Day 4, 18 Dec 06 - Yunishigawa

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Breakfast was taken at the common hall. Nothing beats a traditional bowl of miso soup and rice with seaweed to warm the stomach.
Our final destination in Tochigi Prefecture was Yunishigawa Onsen 湯西川温泉, located in a mountainous area 46.4km away (by train and bus) from Nikko Town and supposedly quite secluded unlike Kinugawa 鬼怒川公園 or Kawaji 川治温泉 which are commercialised with many tourist activities.
According to a legend, this hot spring area is said to have been discovered by fleeing Heike warriors some 800 years ago after their defeat in the battle against Genji and legends of the fugitive Heike clan have survived to this day. Although there has been an increase in the number of tourists and modern hotels, the area still abounds with traditional thatched-roof private houses and hot spring inns retaining the essence of a mountain village.
Our ryokan for the night was sought from my ever-reliable Mook magazine - Yunishigawa Hana to Hana 彩り湯かしき 花と華, the name alone sounds so appealing already. Although we were travelling to a relatively unknown area (to the conventional tourist), it turned out to be the best experience of this trip.

After checking out, we caught a bus to Tobu Nikko station, took a train to Shimo-imachi just in time to change to a train bound for Kinugawa (Only had a window of 2 minutes to change the train across a platform. The train schedule in Japan runs like clockwork!). From Shimo-imaichi, it took us 45 mins to reach Yunishigawa Onsen station (Kinugawa and Kawaji are stations in-between). One point to note, our All Nikko Pass covered train fare partially till Shin-Fujiwara only, we had to pay another 500 yen per person to the train conductor.

The moment we stepped out of the station, we got really excited because it was snowing! After 10 minutes (the bus schedule too runs like clockwork!), the bus heading towards Yunishigawa Onsen arrived and we boarded with anticipation. As the bus travelled deeper into the mountains, the snow got thicker. Definitely a rare sight for us who live in all-year sunny Singapore. Bus journey took 35mins and 970 yen per person and we alighted at the bus-stop in front of the ryokan.

As it was still early for check-in (only 1pm), we dropped our luggage at the ryokan and headed towards the village. Temperature was -3 degree celsius! Although it was snowing and butt freezing, we couldn't resist playing with snow until we couldn't stand the cold and had to pop into a neighbourhood provision stall to seek warmth. The owners were really nice to let us sit at the stove heater even though we only bought a bottle of hot tea.

After warming up a little, we headed to the Heike Village which was constructed in 1985 to observe the 800th anniversary of the Tairas’ defeat at the hand of the Minamotos in the Taira-Minamoto War. Paid 500 yen per person for entry. Several private houses in the village were moved here to reproduce and preserve the lifestyle of the fugitive Heike clan for future generations. Traditional everyday utensils and other items like weapons are on display. Walked around for 40mins and headed back to ryokan, just the right time for check-in.



We were first served some hospitality mochi and glutinous rice wine to warm our body while seated at a full glass window lounge overlooking the scenic mountain covered in snow. Then we were shown to our room with breathtaking view of the mountain and a stream beneath us. The room charge with 1 breakfast and 1 dinner was only 9600 yen per person! Definitely a steal we managed to get from their website.


We spared no time to change into yukatas provided and went straight for hot spring. There are 3 hot spring locations within the ryokan, with indoor and outdoor hotsprings. I went for the 'roten ofuro' (outdoor hotspring) and was truly awe-struck. The ofuro overlooked the stream and snow-covered mountain and it was snowing slightly. I don't care if the view is nicer in autumn; to a person who come from a country full of greenery, snow scenery is precious; something I'll remember for a long time. I was like soaking there for 1 full hour until almost dark. Best part, there wasn't anyone else as this was not the peak season.



Our dinner was Japanese Hearthside Dining 平家お狩り場焼. Feature dishes included Teppan-cooked meat, flavourful stews of vegetables, and catch from the rivers skewered and roasted over a Japanese sunken hearth (irori).


After dinner, we strolled around the ryokan, shopped a little, went for massage at a coin-operated massage chair, more soaks in another hot spring and finally decided to snug into the comfortable Futon.

Day 4 thoughts: I'm so touched! I'm the luckiest girl in the world!

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Day 3, 17 Dec 06 - Nikko Town

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It snowed! ... while we were sleeping. I think so because there seemed to be more snow on the rooftops. Breakfast was buffet-style, mostly traditional Japanese items. After breakfast, another soak at the onsen again :) I could feel my skin glowing after the soak. Well, the natural hotspring water rich in minerals is said to be good for the body and skin.
After checking out at 9.30am, we boarded a bus heading towards Nikko Town. Our 2nd ryokan was located at Nikko Town, within walking distance to the shrines and temples. After depositing our barang barang at the ryokan, we were set to take a leisurely tour of the Nikko temple and shrine area which has been designated as one of World Heritage Site. It is interesting to note that the combination ticket for 2 shrines and 1 temple 二社一寺共通拝観券 cost only 1000 yen, whereas it would cost 2400 yen if you were to purchase the tickets separately. Go figure.

Toshogun Shrine 日光東照宮
The mausoleum of Ieyasu Takugawa, first Takygawa Shogun of the Edo period who laid the foundations for Tokyo. Notably we visited one of the national treasure 'Yomei-mon Gate' 陽明門 as well as the Sacred Stable, which is famous for the carving of the three monkeys 三猿 expressing 'Hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil'.

Rinnoji Temple 日光山輪王寺
One of the three largest headquarter of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, the ancient temple was built in 766 in honour of the three mountain gods of Nikko. Sanbutsudo 三仏堂, or the Hall of the Three Buddhas has been designated as an "Important Cultural Property'' by the government.

Futarasan Shrine 日光二荒山神社
Ancestors of Japanese respected high mountains because they believed that the mountains handle various phenomena such as clouds, rain, snow and thunder. These phenomena give water for people's lives. They believed that God was there. This is the beginning of mountainous worship. Futara of spiritual mountain (today's Mt. Nantai) has been respected since early times.

Time for lunch again. We wondered around Nikko Town, following our sense of smell which led us to an eatery selling udon, soba. Being greedy, I ordered a mini Katsu-don and yuba soba set, whereas hubby concentrated on a yuba udon. Needless to say, the food was good, but the soup base seemed to lose out to the one we had at Chuzenji.

Shinkyo, or Sacred Bridge 神橋 was our next stop. Touted as a landmark, the beautiful bridge across Daiya River is a gateway to the temple and shrine area of Nikko City.

Having had enough of the cultural and heritage sightseeing, we decided to check into our ryokan and laze around the whole afternoon. Hotel Harumoto ホテル 春茂登 is a modest ryokan hotel which also has a rich history since the Meiji period. Room rate was 9600 yen per person inclusive of 1 breakfast and 1 dinner.

A kaiseiki dinner was served in the comfort of our room. We seemed to be eating and eating these few days. Luckily we walked a lot to help us burn the extra calories.
After dinner, we went for a soak at the hotel's simple public bath with alkaline spring water and drifted to dreamland soon after.

Day 3 thoughts: Perfect weather to take a leisurely stroll around the sacred World Heritage Site.

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Day 2, 16 Dec 06 - Nikko/Chuzenji/Yumoto

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 Off to our highly anticipated 4-day ryokan and onsen indulgence! I say no trip to Japan should be without an onsen experience. Nikko 日光 is a city in Tochigi Prefecture 栃木県, where a number of shrines and temples are part of the "World Heritage Sites 世界遺産" and is also the entrance to Nikko National Park.
Left our 2 big luggage with Shinjuku Washington and carried only a haversack and slingbag. In fact it is not necessary to bring too many things as the ryokans provided everything from yukata (summer version of kimono, usually worn at ryokans) to slippers to toiletries.

Took the subway from Shinjuku to Asakusa station (change of line needed but stations are connected). At Asakusa station, get out and walk 5 minutes to reach the Tobu Asakusa station 東武線浅草駅. There is clear signage along the way so not a problem to locate the station. From there, we proceeded to the Tobu Sightseeing Centre where tourists can purchase different types of discount passes to Nikko and Kinugawa areas. We bought the All Nikko Pass at 4400 yen per person - valid for 4 days, inclusive of round trip train fare (rapid train only) to and fro Asakusa and unlimited trains and bus rides within Tobu Nikko 東武日光, Shimo-Imaichi 下今市, Kinugawa Onsen 鬼怒川温泉 and up to Shin-Fujiwara 新藤原. As compared to normal train fares and individual bus rides, the discount passes were a steal and much more convenient. Rapid train takes 2hr10mins, or for 1120 yen more per person, get upgraded to SPACIA, the Tobu Limited Express train which takes 2hrs with much more comfortable and spacious seats. We decided to take the 9.10am rapid train and reached Tobu Nikko station at 11.15am. It was 3 Degree Celsius, surprisingly not very cold.

Walked around the shops near the station for a while before boarding a bus bound for Chuzenji Onsen area 中禅寺温泉, took around 50 mins on a winding uphill road which would have been much more scenic during autumn. Chuzenji felt more chilling, perhaps due to higher altitude (1269m). We visited Kegon Falls 華厳ノ滝 first, took an elevator (530 yen) down to a platform for a clearer view of the waterfall. Not much colours, I guessed the fall would have been very pretty during autumn with multi-coloured leaves or in mid winter when it would be frozen.

After viewing Kegon Falls, we were lured by aromas from the eateries. I had yasai soba and hubby had tempura udon. Hubby claimed the soup stock and udon was best he had ever tasted. Well, what can I say? Cold weather + empty stomach + alluring aroma + tempting blend of colours + authentic great taste = happy belly

With our tummy gurgling happily, we strolled along Lake Chuzenji 中禅寺湖. A pity the lake is closed during winter, otherwise we could take one of those cutsy boats and row around. The lake looked somewhat "sabishii" (lonely).

Our ryokan for the night was located at Yumoto Onsen area 湯元温泉which is about 30mins away from Chuzenji. We decided to do some hiking at the Senjogahara Plateau 戦場ガ原自然研究路. The marshland of 400ha is located on the altitude of 1400m and surrounded by Mt. Nantai in the East, Mt. Tarou, Mt. Sannoh Boushi, and Mt. Mitsudake.

As we trekked along the raised wooden platform, we were delighted to see the route covered by traces of snow! It was very quiet, with us being the only trekkers. When we closed our eyes, we could feel the crisp air and a serene silence.


Along the way, we even stumbled upon a herd of deers playing around the forest. We trekked 4.5km and around 1hr30 mins to reach Yudaki Falls 湯滝 and by that time, it was beginning to get dark.
Wanted to take the bus but had to wait 45mins. A couple of obaasans who were at the fall decided to walk to Yumoto and we followed. 40mins and 1.5km later, we reached Lake Yumoto 湯ノ湖. That was certainly enough hiking for the day and we looked forward to sumptuous dinner and soothing onsen. Snow was everywhere at Yumoto-onsen area!
Our ryokan is Yumori Kamaya 湯守釜屋, found by chance while surfing the net. Cost 13250 yen per person, inclusive of 1 breakfast and 1 dinner. The ryokan staff were already expecting us, after all the checking in procedures and explanation of the onsen, we were ushered to our room. Our Japanese tatami room was spacious and overlooked the mountains. We spared no time to change into the yukatas and proceeded to the onsen. The onsen soothed our tired bodies and seemed to have a positive effect on my otherwise aching muscles.


Soon, it was dinner and we looked forward to a 90min "All-you-can-eat crab" promotion, but was disappointed that the reservations seemed to have missed our request and we were served a standard ryokan kaiseiki instead. Nevertheless, the food was oishii!. When we went back to the room, Futon (bedding) was already laid on the tatami for us. Another soak at the onsen and we were off to slumberland, snugged in the comfortable and warm bedding.
Day 2 thoughts: Great hiking at Senjogahara Plateau, sumptuous food, soothing onsen - that's life!
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Day 1, 15 Dec 06 - Shinjuku

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In half slumber mode, hubby and I boarded an early 6am Northwest Airlines flight and landed at Tokyo Narita Airport at 1.50pm. Tokyo was a cool 13 degree celsius. Nice! After clearing the custom (long queue!), we transferred via the Airport Limousine Bus to our hotel, Shinjuku Washington. Chose this hotel as it is the only hotel around Shinjuku area where the Airport Limousine Bus goes to directly and not costing a bomb. Bus ticket costs 3000 yen per person, 1 way, 100 mins (purchase ticket at counter located in Arrival Hall)
Had made reservations through the Shinjuku Washington Hotel website and managed to find a promo price at the main building (hotel has another annex building). Check-in was relatively smooth and most staff speak very good English. As expected the room was really small, but very well-equipped, literally everything that a traveller needs (It may get a little stuffy in the room due to the heater. Just call housekeeping and they will open the window)
Shinjuku Washington Hotel is located in Nishi-Shinjuku adjacent to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building (west exit of Shinjuku Station). Takes around 15 mins to walk from the hotel to Shinjuku station. Although Nishi-Shinjuku is not as colourful as the south exit area, it has its own charm with lots of interesting eateries and pachinko arcades.

It was only 4.30pm, but already pretty dark as it was winter. The false sense of timing with aromas coming from the eateries made us very hungry and we decided to have our dinner at a ‘fast food’ eatery. Basically purchase the set meal you want through a vending machine, take the ticket and hand it to the counter staff. Mine was curry beef rice which came with miso soup, rice, curry beef and salad. Hubby chose something similar to Pepper Lunch. The best thing was both set meals tasted good (maybe it's the weather?)
Thereafter, we browsed at Sakura, Yodobashi and Bic for electronic items (Tokyo is a haven for electronic items!) and proceeded to Luminere (Shinjuku) as I wanted to visit 2 Zakka shops there (Afternoon Tea and FrancFranc). As we have to wake up early the next day to go to Nikko, decided to go back to hotel early, but not before being attracted by lovely sights of yummy-looking cakes at Sunday Brunch (lifestyle cafe with zakka goods). We just had to stop and try the cakes which looked and tasted really good.
Day 1 thoughts: Shinjuku - as colourful and vibrant as I remember it to be.

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Highlight of 2006 - Tokyo Vacation 15 to 23 Dec

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Japan is my favourite country and will always be (unless I manage to find another place that can give me the same 'feel'). This is my 3rd trip to Japan – the 1st in Apr 03 to Tokyo (and Hakone) for my honeymoon; 2nd in Dec 03 to Kansai for a 2-week homestay programme. (Will blog about those 2 trips if I have the time.)
This time, hubby and I decided to re-visit Tokyo and also make a trip to Nikko 日光 (Tochigi Prefecture 栃木県, 2 hrs away from Tokyo). As with a free & easy trip, ample preparation prior to the trip is important. I took around 2-3 months to search for nice/reasonable accommodation and plan the itinerary and the planning stage is also something I enjoy doing.

Travelling around in Tokyo
Some people worry about the confusing subway and railway system; I would say that after studying it for a while, you will come to appreciate the comprehensive and convenient routes as the trains bring you to literally everywhere. Be sure to pick up a copy of free map at stations or tourist information desks.

Language
In Tokyo, most people can speak simple English, so language shouldn't be too much of problem. Was pleasantly surprised when an Obachan (granny) conversed in some simple English when trying to explain and sell green tea to me. It will be useful to pick up some useful single words or carry a pocket guide, though not crucial. Most places have signages in English and as their kanji 漢字 are basically chinese characters with essentially the same meaning, it comes in handy.

Travel Resources
  • Mook http://travel.mook.com.tw/ - Magazine from Taiwan that offers weath of info about various destinations and gives many important details. Available at Kinokuniya.
  • Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) http://www.jnto.go.jp/ - useful online guide that offers essential travel info in different languages.
  • Japan-Guide.com http://www.japan-guide.com/ - Offers info about travelling and living in Japan, with useful tips from fellow travellers and native Japanese. Questions posted in forum will be answered by helpful native Japanese and experienced travellers.
Will update more travel resources at the end of each day's post.

夏日炎炎的中华凉面 Cold noodles for a sunny day

夏日炎炎, 慵懒的午后. 饿了,确没食欲. 我想再没什么比中华凉面适合裹腹的料理了.

从Meidi-ya超市买的中华凉面有几种酱汁口味如芝麻, 黑醋 , 非常容易准备. 只需把面条放入沸水煮大约5分钟, 再用冰水冰阵一下下, 然后漓干水份. 摆上一些佐料如切丝的黄瓜,蕃茄. 豪华一点还能加些虾仁,蛋丝,肉丝. 淋上附带的酱汁, 便是一盘令人垂涎欲滴, 适合夏季的清爽料理啦.

Angsana Spa, Bintan - absolute spa sanctuary

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Angsana Spa, Bintan remains my favourite spa to-date. Been there around 3-4 times, and each time the spa never fails to relax, refresh and rejuvenate me. Kind of cliche, but it's true. Even hubby who is quite choosy when it comes to spa, feels the same way. Sweet hubby sprung a surprise treat last weekend and off to Bintan we went!

Be sure to make reservations early and request for the 'outdoor' Spa Pavilion. Located on 2nd level, the Spa Pavilions overlook the lush gardens, pool and beach. Unlike air-con treatment rooms which are kind of cold and enclosed, outdoor spa pavilions are airy and refreshing especially with natural sea breeze blowing gently.

The signature 120 minutes Angsana Massage started with the therapist giving a warm foot rub, followed by a 90 minute massage where our muscles got kneaded with just the right amount of pressure. The massage therapists were really skillful and knew just where the tension points were! Sheer bliss and total relaxation as we drifted off to soothing music and before we knew it, the massage has ended :( Wished it was longer. Thereafter, we took a bath and were served special concocted herbal drinks (even the drinks tasted so good) while relaxing at the day bed.

Ahhh, I must come back again (and more often) *dreaming away*...

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Sinful Indulgence - Pork Belly Bun 扣肉包

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I know this is extremely sinful with all the fatty belly meat drenched in various sauces and dripping with oil. But I guess it is alright to indulge in some guilt once in a while. Ok ok, I admit - I love 'Kong Ba Bao'!
When I was young, I used to buy 'Kong Ba Bao' from the neighbourhood kopitiam. Peering into racks of steamy buns, I would be seduced by the 'Kong Ba Bao' without fail. The tantalising pork belly was sweet, tender and succulent. Pure satisfaction with each bite!
Last year, tried a homecooked pork belly bun at a friend's place and was pleasantly surprised it is actually quite easy to make at home. Now I can have my 'Kong Ba Bao' anytime I want and in fact, I could modify the recipe to make it 'healthier' (yah right. But I suppose I could choose leaner cuts of meat and add lesser amount of marinating sauces).
Recipe (serves 4-5 pax)
Ingredients- $5 worth of Pork Belly (around 8-10 pieces)
- 8-10 buns
- Lettuce (personal preference)
Marinate
- Mustard (Wild American Mustard, add a tinge of spiciness)
- Dark soya sauce
- Hsiao Sin cooking wine
- Ginger juice
- Garlic
- Sugar
- Oyster sauce
- Pepper
- Sesame oil
Marinate the pork belly with the sauces overnight. Put the marinated pork belly in a sauce pan and fill with water till water just covers the meat. Add 1 whole clove of garlic. You may add 1 small piece of rock sugar if you want the meat to be sweeter. The pork belly should be succulent and tender after 45mins to 1hr. Serve with steamed bun and add some lettuce to make it more refreshing.

Reminiscence 2006

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2006 has been a bountiful year, lots of travelling, interesting experiences and achievements; the most significant would be getting my Open Water Diver certification (finally).
I believe I hit a record high of travels :p
After doing my Open Water at Pulau Tioman, managed to squeeze in a few more dives at Pulau Tenggol (Kuala Trengganu) and Pulau Redang; brought my mum and mum-in-law to Cameron Highlands (haven't been there for at least 20 years); ventured to Beijing on a work-related trip; went on a shopping frenzy in Bangkok; made a couple of random trips to Bintan and more Malaysia; and the most memorable, paid tribute to my favourite city, Tokyo. And besides travelling, not to forget the spas, food and shopping! Will try to log in some of these.
That said, a remarkable year which I am thankful for. Certainly hope 2007 will just be as colourful!

2007... A New Beginning!

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After much conceptualising or should I say "procrastinating", I finally made up my mind to start my blog. I wanted to do it since sometime back, but as always I can't make up my mind about which blogware to use, whether to get my own web address, the design, layout, concept etc etc; moreover I was really busy with work and a lot of other stuff, yadda yadda yadda... Ha! Excuses!
Well, I decide my very first new year resolution for 2007 is to start my blog, something simple to begin. Dreamersloft is something like my personal reference or virtual 'scrapbook' to capture lifestyle desires and indulgence - food, vacations, spa, shopping...
In fact, I have a whole collection of photos over the past few years, shall attempt to re-collect the stories slowly. Looking forward to decorating and filling my 'Loft'. Make yourself at home :)