(Currently being updated day by day!) This year's family trip promises to be a really fun one. Mum and Dad watched Joanna Lumley visit Sapporo for the Yuki Matsuri during her lovely travel programme about Japan, and thought it would be nice to visit too. By happy coincidence, Chinese New Year is soon after, so we can go from the freezing temperatures of Hokkaido to the tropical heat of southern Taiwan to see family there. Here's a day-by-day account of an amazing couple of weeks!
On day one, Mum and Dad arrived from England. Of course, on a travel day nothing too taxing was in order. So I met them at the airport, we came home and got them settled in, then after they had a nap we had a walk around the local area. Then for dinner we went to the local Anrakutei yakiniku restaurant - where you cook your own meat on a charcoal grill in Japan's spin on Korean barbecue. A great start - but the really remarkable activities start tomorrow!
On Mum and Dad’s first full day in Tokyo, the skies were blue and it was a little warmer than it has been lately. So a trip was in order. It’s something of a tradition for my family to go and look at large Buddhas – mostly because one of the things to do on a trip to visit my relatives in Taiwan is to go to Fo Guang Shan. Looking up the tallest statues in the world, I realised that the Ushiku Daibutsu, the record holder from 1993 to 2002 and the current world #3, was just an hour and a half away in Ibaraki-ken. And it’s 2 2/3 times the size of the standing Buddha at Fo Guang Shan. So we decided to go. A couple of bus and train rides later, we were in Ushiku (haha ‘Cow for a long time’) and staring up at this colossal figure. Set in beautiful landscaped gardens (with a silly little petting zoo) it’s quite a marvel and well worth the trip just to get an idea of the scale of the thing. Then we went inside…
While not quite as psychedelic as I’d been led to expect, it’s a strange experience inside the Buddha, with very dated theme park-style effects on the ground floor, but more conventional Buddhist devotional elements above, and a rather nice viewing platform level where Skytree could be glimpsed as a long smudge on the horizon. There was a room full of small golden Buddhas that can be dedicated to a family or individual’s name just like in Fo Guang Shan, some educational material, and, most interestingly, displays detailing the engineering behind constructing this vast statue. Fascinating and well worth the trip. More frequent bus services would surely help this tourist attraction to thrive. (Oh, and I got my first 2000円 note!)
That evening, a trip to 3-Michelin-Starred restaurant Ryugin, which was pretty amazing. Click the picture for a dedicated blog entry for that meal!
On Mum and Dad’s second full day here, we had another fantastic meal – this time in Shinjuku’s Park Hyatt hotel, well-known as the setting for Lost in Translation. Up on the 52nd floor is the New York Grill, with fantastic panoramic views of the city and superb food. I wasn’t quite sure about taking them to somewhere so conspicuously non-Japanese, but the crucial part was that it serves celebrated Japanese wagyu – most famously from Kobe. It’s not cheap but that’s what we opted for, and the meal was absolutely superb. The buffet for starter and dessert was excellent, far higher-quality than any other similar buffet I’ve ever had, and this was the first time I had really good bread in Japan. But the steak was phenomenal. Alongside the tournedos I had at La Côte Vermeille in Port Vendres, I think it’s the best steak I ever had. Marbled with fat that made it so juicy and gave it such a perfect aftertaste, I would happily eat ten of them!
To Sapporo! Wednesday was a travel day, so we just had a light lunch of sukiyaki and Japanese curry at Sukiya, then headed to the airport. The flight was a short hop but the bus ride to our hotel took almost as long, so we only glimpsed the famous sights of Sapporo – the TV tower, the clock tower and one of the ice sculptures. Tomorrow we have a good explore and get into the Snow Festival spirit! Too bad there’re so many people that the restaurants we wanted to book are all full. Nonetheless, today we ate in one of the hotel’s restaurants, where they served tasty Japanese teishoku on huge, beautifully-arranged trays. Plus the Hokkaido-only classic Sapporo beer of course!
The next day we well and truly explored the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri - which was great. Click the pic above, of me and Dad in front of the landmark TV Tower, for a full entry.
Sapporo food - miso ramen, seafood teishoku and hairy crab - which doesn't look particularly appetising I have to say
I forgot to mention yesterday, but we went to Akarenga, or ‘Red-Brick’, the old Sapporo government building. The garden and the façade were very pleasant to look at, and there were interesting displays inside revolving around the local sense of identity and Sapporo’s place in Japanese culture – celebrations of prehistoric Joumon artwork, a timeline of progress made over the disputed islands xRussia claimed sovereignty over, and most interestingly the exhibits that were a mix of celebration, documentation and contrition about the Ainu, whose culture was suppressed and essentially stamped out when the Japanese moved to make Hokkaido definitively theirs. Certainly an interesting place to visit, even if I’d have to fact-check most of what I read there.
Sapporo Day 3's lunch was another Hokkaidou speciality, soup curry! It’s a pretty tasty concoction and I enjoyed the belly pork version a lot, but it’s not up there with ramen or laksa or Thai curry. Nice to try but I won’t be seeking it out in Tokyo. Afterwards we had soft serve made with Hokkaidou milk, which was very nice. I had mine with Hokkaidou melon topping. Mum had it with azuki / red bean paste, and loved it so much she wants to go back tomorrow!
In the morning, we had a nice long walk to the Hokkaidou Jingu, or Hokkaido Shrine. It, as well as the grounds surrounding it, is a very pretty place in the snow. They also had a rather pretty display of Hina Matsuri dolls. Rode the subway back, where the youth of the city is shown by the unimaginative place names in Japanese – ‘Big Avenue, ‘White Stone’, ‘High Station’ and far too many variations on things like ‘West 5th District’. An old city like Tokyo has all sorts of interestingly-named places like ‘Tea Water’, ‘Doll Town’ and ‘Two Countries’…
At night the Akarenga lights up! We went there first and then to the Snow Festival for the night-time experience. Click above for another link to my Snow Festival pic post!
Tonight’s dinner was a crab extravaganza! Often recommended as delicious in Hokkaido, it was difficult to get to a specialist place during the busy festival. But the concierge managed to book us a table at Sekkatei, which was perhaps a little more refined than the chain restaurants, though perhaps less fun too. But it was still very enjoyable to have crab served seven different ways – hairy crab, crab hot pot, king crab boiled and then served sashimi-style, crab tempura, crab siu-mai, crab in rice porridge and crab in a strew heated by candle – followed by a delicious yuzu sorbet. The service was also impeccably friendly, and the restaurant very pretty with mini zen gardens throughout. Crab isn’t my favourite but Mum loves it so I was happy to have a chance to show her this.
Sapporo day 3: Sapporo beer museum is a great place to tick off two must-do-in-Sapporo boxes. First, visiting the museum itself, the former brewery originally built as a sugar factory in 1890. Secondly, eating local specialty ‘Ghengis Khan’. The building itself is a nice English bond red-brick factory that could easily stand in the historical industrial district anywhere in the US or Western Europe. Inside is a fairly detailed account of the history of the Sapporo company, reproductions of pleasantly twee older advertisements, and some equipment left from the brewery days. There was ample translation into different languages, and we probably did well going early, because during the Yuki Matsuri, the place purportedly gets very busy!
Lunch was Ghengis Khan, or to use the katakana version, Jingisukan. which I thought was derived from the Taiwanese ‘Mongolian Barbeque’, but actually predates it and probably inspired it. Neither have much to do with Mongolia other than centring on mutton, which I actually wasn’t aware of. With as much as we could eat, we really chowed down. It’s very similar to yakiniku or teppanyaki or indeed Mongolian Barbeque, but very delicious. It’s really the dipping sauce that makes it so good, and while it was fun to eat in a big hall full of other diners, that many people cooking lamb on a dome-shaped skillet definitely makes the air smoky and oily! I also tried Ribbon Citron, Sapporo Beer’s soft drink (and also the reason the retro adverts have a few aimed at kids). It mostly tasted like Irn Bru.
One last tourist stop in Sapporo - the city's oldest building, the clock tower! Sweet little exhibition inside where they tried hard with English for a while before giving up. Boys, be ambitious!!
Back to Tokyo, with enough time after the flight to have a walk from Ueno to Asakusa and get some tasty tempura!
The Edo Tokyo Architectural Museum, which we visited today in pleasant winter sunshine, is like a zoo – only instead of animal exhibits, there are buildings from Tokyo’s history (though generally not, as the name may suggest, from the Edo period – an ‘old’ house in Tokyo can be about 50 years old and it’s kind of weird that I grew up in a house twice as old as most of the ones we visited as museum exhibits today!). Some are strange novelties, like huge residences foreigners built for themselves in Western style, and some are more ordinary farmers’ houses with thatched roofs and what would no doubt have been freezing cold interiors in winter. A couple are enormous mansions built for the kids of industrialists or politicians, which gave me house envy and had some extremely beautiful fixtures. Then there was a very interesting road of commercial buildings, some of them beautiful, some hideous, and some beautiful in their hideousness. All were staffed with enthusiastic elderly volunteers, who did their best to explain things in English and made the visit much more pleasant. We’ve already decided to come again next year to see what we missed and the houses under refurbishment!
Dinner was at Seryna Shinjuku, or more precisely in their amusingly-named teppanyaki section, ‘Mon Cher Ton Ton’. Silly name aside, this was the second time we dined on the 52nd floor of a Shinjuku restaurant this trip, this time in the Sumitomo Building. At the New York Grill we looked east to the Skytree and Chiba, but this time we looked West to Mt. Fuji – a magical sight as the sun went down, even if I know that part of town less well and could only recognise Nakano by sight. The food was fantastic – a set menu of sashimi, lobster, sirloin steak and a variety of other smaller, delicious dishes. Unlike the gimmicky Teppanyaki of the west, all onion steam trains and flipping food into people’s mouths (fun though that is), this was a serious affair with very high-quality ingredients and tasted superb. Because we ate early it was very quiet, and I wonder what it’s like when it’s bustling.
Dessert was a delicious little crème brulée, the first one I’ve had in Japan and very agreeable indeed. But more interesting was the whiskey I had to finish – 12-year-old Yamazaki single malt. Japan’s whiskeys are now world-class, and while it will take a lot to shake my favourite Scotches, this smooth and honey-tinged flavour was definitely a match for any but my very favourites like Caol Ila and higher-end Macallan.
Last day in Japan for a while! We had one more meal before heading to the airport – soba at one of the station restaurants.
Had a bit of a crisis as I left my backpack on the train. Luckily I had the station office attendant call the other terminal to locate it and then could go and pick it up. Definitely unneeded stress but in the end it worked out well. Would have been pretty tricky with no Japanese, though, since the station staff didn’t speak any English.
The flight was very comfortable and our meal was tasty. Had time for two movies, and should have the same for the return journey – though it’s a fair bit shorter. The extended family met us at the airport and we all went together to our hotel, the Lee’s Boutique. It’s a bit old and has some very odd art choices, the fridge is noisy and the mattress isn’t the most comfortable, but it’s spacious, well-decorated, warm and cosy. I will enjoy spending the next few days here, though I really have to get on with my writing!
Typically weird Taiwan! Bao and chicken nuggets for breakfast, watched over by a big froggy, then on the MRT with imitation anime information signs, followed by nice old steam trains on display and the hipster gentrified neighborhood we went to before with all the artworks - and finally a nice custard tart. Also visited Grandma in hospital, who we like to think managed to recognize us.
First big meal in Taiwan - a feast of dishes meant to symbolise long life and prosperity for the new year! Lots of fried things and bold flavors to remind me that Japanese and Chinese cuisines are so very different. Chinese food revolves around bold tastes and no subtlety whatsoever. We've eaten better food in the same Hong Kong style restaurant, but they had to prepare a huge amount of food to cope with the crowds for New Year's Eve.
To the museum part of the Fo Guang Shan monastery on the 16th for the New Year celebrations! There were lots of cute dog decorations about. We did similar to last time, going to the twee Life of Buddha exhibit and looking at the large seated Buddha - though it's not on the scale of the Ushiku Daibutsu. Then we had a vegetarian meal - most of the best vegetarian meal I've had have been in monasteries, and this one was also good, but unfortunately I had an allergic reaction to something in there and had a couple of hours of pain, nausea, swelling and difficulty swallowing. Yikes! Recovered after a while, though.
(Click the pic to read about my last visit to this monastery)
Because it's Chinese New Year, there was also a lot of revelry! The best part was the lion dance at the entrance, but there was also a cute parade and then a free short acrobatics and circus skills demonstration. The Chinese (and Taiwanese) usually do circus skills extremely well and this was no exception, with plate-spinning, tumblers jumping between human pyramids on bikes and most impressively, juggling large pots and tables using the feet!
While visiting this monastery is usually a fairly sober occasion with some surreal twee parts, the weirdness was ramped up this time for New Year. We discovered knock-off Pokémon lanterns, dabbing dog lanterns, a big money king statue and even a very peeved and possibly neglected live ostrich. I had to start to wonder if this was all an allergen-triggered hallucination!
Dim sum feast tonight, my favorite meal in Taiwan so far, even though we weren't very hungry yet. Nice char siu bao and Xiao long bao! Plus sashimi thrown in for my Japan-loving cousins! Then a walk by the Ai-he, the Love River, though their lantern festival doesn't start till the 18th. The lantern of their mayor is funny and cute! Night markets have sprung up everywhere for New Year and it's a great time to be in the city. So different from the visits when I was a kid!
A little quieter the next day. Visited Grandpa's grave to pay respects, then headed to Pingtung City in the neighboring Pingtung county for a great Szechuan-style spicy noodle dish. I could sense the origins of ramen there! This evening, another huge meal in a restaurant we've visited before with a very nice decor including a somewhat temple-like roof. In the evening, went to the night market for clothes, though it’s gotten a lot more tame recently. There’s still one shop I always like, and they actually had the jeans I used to like so much, so I got another pair, plus two new tops.
Tomorrow I really really need to get some writing done.
Final meal in Taiwan was also the best one. At a restaurant in the Wo Hotel, we had superb Peking Duck, delicious soup, tasty xiao-long-bao-style siu mai and another Japanese-ish eel rice. We've eaten so much this holiday and I badly need to diet, haha
Some pics from the restaurant, with its peculiar sculpture outside. Also the adorable card my cousin Shiang-Lu (we call her Mei-Mei) gave me. She made each of us a unique one, and mine was Japan-themed. She's grown up very talented!
The highlight of today was going to the Love River lantern festival, which was great! It was like the Snow Festival, only with lanterns rather than ice sculptures. Here are a few interesting ones - La Petit Prince, Chopper, Kaohsiung landmarks and more!
There were a lot of very cute and interesting lanterns. The highlight was probably the section depicting - for the year of the dog - some dogs from around the world! Pictured are the UK, Germany and Japan doggies
Other nice elements included 100 lucky dogs, Hua Mulan, some live C-rap (haha), fire juggling, the beloved mayor with laser eyes and the black bear city mascot not a million miles from Kumamon. Its origin is interesting - Kaohsiung was originally called 'Takao'. When the Japanese invaded, they heard the city was called Takao and said, 'Oh, we have places called Takao. From now on, this city's kanji are the same as Takao in Kyoto'. After WWII, when the Japanese left, the Chinese for some reason kept the Chinese characters the Japanese had imposed, but with their own reading - 'Kaohsiung'. Kaohsiung, or this particular Takao in Japanese (different kanji from Mt. Takao), means 'Tall Bear'. 高雄. Hence the mascot.
So long, Taiwan! Always nice to come back, and particularly nice this time to see the New Year celebrations and to escape the cold weather of Japan for a tropical climate for a while! Back to Japan now to work hard on my book, diet and to see Mum and Dad once more in 3 days on their way home.
I’m back to work tomorrow…but this holiday isn’t quite over yet…!