Saturday, February 4, 2017

2016 Winter Vacation 冬休み (Part 1)

This is a REALLY, REALLY LONG post because as always I fail to update regularly and let everything accumulate as drafts or post titles, until I get so sick of it that I write them all at one go with lots of coffee and stress-eating.

Basically I’m going to attempt to document my winter break in one post. I had a total of 18 days off over winter break, which I’m thankful for – it’s one of the most fortunate work contracts you can get working for private schools under the JET Programme. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money travelling this time, so I made plans to stay in Tokyo for the most part. As for saving money, fat chance - I spent too much money in spite of staying put in Tokyo for the most part. I got carried away with making so many plans that eventually I realised I had zero rest days. But it was all good, all good.

1. Christmas Party

A few days before Christmas, my colleague, K, invited a bunch of us working in the English department over to her house for a Christmas party. Since all of us were female, including her daughter, it was a 女子会!

It was held in a 100% Japanese style, with Kentucky fried chicken, a Christmas cake (i.e. strawberry shortcake) and a 500 yen-limit gift exchange. My colleague also made Shepherd’s Pie and there was so much food for us to stuff ourselves silly. I received a Lupicia Joyeux Noel tea blend from my colleague M. It was a truly lovely way to spend my first Christmas in Japan!

2. Aunt’s visit / Hakone

The next day my aunt came over to Tokyo for four nights, so we mostly shopped our way through the weekend and had a huge haul of Uniqlo (what else is new) and Shu Umera purchases.

We also made a reservation at 六歌仙 – my first ever yakiniku experience. I’m no expert so I can’t give much comment on the quality or whether or not there are better cuts of meat elsewhere but it was definitely good enough for me. After trying out the many different cuts of meat I came to the conclusion that I really still prefer karubi (カルビ – flank ribs).

Beef tongue, sirloin and flank cuts

Also, my aunt is always generous when it comes to dining so for the first time since arriving here I was able to order some ootoro sushi. There's this constant debate about whether ootoro or chuutoro sushi is more favourable, and I think for me it really depends on my mood. Because of the extremely high fat content, ootoro hardly carries any taste, but chuutoro carries what many believe to be the 'perfect balance' of the rich tuna flavour and fatty acids. 

During my aunt's stay, we took a day trip out to Hakone too. It was my first time visiting Hakone and we thought we’d just do an easy route and see the area around Hakone-yumoto Station. The main street was filled with souvenir shops and some shops offered freshly baked/roasted/fried treats. We went for a quick bath at a day onsen, and returned feeling famished so we ate our way through the street:

Fresh 饅頭 making in the process!
Probably my favourite store, selling huge palm-sized fishcakes in various flavours. 

Overall, I would say that Hakone is not a place I’m absolutely fond of, because it’s largely commercialized and I personally find it to be a tourist trap. It also probably wasn’t the smartest choice to choose to visit Hakone on Christmas because the entire place was filled with couples on a romantic getaway. But with all that’s said, Hakone is a really beautiful place. I just think it needs to let its beauty stand on its own and not resort to such hard-sell tactics. You know? I think I’ll eventually give it another try again, and come back the next time to explore all the areas around 芦ノ湖.

3. Illuminations in Tokyo (Shinjuku, Midtown)

Around the start of December illuminations sprung up everywhere in Tokyo. One of my favourite video bloggers on YouTube (he doesn’t post video logs anymore) lived in Tokyo throughout his university days and described Christmas in this city as being the most “sickeningly romantic” thing you can imagine. After all these years that phrase still stuck, and I finally saw it for myself and had to agree. I think it can easily be one of the most unpleasant holidays if you’re feeling very much alone in this city. I’m really grateful that I was able that most of my December was spent with friends every other weekend, and having my aunt visiting over the Christmas period have both helped to offset the in-your-face romantic atmosphere.

Anyway, one of the illuminations that I saw the most often was the one outside Shinjuku’s South Exit. It’s a small stretch of road full of gingko trees that are decorated with pink LED lights. I’m not sure why I was there so often (at least twice a week in December?) but I have a few theories: a) I’m just so addicted to the pain au chocolat from Gontran Cherrier and every time I’m there I just enter the bakery with zero hesitation. b) There is a Krispy Kreme and FrancFranc store in that same stretch, which indubitably enhances your shopping experience on that stretch of road. Also, at that time Krispy Kreme was having some seasonal winter offerings (their snowman donuts are so cute!) c) Just across the bridge is Takashimaya Times Square and the Tokyu Hands and Kinokuniya outlets there are ones that I frequently visit.

I also decided, on impulse, to see the Tokyo Midtown illuminations on the very last day, and was once again starkly reminded of how crowded this city can be. It felt like I was queuing to see another National Day Parade (or the SEA Games ceremony…?) in Singapore all over again. Not the most pleasant experience, but I am glad I went to see it anyway. Apparently, blue lights are the most advanced in LED technology, so setting up a large-scale display across a field can be considered impressive.

My favourite lights at the Midtown Illuminations weren't actually even part of the main light-up, but this particular section along the queue (about 25-30 minutes before getting to the main blue LED area). I love how the colours complement each other so well here:

Christmas is truly a very pretty time of the year. There is definitely a lot more effort being put into light-ups here than in Singapore.

4. Kawagoe

After my aunt returned to Singapore, two of my fellow JET batchmates A & S arrived in Tokyo and stayed at my tiny 23 sqm一人暮らしapartment for two nights. It’s okay, we survived. There were still a bunch of others who would arrive later as we had all planned to celebrate the New Year together. The three of us decided to head to Kawagoe for a day trip on 30 December. That was also my first proper time spent in Saitama-ken. I was instantly charmed by the city, even before we arrived at the ‘Little Edo’ stretch. We took a more off beaten path because we were that bad at reading Google maps and ended up walking in the wrong direction for a good 15 minutes, but this detour was really a blessing in disguise.

The detour brought us to the entrance of 喜多院 Kita-in, which was a temple with a huge garden, and we were free to roam around the grounds even though it was closed in preparation for the New Year. The place was so quiet that it felt as though time had stood completely still. It was quite a distance away from the main Little Edo street and to be honest, if we had found ourselves on the intended path at first we would definitely not have made our way here to discover this beautiful temple. It's easily one of my favourites.

Around the corner, things were a little more lively - you could see the stalls being set-up in preparation for the night of 1 January, where many would flock to the temples for their 初詣.

We were pretty famished when we discovered a small soba shop next to the temple grounds. It was crowded, the atmosphere was lively and perhaps we were just really hungry but I daresay this place served up one of the most amazing soba set meals I have ever had so far.

Shiitake tempura with matcha salt!

We finally made our way to the Little Edo stretch (by then it was close to 3pm) and had a good time shopping and exploring the little nooks and alleys here. We actually didn't manage to find the section where the 金平糖 (konpeitō) and candy shops were, so I'll probably try to find that again the next time I'm there.


5. New Year 2017

The New Year period was quite an eventful couple of days, so I've put it in a separate post here.

6. Sendai/Yamagata

I spent the last stretch of my winter vacation on a quick trip to Sendai and Yamagata. I've also written about it in detail here (to be updated).

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