Otaru: Yuki Akari no Michi

Credits: Natural Beauty created by and (c) Maria LaFrance

Held at the same time as Sapporo’s Snow Festival is nearby city Otaru’s Snow Light Path Festival (Yuki Akari no Michi).

Just a 30-minute train ride away, this beautifully preserved harbor town is well worth the day trip especially at this time of the year.

After dark, the snowy city of Otaru becomes alive when the lanterns and small snow sculptures are lighted,

illuminating the town and the canal area in an intimate way.

The town, though touristy, evokes an interesting piece of Hokkaido history that starts with its canal that runs through Otaru. Once a central part of the city’s busy port, Otaru’s canal was built to allow small ships to transport goods to the warehouses.

The canal was no longer of use when modern docking facilities have been constructed. The storehouses that line the canal has since been restored and turned into museums, shops, and restaurants. The canal is likewise adorned with Victorian-style street lamps that make for a beautiful stroll day or night.

A little more of Otaru from my lens:

The city as you arrive at the station.
They can’t come any fresher.
Fresh seafood only means great sushi at Waraku Sushi Bar.

The Sakaimachi Shopping Street

Otaru is 30 minutes by train via the Japan Rail from Sapporo Station.

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Sapporo Snow Festival

On our way to our accommodation from the airport, our cab drove through Susukino to reveal a row of illuminated ice sculpture.  That was our prelude to the Yuki Matsui, internationally known as Sapporo’s Snow Festival.  For seven days every February, Japan’s largest winter event is turned into a winter wonderland of snow stations and ice sculptures.

From a few snow statues created by high school students on its main site, Odori Park in 1950, the festival is now an event visited by millions.  Packed with people walking the slippery path that spans the 1.5km Odori Park showcasing spectacular snow and ice sculptures of different size and shapes from local and international participants.

 

We came across humongous structures such as the Arc de Triumph sculpture and the Taipei Guest House.

 

Some serve as a stage for concerts and other performances.

This giant Cup Noodle that double as a slide is a favorite,

Star War characters R2D2, C3PO and Darth Vader and other cartoon characters make up the fun stuff.

Meanwhile, I am drawn to the smell and the sizzle of beef being grilled on an open barbecue pit, even if we just came from lunch.

Not to be left out are the food stalls of various kinds.  A piece of advice to future attendees, skip lunch that day and head straight to the park.

The row of illuminated ice sculptures that I saw the night before is less dramatic in daylight.

Packed with bars, restaurants, pachinko and red light establishments, Susukino really comes alive upon sundown and so does its displays found on its main street.  We weaved through the sculptures into Ramen Alley for lunch.

The alley has 17 old style ramen shops to choose from.  In a shop randomly selected to fit all 7 of us, we slurped down a bowl of noodles in miso broth topped with seaweed, spring onions, char sou pork, hard-boiled egg, corn and a slice of butter—unique ingredients that make Sapporo’s Ramen worth a try.

The third venue is a multipurpose dome where a variety of events take place inside.  Outside the dome is where the fun is.  Large snow slides and a snow rafting area is set up for the merriment of people of all ages.  Sadly, as the venue is a little away from the city center and is only open until 6 pm.

Useful Info:

Odori Park:  Odori-nishi 1-chome to 12-chome, Chuo-ku

Susukino Venue: Ekimae-dori from Minami 4-Jo to Minami 7-Jo, Chou-ku

Tsudome: Sapporo Sports Facility “Tsudome” Sakaemachi 885-1, Higashi-ku

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A Week in Winter Paradise

Credits: Papers by Splendid Finn; border bit by Splendid Finn; Journaling Snippet by Creativity by Crystal; Fresh Glitter Lines by Delicious Scraps; Alpha by Akiloune Designs; Diecut Paper by Creativity by Crystal

Outside the apartment building, snow pile shin high by the sidewalk. The icy ground slippery as hell and the wind bite as we walk to the metro station. From tropical to arctic, my senses went into shock and so did my camera and phone. Anton loves the cold, you see.

Hokkaido is Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture. With its unspoiled nature, it has attracted many outdoor enthusiasts from skiers and snowboarders in winter to hikers and bikers in summer.  Cold fronts from Siberia dump powdery snow into the island, making Hokkaido a winter paradise for those who love it, like my husband.

This and the stunning natural beauty of the island tend to overshadow the fact the food is excellent

and the history compelling this side of Japan. One of the highlights of this trip was soaking in an open-air onsen amidst the snow.

Come and ogle with me at the ice and snow sculptures that scatter around Hokkaido, take pleasure in some really awesome food, and get in line to catch sight of emperor penguins doing their daily walk — all this we did in a week in Hokkaido, a winter paradise.

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Minalungao

It’s the first days of summer, and this draft has been on the back burner giving way to other bigger trips I’ve had.

So before I start writing about my next destination, which took place last month in an icy setting and is the exact opposite of what we will be experiencing in the coming days, I’d like to take you to a place in Nueva Ecija. A little gem, they say it is. It was a spur of the moment and as these things go, we all made it.  Sometimes to plan is vain.

The small part of an otherwise well-paved road was only wide enough for our Explorer to safely get its way past the stream, thanks to this boy who helped us navigate our way.

Thanking him after, he offered to be our guide. Enterprising young man. And so for 500Php, the then 14-year-old AJ took us around his playground.

We navigated the short but somehow challenging, sometimes slippery rocks and trail to the cave that AJ said would take only 5 minutes. “Akala ko 5 minutes lang sa loob ng cave, bakit parang 20 minutes na kami ditto sa loob ah?” (I thought it only takes 5 minutes to explore the cave, why does it seem like 20 minutes already?) I asked AJ. “Kasi ang bibilis nyo mag lakad!” “Because you all walk so fast!” he said. He has a point.  🙂

In the foothills of the Sierra Madre lies a protected area in the municipality of General Tinio (sometimes also called Papaya – don’t ask me why) where the Penaranda River flows cutting through magnificent limestone walls.

One can trek to the caves through the limestone wall, swim in the crystal clear, refreshing water or simply soak in the scenery while enjoying a packed lunch on the raft.

Do try to make your way there if you haven’t. An enjoyable day trip it certainly was.

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Yunnan Eats: Cheese, Cured Pork and Fresh Vegetables

On the road, we randomly stopped for lunch. The driver calls me into the kitchen, there we ordered, without a menu but rather from what they have in the kitchen, apparently fresh from the fields. He tries to explain the unfamiliar items while I struggle to decipher what he is telling me. But all is well that ends well.  We had a wonderful food experience throughout the trip.

Vegetables

Fresh vegetables cooked lightly with lots of garlic and some chilies are a staple.   Because Yunnan has a diverse variety of plant species, you’ll find dishes made with ferns, bamboo shoots, flowers, tubers, fungi, herbs and even insects of all kinds.

A kind of root that was actually quite good.
Various types of mushrooms found at the local market in Shuhe.
A typical local restaurant showcasing a variety of vegetables, tubers, flowers and ferns.

Cheese?

Cheese is something you do not expect in China because Chinese as a nation are not keen on dairy products. But in a province that lies on the fringe of China, its mash-up nationalities’ dietary habits are far removed from the mainstream Chinese. The love of dairy products could perhaps be attributed to the mélange of ethnic groups such as Mongolians and Tibetans. The way in which they eat it though is distinctly Chinese.

Called rubing, it is often served with rice, sliced and pan-fried until golden on both sides or cut into cubes and stir fried in a wok.

Another interesting cheese called rushan is grilled and sold by the roadside. It’s crispy and milky in flavor.

Cured Pork

Have you heard of Yunnan ham? We used to get them canned and is an absolute favorite of Anton’s. In Yunnan, we couldn’t find the canned one, but instead, we devoured it in so many other ways.

They love them steamed, boiled, fried… usually to flavor stews and braised dishes as well as soups and broths.

Xuan Wei ham from Xuan Wei City is the most famous. It is to China what Iberian ham is to the Spanish.

Found this in the local market in Shuhe.

And with this, I close my series on Yunnan. Don’t drool too much now. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had re-living it.

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There’s more to Lijiang…

And this is perhaps THE reason to go. It was ours.

Staged outdoors beneath the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at an incredible elevation of 3,100 meters, Impression Lijiang managed to keep us in awe all throughout its performance.

A cultural show two years in the making, it is the second of nine series of highly sought after productions by Zhang Yimou. In 2003, Zhang, together with 2 of his assistants, Wang Chaoge, and Fan Yue started working on an outdoor production that would later become an ongoing series.

Impressions Liu Sanjie was the first of these productions and found its place on the banks of the Li River in the scenic town of Yangshuo. We saw that too, which actually led us to this Impression series 9 years later.

The show opened with rows of male entertainers in their traditional ethnic costumes shouting in Mandarin, “we are farmers, we are stars.”

Around 500 Naxi, Bai, and Yi ethnic groups from nearby towns and villages were selected to sing and dance. I particularly love the horse scene where they depicted the important tea trading of the province.  It was surreal.

You definitely have to find your way to Lijiang, if only for this.

But not to be missed too is Lijiang’s beautiful canyon and its mighty Jinsha River.

Touted as the world’s most spectacular river canyon is Tiger Leaping Gorge. Its maximum depth is about 3,790 meters from river to mountain peak and is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area of the World Heritage Site.

Legend has it that in ancient times, a tiger, running from a hunter, leaped across the gorge to escape. It jumped at the canyon’s narrowest point.

To trek the upper trail would have been ideal, but due to lack of time, we saw the gorge on a viewing platform at the lower road along with most of the tourist in buses.

But as you can see, it still is a gorgeous sight to see.

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Lijiang

jade-dragon-mountain

Nestled at the foot of the Jade Dragon Mountain, Lijiang is blessed with gorgeous natural surroundings.

dayan-alleyway

Infused with cultural flavors owing to the profound ethnic heritage of the region, which consequently has lured both the domestic and foreign tourist for perhaps a decade now.

dayan-entrance-waterwheel

A UNESCO World Heritage Site with Dayan Old Town being the most popular town among a cluster of villages, its history dating back to the Ming Dynasty. A largely Naxi settlement first built some eight centuries ago.  They still live there, and some still make silk embroideries, a trade they practice since the time of the Silk Road. Like Dali, Lijiang was once a confluence for trade along the Old Tea Horse Trail, and Dayan is famous for its waterways and bridges. It is a town south of the Yangtze River, and traffic across the river is made easy by stone bridges.

Of course, now it’s crowded with tourists and the atmosphere of the bygone era is lost somehow.

dayan-tourists-and-guides

mcdonaldsThere’s even a McDonald’s just outside the gates.

Because a peaceful town it is not anymore. Still quite lovely but it has more of a theme park-like atmosphere.

dayan-naxi-dancing

Many are for show, like the Naxi dancing at the central square, not to mention the saturation of souvenir shops.

dayan-shops

I wasn’t sure at first if staying outside of town was a good idea but was quite relieved that I chose to stay in another town four kilometers away from Dayan.

shuhe-alley

Shuhe is absolutely divine. We didn’t stay in town exactly, but the guesthouse was just a short walk away through this attractive tree-lined street.

tree-lined-street

A quiet(er) town, Shuhe is a small village hidden in the forest and is another well-preserved city along the ancient tea-horse route.

shuhe

Nothing as quaint as Shaxi and less hip than Dali but Shuhe has its own charm.

Known to local people as Longquan Village and renowned as a “village of leather,” it was considered as an important part of Lijiang by UNESCO.

shuhe-store-linedThe streets are lined with independent shops and restaurants all built of rocks from the surrounding mountains.

shuhe-creek

The channel and waterways still give water to the houses from 2 crystal clear springs in the northern part of town. They beautifully form part of Shuhe’s landscape.

shuhe-typical-restaurant

Ambling along Sifang Street is like walking back through time. Archaic wooden facades surround the square, mostly restaurants and shops.  Some still dress in traditional attire.

Built entirely with stones, Qinglong Bridge is one sight I particularly love.

qinglong-bridge

It is also the first among the many old stone bridges found in Shuhe. It spans a small river that starts at the Jiuding Dragon Pool with very clear water.

Every day, we walk to Shuhe for lunch stay till dinner. It is still a struggle to order as many do not speak a word of English.

cafe-in-shuheEverything is in Chinese, even the menu boards outside the cafes.

We, however, managed well, as you can see.

food

We even found a well-appointed hotel that we went back to for lunch the next day.

drawing-room-restaurant

Hui Feng Inn served excellent food, Jack of Drawing Room Restaurant (found inside the hotel) is from Beijing but loved the place so much, he stayed.

jack

Even our beautiful guesthouse, Lijiang Wa Jia served exquisite meals.

lijiang-wa-jiaThe courtyard of Lijiang Wa Jia

food-at-lijian-wa-jia

Here’s sharing more of the beautiful town with you.

preservation-ongoingPreservation on going

shuhe-qinglong-bridge

Qinglong Bridge
tree-lined-2Another tree-lined street going to Banyan Tree Resort, also in Shuhe.
banyan-tree-entranceThe Banyan Tree.  On a clear day, the Jade Dragon Mountain serves a its backdrop.
canine-2One of the most gorgeous Labradoodle I’ve seen.  The people of Lijiang love their dogs.

canine

spring-water-winds-through-townA pool that cuts through town, is surrounded by stores and restaurants.
horses-on-qinglongHorses still abound here.  At the Qinglong Bridge.
shuhe-naxi-selling-foodNaxi selling food.
shuhe-vegetable-gardenSpotted a vegetable garden.
shuhe-boardwalkA boardwalk along the creek.
shuhe-town-map-etched-in-woodA map of Shuhe etched on wood found in Sifangd Square.
shuhe-charmThe Shuhe charm.
shuhe-quaint-shopsQuaint Shops found
shuhe-many-bridgesOne of the many stone bridges near the square.

 

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