be at work??) Certainly, one needs to earn one’s own keep, but weeklong breaks like my trip to Japan last week have left me yearning for more. The holidays never do seem enough now, do they?

Visiting Japan was a feast for the eyes. The myriad of styles surrounding me was so amazing. It was rather chaotic & messy, as my friend who was our guide there told me, but it all made sense in a kind of warped japanese logic. Because everyone took such pride in having their own distinct style, in the end everyone kinda ended up looking the same -.- haha. Still, it was pretty refreshing (and at some moments, horrifying), to see how individuals interpreted and then, manifested their ideas of style and fashion. Street watching was never boring.

Unsurprisingly, I really liked the combination of chiffon tops, skirts & tights – it was pretty much my uniform for the trip & it felt nice to blend into the crowd when I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere :) Of course, the combinations and cuts of the clothing were significantly different. Japanese girls are really into peter pan collars, bows, fluffy skirts and patterned socks or leggings. & rather interestingly, I hardly saw any girls with the thick belts that seem to be so “in” at the moment.

One of the more unique (i.e. unique in my opinion..) trends i spotted was the cape/capelet – harking back to the days of sherlock holmes, with his checked cape, on the hunt for the evil villian…

I would rant more but I’m fully aware that my childhood memories of the stories of sherlock holmes being read to me before bedtime is not an experience well appreciated by many, so i’ll just skip that…

& come to think of it, capes are really, the ultimate merger of the classic cardigan + the shawl. A cardigan is easy to wear and keeps one warm, whilst allowing ease of movement.  A shawl is even easier to throw on and can be adjusted in a variety of ways to suit one’s tastes.

But ah, the cape. Easy to throw on  & it doesn’t impede any body movement like a shawl would ( which at times, might fall off because it’s not secured well), isn’t as stifling as a cardigan can sometimes get ( because it floats away from the body )… altogether, a rather interesting type of clothing. That said, I felt that it didn’t really suit my aesthetic sensibilities & I believe that part of the reason why the cape has never really been globally popular is perhaps because it does make people look broader – and men are visual creatures and they can’t see the definition of a woman’s boobs from a cape. hAHAHAHHAHA. <– disclaimer, that was a joke.

Taking all the accessories available for a woman’s outfit into consideration, what would you think would be the collective favourite of the Japanese? HAIR ACCESSORIES!!

As a fond lover of headbands and hair accessories myself, I can’t tell you how much I drooled over everything. There were wondrous displays of endless rows of hairbands and hair accessories in shops. Alas! With the nature of my present occupation, I promised myself to swear off wearing large hair accessories for awhile, since it would be rather detrimental for my day to day work. So I didn’t purchase any –  & believe me, I’m still beating myself up a little over it, but it was time for a style change and I stuck to it. Control over one’s spending habit and spending rationale is always good. That’s how I comfort myself anyway…

Besides hair accessories, Japanese girls certainly seem to have it in for toys! It was amazing how ingenious they were at finding places to hang their endless collections of toys too! When I was there, the bag of choice seemed to be knockoffs of the Mulberry & Proenza Schouler satchels:

& the most amazing part of it? Not all of these toys were just balls of fluff. Some of them were actually functional! With hidden mirrors, cosmetics, perfumes, keys… even the odd vibrator or so, were all hidden in these fluffy pals. some creepy, some really cute. heheh.

The favourite at the moment? The Sentimental Circus Ring Master, this adorably cute rabbit thingy, which my friend Rachel & I went gaga over. omg it is the cutest character I have ever seen!! Apparently, though the merchandise is out, it won’t be officially launched in Japan til Oct 10.

super, super cute. 

Hokkaido Day 6 [Part 1]: I ate a Squirmy Live Squid

We now travelled to Hakodate, where there was a famous seafood market that sold most of the fresh seafood that was to be imported to various parts of Hokkaido. For the first time in my life, I really felt like I was in a BBC Documentary as I saw all these sea creatures wriggling around and swimming in their tanks. Much better than Sentosa’s Underwater World haha!

It was pretty weird seeing these squid swimming backwards. How do they navigate exactly? Don’t they sometimes bump into something at the back? They seemed quite inefficient in their swimming style, upon hitting the end of the tank they would sink hopelessly downwards despite their efforts to flap their “wings”, and it was quite difficult for them to rise up and swim again once they had sunk down.

As crabs were in season, we saw loads of them at the market, with the largest priced at 70 000 yen.

We were pretty awed at how nonchalantly the young fisherman was weighing and carrying the crabs as he separated them into the various tanks. Unlike in Singapore, crabs here weren’t tied up or restricted (which if you think about it, is pretty mean. Imagine spending your day in a straitjacket. It’s frustrating and unbearable), but the crabs didn’t seem like the type to bite, claw or struggle much.

Since the crabs seemed so tame, I bravely put my finger in the water just above the crabs to provide you all with something so you can imagine how large these crabs really were

The ones on the left were the largest crabs in the market, the ones on the right were the smallest crabs, which are about 4x bigger than our Sri Lankan crabs? haha. Unlike our crabs however, the meat of these crabs is extremely sweet and best eaten plain (in my opinion). The Japanese also love cooking them in a miso/shoyu soup hotpot to accentuate and complement the sweet taste.

We also saw stores selling salmon (right) and each storefront had very colourful banners (left). Some even had cartoon-esque drawings of the seafood they specialised in. Generally, each store specialised in selling about 1-3 different types of seafood. We saw squid, salmon, crabs, scallops, abalone and sea urchins.

One or two of the stores we visited also gave us free dried scallops! Initially our family thought that these were merely sweets shaped to look like scallops (since the Japanese are the ultimate kings of making something look like something else), but imagine our surprise when we bit into these and discovered that they were real scallops! Very yummy and I’ve never tasted any other dried scallop fresher than this. Beware of scallop breath though!

Since our tour guide had strongly recommended it, and seeing that my family had been longtime fans of the show Japan Hour, we decided to take the plunge and try out some live squid. Words won’t suffice here, so I’ll just let the videos share my experience with you

Disclaimer: If you are easily disgusted, please refrain from watching.

I wouldn’t say my conscience wasn’t pricked, but you know what? I don’t regret it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll never forget, and because I steeled myself and went for it, I left with no lingering doubts or unhappiness that this was an experience I didn’t miss out on. Besides, I’ve had more than enough verbal blasting from my friend Rachel. This is how our conversation went:

  • Me: Oh hey in Hokkaido I ate live squid. I have the video! You wanna see?
  • Rachel: YOU WHAT? OMG! OMG! YOU EVIL! YOU MONSTER! You’re HORRIBLEE! You’re a HORRIBLE PERSON!
  • Me: Ok ok sorry I didn’t realise you’ll be that squeamish. I won’t show you the video
  • Rachel: NO! I want to see! SHOW ME!

Hahaha. So well, you might not want to ever participate in it, but now the event is in the past and if you’re curious, it’s here for your viewing pleasure :) Unlike what we get in Singapore, the flesh of the squid was very clear and translucent. Surprisingly, it tasted crispy (especially the legs) and extremely firm.

I have to say though, that it was slightly freaky how the little suckers on each leg sucked on our teeth and gums, but it didn’t cling very hard and there was no damage done (to us). The legs were the only active part of the squid wriggling around as we ate, due to the fact that the squid’s muscles are almost exclusively concentrated at that part of its body. They served the squid with soya sauce and a ball of ground ginger. As brave as we were being that day, none of us had the guts to try the body of the squid (the orange mushy part you see) so I can’t describe how that tasted like.

Tokyo’s Ginza Street up on the next post!

Hokkaido Day 5 [Part 1]: The Dancing Bears

We went to the Bear park/ranch known as King of Hokkaido.. but the first animal we saw were raccoons! These little creatures were all huddled up at a corner where snow wasn’t falling, I didn’t like the fact that their entire cage was an open area, with no warm place or shelter for them to huddle under. What if it rained??As they were huddled up, we didn’t see the raccoons doing anything much, but I remember that for a time last year I was completely obsessed with the idea of getting a pet raccoon. Here’s why:

Isn’t he absolutely cute! I love that raccoons are hardy enough so you can “throw” them on a soft surface. My rabbits are simply too fragile for such activities. Not that I have a love of throwing animals around, I don’t!

At the souvenir shop prior to the entrance to the bear ranch, there was the option of buying either cookies or apples for the bear. My family however, refrained from doing so as all of us had wisely saved our apples from our meal the last night and thus had our own apples to throw! It wasn’t explicitly stated that we weren’t allowed to do so, so we kinda felt “safe” doing it.

Once the bears saw the curious humans shaking the apple in our hands, they stood up and some began to walk around (it’s very difficult for them to do so), whilst others began to bellow in harmony. It was rather funny! On the left you’ll see a slide there.. and we were wondering how the bears knew how to slide down. In actual fact, the bear used it as a prop to lean back on, whilst clapping his hands in very slow motions. A very smart bear, since standing up was tiring business for one his size. It also occurred to us that with the bears so desperate for apples, they might not be fed as well as they should? However, they all seemed quite large-sized, so we hope they were well fed.

Our lunch was situated near the Pacific Ocean and I took the opportunity to take pictures with it! No pictures of lunch again, we were absolutely starving, plus it didn’t help that some lunches have a time limit, since it’s a buffet/free flow. Whilst in the coach, a snowstorm started up, and unlike snow in other places, one can actually see “waves of snow” moving with the wind, precisely because it’s so light and it doesn’t fall to the ground easily. The “waves of snow” can be seen on the ground in the right picture. I should’ve taken a video!

We then proceeded on to see some colonial buildings in Odori Park. The red brick western-style building was the headquarters of the “Kaitakushi”, or Colonial Development office. It was responsible for the development and expansion of Hokkaido during the Meiji era. I didn’t take any pictures of it coz it was too cold, but we explored the museum inside, where a huge collection of old vintage cameras were stored

My dad was extremely excited about the old equipment and cameras stored here. His first ever job was working for a British Colonial alongside my grandfather, and while my grandfather was only an errand boy, my father learned how to edit, enlarge and use ink to painstakingly edit film for his colonial master. Talk about photoshop gone old school. I’m thankful we don’t have to do the same these days. Adobe ftw! Oh who am I kidding, I barely use Adobe Photoshop. Macbook iPhoto ftw!! haha.

On the top right of the second photo, you’ll see a micky mouse head! That’s a toy camera, which is the entire upper level of the shelf. Surprisingly, all these toy cameras are functional! Some were even used as spy cameras due to their insanely small size. I think the smallest was probably about the size of my thumb (width). Unbelievable. I’m not a fan of vintage cameras so I guess I couldn’t really appreciate what I saw, but nevertheless it was an interesting experience and my dad was so excited :)

Part 2 coming up soon!

Hokkaido Day 4:The Ainu Village

The smell of sulphur invaded our noses as we stepped into Jigokudani (Hell Valley). Despite the cold winter, geysers of hot steam were shooting up from below and steam permeated the entire place

standing in sulphuric glory

As the smell was pretty strong and the weather was friggin cold, we spent about 10 mins at the place before moving on to the Ainu village

These Ainu dogs are known for their loyalty, obedience and are trained by the village people to assist them in the catching and slaughtering of bears. I love how beautiful their white fur was! They were also very friendly, but we weren’t allowed to touch them in case of … accidents. The dogs were selling at 30 000 yen each and no longer work, but serve as tourist attractions.

We headed for the Ainu Museum housed within the village. The Ainu people were the “original” people of Hokkaido who were displaced when the Japanese settled over. “Ainu” means “human” in their language. They bear more angular facial features, resembling the Russians as they descended from Russian settlers.

The place we went to was known as Porotokotan, meaning large lakeside village, as it is located next to Lake Toya. In 1984 the Japanese government decided to respect the Ainu people and their culture, hence the preservation of the village as it is today. We watched the iyomante rimse (ceremonial dance sending bears’ spirits back to heaven) and saw how they played a mukkuri (mouth harp), which looked really tiring to me.

The Ainu people live off their Salmon catch, and due to the dwindling numbers of Salmon, they have to pay taxes to the Japanese government for each fish they catch. The salmon seen above are the salmon they’ve caught for this year, but they don’t eat salmon fresh like the Japanese love to do – instead, they smoke them and eat them next year. So the amount of food they have depends on last year’s bounty, and allows them to be forewarned of any food shortage.

After our visit, we headed for lunch, which was a crab hotpot! By this time, we were pretty much addicted to crabs. It’s not everyday that you get to enjoy luxuries like that, particularly back home in Singapore.

Evidently my family was really starved that day because I don’t have any photos of our meal at all in my camera, but here’s a pic of me holding the smallest King Crab of the restaurant’s seafood market. They actually offered me bigger ones but they were way too heavy for me to confidently carry on my own! The crab here cost about 25 000 yen, with the most expensive (and largest) crab costing upwards of 70 000 yen. With literally hundreds of crabs filling the entire restaurant, it’s hard to imagine that only 2 crabs qualify to be 70 000 yen crabs. Those were insanely huge, but not as big as the ones we saw later on the second last day at the seafood market.

The Japanese there were really very friendly, I didn’t even ask to hold the crab. All I did was start taking pictures of the crab before a lady came and handed this crab to me, gesturing for me to take photos with it. Really unlike other places I’ve been to, and I appreciated it :)

That evening was spent yet again in another onsen, this time at Lake Toya Hot Spring Resort. We enjoyed a sumptuous dinner, and could barely finish it all. I really love the food we had at Hokkaido!

Hokkaido Day 3 [Part 2] : Steamy Stuff!

That evening, we stayed at Noboribetsu Hot Spring Resort, where we would have our first try of the traditional Japanese onsen (hotspring). As it was my first time seeing such a traditional Japanese-styled hotel, I was very intrigued, and surprised that it was more comfortable than it looked. The room was small (what you see in the photo was the whole room) and at first my mother and I had no idea where we would sleep – but oh well, that was a problem we would solve after dinner, haha! We were also forewarned by our tour guide that each tatami mat cost anywhere from 30 000 – 40 000 yen each, so we refrained from dragging our luggage over it, in case we spoiled it.

The traditional Japanese yukata is measured by height, otherwise it’s free-sized. My mother and I took the S size each (since we’re shorter than 1.6m). It has to be worn with the left side over the right side – wearing it the other way would mean that you’re a dead person on your way to your funeral LOL. Since many Japanese students were staying with us at the resort that evening, our tour guide took special pains to emphasize how to wear the yukata properly.

Our evening meal was generous as usual, with personal sets for each person. We had a hotplate set, accompanied by pickles, chawamushi, rice, salmon on top of salad and were given an empty metal bowl to fill with ingredients to cook with soup. The buffet spread of ingredients was limited, but of great quality.

The buffet spread of ingredients for hotpot (left) and sashimi (right)

I was super fascinated with this gigantic mushroom from my set meal. Super yummy! And here’s me happily cooking my hotpot.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how humungously awesome these scallops were. Unfortunately, my obsession with taking photographs = slightly overcooked scallops. We were also served scallop claypot rice, a bowl of ramen and an apple. In the end we were so full that we all brought the apple back (uneaten) to our rooms to save for the next day or maybe to munch on in the coach. It turned out to be a great decision!

That evening, we all visited the onsen. As you steam naked, unlike in Japan hour where they wear towels for decency’s sake, no photographs were allowed. There are at least 2 baths for you to soak in, one which is of moderate temperature (20 degrees and up), whilst the other one is 50 deg celcius. The water is very murky as it is full of minerals. After steaming, one gets to sit and wash up and they provide loads of wonderful shampoo and soaps. I really had fun trying out all their shampoos etc and I must say that those were the BEST shampoos I’ve ever used in my life. My hair glowed wonderfully afterwards.The shampoos I tried were the Ma You (horse oil) and Pomegranate Tannin Shampoo.

After that, I decided to try out one of my new purchases, Steam Cream, which I got from one of the major departmental stores, Daimaru. Since their limited edition christmas designs were out, i purchased two, one for myself, one for a friend and my mother purchased the plain tin. I’ve previously heard loads of rave reviews from online beauty bloggers about this product, so I was definitely curious. It cost me about $15 SGD. Here’s an excerpt from the Steam Cream website:

When you blend natural oils and butters with extracts and flower waters, they form an emulsion. If you’re a whizz in the kitchen, you’ll know that they like to separate back into their original parts and it’s difficult to keep them in a nice smooth form. That’s why most moisturisers are held in tough emulsions; the problem with them is that when they reach your skin, they just sit there. When we make STEAMCREAM, we use steam power to create a stable, light emulsion that separates on your skin, so the ingredients, including oatmeal, almond oil, organic jojoba oil , and lavender oil, can work to soften the outer layers and hydrate the deeper ones. All our ingredients are cruelty-free

I was indeed impressed with the formulae of this cream. It was really a dream to use. Compared to the moisturizers we brought along (Bodyshops’ Body Butter, Jergen’s Body Cream), this cream really felt much lighter to the touch. However I’m not sure whether its efficacy is more superior to the other creams, they seemed to have similar moisturizing abilities. Compared to Bodyshop’s Body Butter, its scent isn’t as pleasant, but I appreciate that it leaves a less “sticky” feeling after moisturizing.

You can purchase Steam Creams from local online retailer Soap ‘n Sorbet at $26 SGD each – it isn’t as cheap as I purchased in Japan but considering that one does not need to fly to Japan to get it, or deal with the hassle of international shipping etc, this is pretty cheap!

One of the must try foods in Hokkaido is the cream puffs from the Nouvelle Patisserie Japonaise. It is simply delish! As the regular sized puffs looked incredibly huge, we purchased the small puffs instead, at 430 yen per box (about SGD $7). Our local store Beard Papa cannot compare to the absolute deliciousness of these puffs. Unfortunately, due to their freshness, we could not bring them back to Singapore as they have to be consumed within 2 days of purchase. That said, it left me quite keen on making my own cream puffs, since I just can’t forget how wonderful they tasted. There’s something about cream puffs that just oozes a heavenly luxury.

Next up, Dancing Bears and a visit to Hell Valley :)

Hokkaido Day 3 [Part 1]: Toys Galore!

After a good rest in our hotel, we were up and ready to face our packed schedule for the next day! The great thing about Japan’s hotels is that even their most basic hotels trump all those hotels we stayed in during our China tour. Not only are the basic requirements met (i.e. nice pillow, toiletries, working toilet), but everything is very well maintained and though the rooms were not always very spacious, they never resembled the hostel rooms one gets in Hong Kong (where the door is literally at the foot of the bed..). The thing I loved most was the bathtub in every room we got. Nothing beats a nice soak in a hot tub after a day in winter :)

I don’t often travel to very cold countries during their winter period, so I don’t really own a lot of thick winter wear, nor do I see the need to buy so many and wearing them once or twice every few years or so. So I make do with a few woolen pieces and layer with knit wear, which I wear by their own in Singapore as well – it really isn’t too hot! The heart-striped pinafore above was purchased from Delias a few years back :) It’s one of my favourite online stores and I have quite a few pretty pieces from there!

Our first stop was a photostop at the famous Otaru Canal, located in the town of Otaru, which is famous for its glasswork shops and old stone warehouses.

Personally I didn’t really see anything really special or glorious about this Canal, but it was pretty fun playing in the snow. We made a few snowmen! haha :)

We then headed on to the Kitaichi Glass Shop, which sold a variety of glass art works, glass ware, toys and music boxes. Once again we were bedazzled by the sheer number and variety of toys and little trinkets.

the Good Luck Cat in various poses, expressions and forms. Super cute! Some even had kimonos

Unsurprisingly, the Music Box Shop was similarly packed from top to toe with toys and music boxes of all shapes, sizes and designs.

For those who are enthralled with Japanese kawaii culture, these toys and trinkets are definitely a sight to behold, not just within the tourist places we were brought to, but also their neighbouring shops as glasswork and trinkets seemed to be something that every single shop along the streets of Otaru specialised in. There were tons of green-pea looking trinkets (what looked to me like green peas with faces etc.) These are unique to Hokkaido, and represent a “moss ball”. Many buy moss balls to bring home and it just grows.. I have no idea why they like it. Owls also seemed to be very popular creatures.

Suffering from a cute overload, my dad convinced us to explore the local seafood stalls – where we saw various crabs, scallops and other dried/live seafood on sale. Since it was nearing lunch time and we were feeling slightly peckish, we decided to buy ONE scallop. Mind you, each scallop was pretty big, and one was more than enough for a huge piece for each of us.

The lady was barbecuing the scallops and selling them – we only bought them after several of our tour group members had tried them and were raving about them. It seemed quite common for the seafood stalls to cook the food on the spot once it was ordered. On the right is cooked King Crab. One packet costs 500 yen, which is about $8 SGD. By my parents’ calculations, the same amount of crab (same type) in Singapore would cost close to $20 SGD FROZEN, not fresh. Fresh King Crab is an impossibility on our sunny island. *sobs*!  Unlike us, who consume our crabs in chilli and black pepper goodness, the Japanese often prefer to eat their fresh crabs plain and cold, which is simply delicious as their meat is extremely sweet. Very different from our Sri Lankan crabs.

After a buffet lunch at a hotel, we headed for shopping at Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima. It was opened just last year and holds loads of high-end stores, most of which had items costing even more than the total amount of yen my family had changed from SGD to. It was pretty empty actually, though there were considerably more locals there than tourists. I did however, like its spaciousness. Unlike similar high-end stores on the street, the outlet stores here contain more past-season items at great discounts. Coach was on 30-50% off, with a further 20% off on one item (upon entering the shop they would offer you a coupon). It also contained many other exclusive stores such as Burberry Blue Label (exclusive to Japan), Paul Smith, Armani, Barneys New York, Fossil, Ralph Lauren, Furla, Diesel, Folli Follie, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, BEBE, Vans etc. There are 128 stores in total, some of which are the only store that the brand has in Japan. The Outlet Park is also famous for its farmer’s market, which contains a large assortment of local produce from the farmers in the region.

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