4 days in Japan for Two: a Tabinu experience

Hi everyone! Boy, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

The past 5 months have been quite a ride for me — and quite sadly, robbing me of any time to keep up with blog posts! Since July, I’ve moved to a different state (New York), taken on new responsibilities at work (requiring, unfortunately, working weeknights and weekends 😦 ), and found time to travel all around the US, Canada, and most recently, Costa Rica. 😀 #blessed

One of my biggest trips this year was a wonderful 2 week vacation with my boyfriend to Japan and Taiwan. Four nights and six days of that trip were spent entirely in the Kansai region: Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Kyoto. While it would have served us better to spend more than 4 days, we couldn’t pull the time together. But we were still able to see most of the popular (albeit touristy) sights and places.

fushimi inari shrine

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari

We owe much of the success of my boyfriend’s inaugural trip to Japan to tabinu: a company that specializes in building highly-personalized itineraries for those looking to make the most of their time and budget in Japan. The team at tabinu has taken their years of experience living and working in, and traveling throughout Japan to help you create your ideal trip.

Since they speak both English and Japanese fluently, they were a big help with, for example, navigating Japanese websites to look up train timetables, and finding local restaurants that offered vegetarian options, since being vegetarian in Japan is notoriously difficult. They even created a mini handbook of Japanese phrases relevant to where we would be going (or what we were eating)!

Moreover, we had total control over the cost of our trip. My boyfriend and I had a ceiling of $700 between the both of us, including lodging. I am still amazed with how much we were able to accomplish on such a restrictive budget. Under tabinu‘s guidance and careful planning, we were able to secure comfortable, clean, and convenient lodging, transportation for all 6 nights, meals, entrance fees for attractions, and even buy souvenirs all within $700! We actually had some trouble using up the rest of our yen at the end of the trip.

lunch at tenryu-ji temple

A delicious, healthy, and vegetarian (!!) kaiseki meal at Tenryu-ji Temple

We opted for an itinerary that was around 40/60 guided to self-exploration, which means we were mostly provided suggestions on what to see and when, so that we maximized our time and our Kansai Thru Passes (a 3-day pass for public transportation). The hour-by-hour, day-to-day minutiae of our trip I opted to do myself, but I was very dependent on the tips tabinu provided regarding how locals travel, eat, and see Japan.

If you are looking for a more all-inclusive experience (with airfare, lodging, and daily activities all planned for you), the experts at tabinu have finessed the balance you’re seeking between guided and self-exploring.

The service fee for creating our 4-day itinerary was USD$150, which I think was really reasonable given the amount of time and thought that was put into our trip by tabinu! They charge per itinerary, so prices will be different depending on the length and complexity (perhaps?) of your trip.

Himeji Castle

World Heritage Site, Himeji Castle — would not have known how to get to this place without tabinu’s help!

We truly had a wonderful trip and a positive experience working with tabinu, and I want to give the team credit where credit is due. So if you are planning a trip to Japan any time soon, I highly recommend checking them out!

Lake Toya, 2007

There’s nothing like drinking unfiltered mountain spring water straight from its source. Kyogoku Fubuki Park ‘京極吹出公園’ is where to do it. The water comes straight from the melted snow up in the Hokkaido mountains. It’s cool, crystal clear, and so pure. No bottled water brand can compare.

kyogokufubuki

It’s also there that my mom discovered the most delicious corn any of us had ever had. My dad and I were still incredibly full from all the huge meals we’ve been having on this trip, so we kind of just rolled our eyes at my mom when she went out and bought two big ears of corn. Then she let us take a few bites. And man oh man. Hands-down the sweetest and juiciest steamed corn I’ve ever had. My mind was blown, no joke. There’s something in the water there. Literally. I can’t even fully describe my feelings for the corn. It was like love.

Alas we had to be whisked away to the Sairo Observatory, which overlooks all of Lake Toya. We had a panoramic view of the Nakajima Isles, Mt. Showa-shinzan, and Mt. Usu.

sairo

toyalunchWe had hot pot on the lake, which was a very solid meal but not at all on the same level as the other meals we’ve had in Japan. I was a little disappointed, in all honesty. I also cannot deny that I’ve been spoiled by the astounding food we’d had so far on all our Japan trips.  The fried tofu was good, though, so that was the only thing I bothered taking a picture of. If anything, the view of Lake Toya from the large windows made up for it. Even if it was a pretty gloomy day.

cherriesThe best part of the day was yet to come. A chance to go cherry picking on a farm! We had a little more than an hour to pick as many cherries as we could. Inexplicably delicious. Mind blown twice in a day, and all from eatables. Don’t think I will ever have cherries that good again. Fruit right off the vine is a whole world of underestimated goodness. Sweet but not saccharine, plump and firm without being hard, juicy but not messy. Perfection. They look like maraschino cherries, but without the chemical food colouring and flavor.

We spent the night at Noboribetsu Onsen 登別溫泉 in the Noboribetsu Grand Hotel. The dinner buffet was beautiful there. 🙂 And with my sweet tooth in full bloom, I had a ton of cakes and red bean soup with glutinous sesame rice balls. So good!

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Tanukikoji, 2007

hokkaidoshrineyakimochiSo we’re back in Sapporo. But for different things! Like the Hokkaido Shrine 北海道神宮, for one. It’s home to four gods, kami, in Shintoism–including the soul of Emperor Meiji. I believe there was a ceremony that day, since we saw so many priests, kannushi 神主, and priestesses, miko 巫女. So we really couldn’t see much while we were there. A lot was blocked off out of respect. What to do? Eat, of course! We got baked mochi at a store nearby. It was so warm and kind of crispy on the outside, but still squishy and chewy like mochi. 🙂

xcskiWe also made a return trip to the Okurayama Sapporo Winter Sport Museum ‘大倉山札幌冬季運動博物館’. This time, my mom and I spent a lot of time getting a workout in by trying all the Winter Olympic Sports. Simulations for cross-country skiing, speed skating, figure skating, bobsledding and biathlon, to name a few. Gotta admit that I was pretty sore the next day. The cross-country skiing simulator put on a lot of resistance, and the biathlon rifles are mad heavy! Memories of this place are wonderfully ironic in retrospect. That speed skating station? I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. The idea that skating fast in circles should be considered a sport. Yet 5 years later, I fell in love with short track speed skating after watching the 2010 Winter Olympics and dived into the sport myself. Even took a year off college just to get the full training experience. Strange how life works.

sapramen

This time we finally got to fully experience the famous Sapporo Ramen. Sapporo is where miso-flavored ramen first started and the Japanese love Sapporo ramen so much that businessmen from Tokyo fly all the way to Hokkaido for a day trip to eat Sapporo ramen. It absolutely lived up to its reputation. While we couldn’t have the soup ramen, since the broth wasn’t vegetarian, we had yakiramen–stir fried ramen–which was still out of this world. The noodles were the perfect thickness for soaking up the sauces and flavors of the vegetables and so chewy and slippery at the same time. The Taiwanese call this type of textural ecstasy “QQ”.

mochi

tanukikoji

Then we just kind of walked around the city; I can’t quite remember. Lots of delicious ice cream mochi though! And Juchheim Baumkuchen. And cakes. Kekeke. We then stumbled into Tanuki Koji ‘狸小路商店街’: 10 blocks of outdoor shopping arcade with the whole spectrum of retail. Clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, nightclubs, cafes, restaurants. The arcade has been around since 1873. There must have been a festival going on (I think the Tanuki Matsuri Festival) since there were raccoons everywhere. Tanuki Matsuri 狸まつり has been going on for over 60 years!

hotpot

And we feasted! It was a meal many in our group had been salivating over since the start: fresh Hokkaido king crabs. Even the name sounds magnificent. Ours included a fantastic rice dish that was steamed in a chawanmushi bowl with vegetables, shiitake, and some fried bean curd marinated in soy sauce. Mouthwatering.

crabsBut check out the size of those crabs! Not only did they have king crabs, but they had the hairy crabs and snow crabs too. I can’t tell you how many eyes lit up at the sight of them when we walked into the restaurant. Haha. Even my mom started reminiscing about way back when she ate meat–her favorite seafood was Alaskin snow crab legs.

Asahikawa, 2007

Stop #1: Snow Crystal Museum in Asahikawa 旭川市. A small museum dedicated entirely to snowflakes. Honestly, there wasn’t much to do or see here–the exhibits literally took no more than 15 minutes tops to go through. But the building itself is pretty, and in a way, the idea is quite charming. Admission is ¥650.

snowmus

Then we drove the Otaru for lunch, which my mom and I just visited last year. Not that we were complaining; it’s one of my favorite places in Japan. :’)

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parents being goofy for good measure

It was time to grill fresh seafood! What Hokkaido is best known for. Everyone was super excited to have all the fresh-caught fish brought out (and some red meats thrown in for funsies). I was pretty happy with our platter though; have I mentioned how much I love kabocha? And corn. And eggplant. And mushrooms.

otaru2Lots of cute woodworking, stitching, glass-blown pretty things. That’s the best I can do to describe them. Also, last year when we went to Hokkaido I didn’t get the name of the coffee & cake place, but now I do! It’s 银の钟一号馆, or “Gin no Kane, Silver Bells”. So hit that place up if you want pretty tea cups that sing to you as you drink tea, and for some delicious pound cake. 🙂 And don’t forget to check out LeTao for some amazing Earl Grey chocolates.

kuromochi

We bought a box of delicious mochi paired with peanut powder for the road. This is the life. And then went down to dinner, which was served at our hotel. Don’t think I can ever get sick of kaiseki meals. They’re a feast for the eyes and for the mouth. There are a ton of dishes to sample and eat, but none of them are too overpowering or heavy. The meal is light, nutritious, and enjoyable. If only they were offered in the US! I would definitely shell out the necessary money for them.

asahidin

It’s amazing to think that all of these are simply vegetables. We get a ton of compliments on our meals from the other people, since it’s like dining on artwork. Also, I think that East Asians simply eat more vegetables than other groups, so it’s not uncommon for them to enjoy eating vegetable dishes. Americans, on the other hand, aren’t as receptive…

Furano, 2007

sunflower

I want to get married in Hokkaido. Or have my honeymoon there. This was something I decided immediately after visiting Furano ‘富良野’. It has some of the most beautiful countryside in the summer I’ve seen. Sunflowers, lupins, poppies, and cosmos galore! Furano is most famous for its lavender fields, the top attraction outside of its winter ski resorts. The fields have been cultivated for over half a century and are in full bloom mid-July. We timed our trip to Furano so that we would arrive during the peak of flower season.

cantaloupe

Not to mention the fruit! My goodness has sweeter, juicier, and silkier cantaloupe never existed anywhere else. Specifically, the Yubari King Melon 夕張メロン. The best Yubari is perfectly round and has a smooth rind; the most expensive pair of melons was sold for ¥2 million. Just to give an idea of how precious these melons are. They were offered at the hotel buffet we ate at for lunch. My mom went straight to the melons the moment we sat down and brought back 3 plates of them. Didn’t even bother to eat anything else.

ningle

Before we hit the lavender fields my mom so sought after, we first visited the quaint village of Ningle Terrace ‘ニングルテラス’. Ningle Terrace is a collection of small, wooden huts that sell various handicrafts. They’re all incredibly local shops, typically run by families; one hut sells snowflakes made out of silver, another paintings, and another houses a glass-maker. The story behind the village comes from an Ainu legend that a dwarf by the name of Ningle lived in the forests of Hokkaido. There are 15 stores in total, each unique: still, there was one that stood out. The “Chu Chu House チュチュの家” is a cafe that sells yakimiruku ‘焼きミルク’, or baked milk.  It’s essentially creme brulee, but only with milk (no butter or cream or sugar). Really thick and creamy milk though.

And then to Farm Tomita ‘ファーム富田’ we went! Most beautiful place in Hokkaido, I daresay. That is, if you love flowers as much as my mom and I do.

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tomita4

Colors! Rainbows fallen from the sky.
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Delicious lavender ice cream to cool off with after walking around in the sun for so long. Everything sold at Farm Tomita was made from lavendar. Sake, pudding, spices, potpourri. The gift store was so fragrant with the smell of flowers. Amazing. It was truly a shame that we had no more than 90 minutes to 2 hours to explore the many acres of Farm Tomita. We barely got to venture beyond the poppy fields. I could not have asked for a more picturesque day, with bright sunshine, sapphire skies, and cottonball clouds. Definitely try the lavendar pudding if you’re ever there! MMMMM.

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Our day didn’t stop at Farm Tomita, we went to one other flower farm by the name of “Hill of Shikisai” 四季彩の丘. So here’s to more flower pictures!

shikisei

cantaloupe ramune

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lavender ramune

Then it was time to eat…again.

furanodin

Beautiful kaiseki meal for dinner.

Osaka to Sapporo, 2007

My dad didn’t want to join in on our Kansai trip, since he felt like he’d already seen everything in 2005, so he decided to meet us in Hokkaido. Yep, Hokkaido for the second year in a row!

Our flight wasn’t until early afternoon, so my mom and I took the airport shuttle from our hotel to the nearby mall. It was enormous and it had everything, including a grocery store. The grocery store alone was like the size of Walmart. All the fruits and veggies were impeccably arranged and looked like rows of rainbows from afar. Since we couldn’t really afford any of the shops, we decided to spend time in the food court–that’s where I first discovered Mister Donut. It’s a fast food franchise that was founded in the US but now has its HQ in Japan; the stores in the US are now known as Dunkin’ Donuts. Who knew?

picniccourt

I genuinely prefer its Asian counterpart. There’s a wider selection of donuts and pastries and they just all taste better, somehow. I also prefer Asian airports to Western ones. Like, there’s a shuttle between the airport and the mall so you have ways to kill your time other than napping uncomfortably at the gate.

udon

By the time we landed in Hokkaido, it was late afternoon and dinner time! Whoo. Our family of 3 shared a giant udon hot pot. Never will I ever get sick of noodles. Those who weren’t vegetarian, on the other hand, enjoyed a large, seafood hot pot meal complete with Hokkaido crabs.

Arashiyama, 2007

kameoka

Our last day in Kansai was one of my favorite parts of our itinerary, both in 2005 and again in 2007. We headed up early in the morning to Kameoka ‘龜崗’ to catch the Sagano Romantic Train ‘嵯峨野浪漫小火車’ to Arashiyama ‘嵐山’. It was a beautiful ride, with lots of trees, a river, and the silliest conductors. Some of them walked around in masks and costumes and tested their Chinese on us by singing loudly in old Chinese songs.

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Kyoto, 2007

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We spent the entire day in Kyoto–it’s definitely my favorite city in Japan. It’s like Xi’An or Berlin: so much to do and to see. A week could be spent there without it getting boring. First item of the day was the Kyoto Imperial Palace ‘京都御所’. The palace was mostly in disuse when capital functions moved to Tokyo, but emperors still had their coronation there. Like a lot of other places we had visited, the current palace has been rebuilt due to fire damage. Eight times. So the version we saw was completed in 1855. Across the street was Doshisha University: a ton of students walked past us.

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Nara, 2007

IMG_1593-1Nara is always fun because of the chance to feed the “spirit deer”, or Sika deer, at Nara Park ‘奈良公園’. The deer were considered sacred and divine because one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine visited them. The god, Takenomikazuchi-no-mikoto, appeared on Mt. Mikasa-yama riding a white deer. Just how precious were they? Killing one was punishable by death until 1637; the deer have been stripped of their divine status since World War II and are now protected as National Treasures. 🙂 To feed them, you can buy ‘deer crackers’, or Shika-senbei 鹿煎餅, from vendors around the park. Before you feed the deer a cracker, you first bow to them to show respect, and they in turn bow back. Actually! It’s adorable.

narapark

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Ōsaka と Kobe, 2007

Our first full day consisted of taking the Shinkansen to Osaka. Stop #1: the Kuromon Ichiba market ‘黒門市場’. Translated literally, it means “black gate market”: there used to be a black gate northeast of a large temple called Emmeiji nearby.

kuromon

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