Shibuya | The Pulse to an Amazing City’s Beat

Last in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

Oh, boy. Need I say more? This place is electric.

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Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than at the center of it all – the Shibuya Crossing (also known as the Shibuya Scramble), arguably the world’s busiest intersection. People from all walks of life, coming from and going to different directions, converge and cross at once but still able to dodge each other, albeit in a cool manner 😉

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Just like a human heartbeat, this place literally pulsates with life. I can only imagine how beautiful this place is at night.

It’s a shopping mecca and a popular haunt for everything from fashion to electronics, to souvenirs and gift items.

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Shibuya is electric

Its streets and alleyways, filled with all sorts of houses of commerce – from imposing modern skyscrapers to shops, cafes, restaurants, ramen houses, etc., are made for instagram-pretty snapshots like these 🙂

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I notice crows in this particular area near the Shibuya 109. They squawk quite loudly, too. See that one flying over the tree in the upper left?

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And of course, the go-to place of every Filipino I know who wants to buy that “pasalubong”Don Quijote.

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This discount store is godsend. Here you will find a wide selection of items you can bring back home – all the chocolates, all the different-flavoured kit-kat‘s, all the Nissin ramen seafood and cheese curry flavor, and yakisoba (in the pack) you can get; lotion and soap (for your sister), kewpie mayo and dressing, etc.

Our guide wonders in amazement why Filipinos hoard these stuff. Well, it’s cheaper, for one. And in the case of the Nissin noodles, the ones here do not scrimp on the ingredients like the meat and seafood that comes with the packaging.

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So there, our short but well-worthy stay in Shibuya, in Tokyo. It is a nice ending to our Japan experience. Really, something that will forever be treasured 🙂 Thank you Japan for an awesome time!

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Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

3rd in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

“Time flies when you are having fun”. So goes the saying. Couldn’t be truer than now, our last day in Yuzawa. The past two days have been a whirlwind. It’s been nothing but a plethora of different new things to the senses – from the weather, to the food, to the culture. It really is one for the books.

But wait, the fun isn’t over yet. We cannot leave Snow Country without having to experience winter activities it’s famous for, right?

So, as is the usual routine, we wake up early to have breakfast at GaiA (that cute, little cabin at the edge of the woods).

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Today however, we woke up a bit earlier than usual so we could maximize time.

Props to Yuki for cooking all of our delicious meals during our stay at the inn – the soup that was served upon our arrival (which I call the welcome soup), two of the breakfasts we had at gaiA, and the packed breakfast we had at the bus on the way back to Tokyo. She is such a sweet and nice gal, who had been nothing but patient and understanding to us 🙂 She probably find some of our customs weird but has managed to accommodate us still. For example, I don’t think it’s common for Japanese to put sugar in coffee (if they even drink coffee regularly at all). Doesn’t seem like it. So when I asked for sugar for the group, she was kind of surprised that one small pack is not enough. It had to be a small bowl for everyone 🙂

These are the meals she made for us for our breakfast for the past two days. All of these are organic, by the way.

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Today’s breakfast – eggs, sausage, salad and pumpkin soup

I particularly liked the set with the baked salmon. Delicious! Proof that going organic doesn’t mean taste had to be sacrificed.

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Country-style breakfast of baked-salmon, Japanese-style eggroll, fried veggies with dashi soup , and miso soup. All organic. Yum! 🙂

I also like the ‘hippie-dippie/new age/people-of-the-earth’ vibe of the place and the kind of lifestyle espoused by Yuki herself. Not something I expected.

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I guess it would be nice also to put the spotlight on The Vintage Backcountry Inn Arimaya – our accommodation for the past three days.

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It’s a traditional ryokan, so everything you see here are antique, save for some modern amenities like TV & WiFi.

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“Built in 1908 without a single nail, the original structure is a(n) exemplar of the exquisite traditional Japanese kominka construction”

There were just some modifications done with the heating, plumbing and lavatories to keep up with modern standards. But you get to sleep on a traditional Japanese futon and tatami mats. Also, please take time to read the house’s history and how it was built in the about section of its page on Airbnb. You’d appreciate it more.

Now we proceed to our first destination – ski!

We went to the ski rental first to get some boots. The boots had to be clipped tight. So tight in fact one could get sore feet and legs afterwards. We then proceeded to the ski area which is really just around the corner – the Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort.

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Since none of us have any experience with ski, or any of the winter sports for that matter, we were first taught just the basics – the essential gears needed and how to put them on; some warm-up exercises; the basic techniques of sliding and stopping, and how to get up after falling. Also, how to move your way to the top of the hill and how to, sort of, put on the “breaks” while sliding down.

Me saying it like this makes it sound easy, right? Wait till you try it, haha!

I’ve fallen a couple of times and it was really hard for me to get up without having to resort to the “shortcut” – that of releasing the locks from the boots 🙂 The proper techniques (there are two of them) both require that you carry your weight through the use of the poles. Good luck with that, really 😉

I was also challenged going up the hill. Gravity always win pulling me down. Ski blades are extremely slippery, you know. Anyhow, it was an experience.

By this time we are feeling hungry already. We went to this beautiful place with the mountains as backdrop and had grilled meat, or what is called yakiniku, under a covered or roofed space outdoors, much like a gazebo, if not one already.

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It’s like having your typical picnic, only it’s in the snow. There’s lots of meat to be cooked and they are so delicious. I don’t know how we managed to devour all of them up. Hungry much, I guess? 😛

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After that wonderful lunch, next activity is riding a snowmobile from ski-doo.

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This one’s easy. Anyone who wants to satisfy their need for speed can try it here. Everyone gets to try one round with instructor and one round by himself. Lucky if you get picked to drive for the race afterwards.

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It was an activity-filled afternoon. What we’ve learned and what we’ve been practicing for would be put to the test later with the mini-“Winter Olympics”, of sorts.

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I wouldn’t be delving too much though, with the nitty-gritty of the games and of the other activities, so as to keep the element of surprise for the other groups who are yet to experience it 🙂 All I can say is be ready with your wit and brawn. You will need them. Good luck! 😀

As you can imagine, we were all exhausted by the end of the day. Nothing could be more joyful and nourishing than a nice meal like this below.

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The main entrée to the left, which are thin slices of pork with some type of (what I understand) is a miso mixture at the bottom, and was cooked right in front of us, on our tables, with some special leaf for aroma, is super! It tastes really good. As we say in the vernacular, we were all “galit-galit” 😀

Not sure where we had the meal exactly, although below is the signage at the entrance. My online references direct me to the Yuzawa New Otani. I couldn’t be sure, though. The itinerary says closing dinner at a typical izakaya, or watering hole.

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But of course, this being our last day in Yuzawa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity getting pampered in what I think is the most quintessential of our Japanese experience – the onsen. People can go to Japan but they may not always experience this, let alone the Snow Country.

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And that pretty much sums up my Yuzawa experience. Delightful! 🙂

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

2nd in a series

Previously in this  series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

The words umami and oishi found their way in our vocabulary thanks to the Japanese who seem to have an acute sense of taste for good food. They have a way of elevating everything that is already good to even better – from presentation, to taste, to the whole experience of living well. It is also a study in contrast. Strongly-held traditions of the past sit side-by-side with modernity. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet unlike others, it has managed to preserve, nay, live its traditions to this day. Its cultural past is alive and well.

Interesting cultural differences abound. For example, slurping and burping, considered bad manners in the West, are acceptable here. No, in fact, not just accepted, it’s actually seen as a form of compliment to the host, especially if you finish your plate clean because that means you have enjoyed the food. As I would always say to myself: ‘If only by that standard, I could fit in Japan nicely 🙂 I can live here’. I could well be in my element, haha!

The culinary adventure started from even before we landed in Japan. Coming from the house with no breakfast, I was kind of feeling famished already during the flight. The smell of food wafting from the cabin crew station excites me. And when the food was finally served, I was sated like I was never sated before – or maybe I’m just really hungry, I don’t know 🙂

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Look at this spread and be the judge.

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They even have cute, little Haagen-Dazs ice cream served afterwards. How cool is that?

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One would be extremely amazed with the country’s obsession with vending machines. They are practically everywhere – at the airport, pit stops, train stations, convenience stores, even ramen houses! The ubiquity of these machines astounds me. I wish we have something similar back home. Oh, I’m missing the hot VanHouten chocolate drink already. Yes, they not only offer cold but hot drinks as well, and all other curious stuff, too 🙂

In one of the convenience stores we stopped by, I saw this cute robot. I think his name is Pepper, I’m not sure. I will call him Pepper. Judging by this bot’s more intuitive responses and smoother, more fluid movements, Pepper belongs to a newer, smarter generation of AIs. Another evidence of Japanese innovation at work. Aaawww, isn’t he adorable?

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We also had the chance visiting a strawberry farm. Yes, you heard me right. You might be wondering, ‘how in the world are they able to produce strawberries in the dead of winter?’ Well, not a problem if you have a greenhouse.

We were asked to get five of the juiciest, most red, most plump strawberry we could lay our hands on. Look at these beauties 🙂

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Then off we went tasting different types of sake at the Shirataki Sake Brewery – a more than hundred or so year-old institution of this town which was established back in 1855. It is interesting to note that the Niigata Prefecture is the largest producer of sake and is long celebrated for the fine quality of the products.

We were briefed first on the process of making sake and then a tour of some of their facilities. And then the much-awaited sake tasting 🙂 It is no wonder the Japanese love their sake. After a few drinks, one would immediately feel his/her body temperature rise. It would then begin to feel warm inside – perfect in combating the cold.

Below are some of the types of sake we have tried.

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The orb you see hanging in front of the entrance is made of cedar. This serves a practical purpose in that it indicates the passing of time. The wood originally is green-colored. When it turns brown, like it is now in the picture, it means that the sake is ready.

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It’s a walking distance from the brewery to the train station. If you are interested in buying local delicacies, you will find a lot here. One of the specialties of the place is a type of rice called Koshihikari, which they say has the highest quality (I take that to be the most delicious, too) in the whole of Japan. There’s also lots of ramen houses here.

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I’m smelling something good cooking on the grill in that corner. Ah yes, street food! In all shapes and sizes, and in more variations, I suppose.

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Is that “baticolon” (gizzard) I see over there? Oh, look at those intestines. They are huge! For that size, they couldn’t possibly be your typical “isaw” (chicken intestine), could they? Pig’s, perhaps?

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It seems like in this aspect, the Japanese are like Filipinos – neither are keen on leaving any animal parts to waste as long as they are edible, yeah?

I tried the yakitori or grilled chicken on skewers. Oh man, this one is on a different level. It didn’t take long to cook, actually. Reason why meat is probably so tender. It is tasty but not overpowering. Yum!

Also, noticeably not as charred as it would normally be back home.

I also couldn’t resist trying this fish-shaped waffle filled with custard or red beans. I tried the one with custard. To a Filipino, this looks really unusual and interesting. I mean, why fish? Koreans also use this as cone for their ice cream. Is there something auspicious about it? Oh, well, doesn’t matter. As long as it tastes good, haha!

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These are just appetizers and desserts, and already we are feeling full 🙂

However, one still has to eat dinner, right? We were whisked to the Toei Hotel afterwards for some luxurious meal and some karaoke after, to those who want to belt their hearts out. Filipinos love to sing. It is interesting to note that although the karaoke was invented by the Japanese, it was a Filipino who patented it. Nothing spells entertainment more to a Filipino than karaoke 🙂

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The highlight of my day however, is the relaxing onsen bath. First time I’m trying this and it’s not without some first-time jitters I would say, what with local custom requiring you to strip down to nothing but your birthday suit, and this in front of strangers. Major intimidation, haha! Oh, but really, once you’re there, all inhibitions get thrown out the window. No room for body issues here. Important thing is to be able to enjoy the relaxing and the medicinal benefits of the onsen. You know what they say: “When in Rome”…, or more accurately in this case, “When in Japan” 😉

One has to make sure however, to familiarize himself first with the do’s and don’t’s in an onsen before taking that dip so as not to offend locals. Resource materials should be available at the hotel or from your travel agent. Google, even.

Yup, here’s to another item off my bucket list. Kanpai! 🙂

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

1st in a series

Not being able to join the Japan tour three years ago was a big bummer. Japan is one of those countries people want to go to and check off their bucket list. It’s just awesome like that without even trying. Just hearing about it talked about, or read, or seen somewhere is enough to spark one’s imagination. Japanese culture exerts a strong influence on the world. There’s something about it that draws people in. One could understand the excitement and the fulfillment it brings me to be here. This is one of those things I can proudly say, ‘been there, done that’. Kudos to everyone who has been behind the success of this trip.

When we say ‘winter’, ‘ski resort’, or ‘snow’ in Japan, first thing that comes to mind probably are the more popular places to the north like Sapporo in Hokkaido, and Nagano.

Yuzawa, in the Niigata Prefecture however, is kind of under the radar, off-the-beaten-track, if you will (at least for the uninitiated).

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And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Seeing the glass half-full, one would appreciate the fact that you can, sort of like, have the whole of Yuzawa for yourself (yes, one does get that kind of feeling, even if just for rhetoric).

As of June 2016, the town only has an estimated population of 7,972. That’s just 22.3 persons per km²[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuzawa,_Niigata

As we say in the vernacular: “Pwede pang mag-tumbling sa loob” 🙂

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The whole place is blanketed in snow, and not a lot of people are on the streets. It’s like ‘the-world-is-my-playground’ kind of place.

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Due to its geographic location, this town has one of the highest annual snowfalls in Japan, earning it the moniker Snow Country (one of the many snow countries in the region called yukiguni, Japanese for heavy snow area).

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And as you can guess by now, skiing and snowboarding are its principal draw and main source of income during this season.

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Dealing with extremely cold weather is a challenge for tropical folks like us. We are not used to wearing extremely thick clothing (oftentimes several layers), with warmers especially on our extremities, where the cold would normally seep in. We find it restricting our movements. But, it is what it is. You wear it or you suffer the cold.

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Day 1 of our activity in Snow Country is snowshoeing – a form of hiking which uses snowshoes. The way it works is it distributes the weight of the body so that the foot does not sink into the snow completely, also known as flotation (can also be spelled floatation). We went to this place where the snow is about knee- to waist-deep in some places.

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We were asked to put on the proper gear to walk on snow. Now, if you think walking on snow is easy, think again.

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Tamba

Well, actually, it depends on a host of different factors: how long the trail is, for example; how steep the incline, how thick the snow is, etc. It can be really exhausting though, if you ask me, what with the weight of the clothing bearing you down. I find myself sweating inside my clothes towards the end of the trail. Also because being the first person in line after the instructors (on the second half of the trek), there is pressure to catch up with them seasoned folks (around 6-feet tall-ish Caucasians who have such huge gait). Maybe it needs a little getting used to.

I kind of learned from that experience so the next time around, I removed a layer from my five-layer attire. You kind of acclimate to the weather as you go along, too 🙂

It was fulfilling finishing the trail because we were already anticipating something good at the end of it – food! But wait, one gets to work for it first. It’s time to make soba noodles! Yehey!… (Nooo! We’re already famished, haha!)

The soba we made were served two-ways, one as hot noodles with soup and the other is cold like salad, with dipping sauce and wasabi on the side. They say among locals, the cold is the preferred choice.  I am yet to agree to that. Right now, I need a hot bowl of noodles. They also served us a basket of tempura. It satiates our hunger. We capped it off with hot tea.