Spontaneous sightseeing in Odawara and watching Japanese football in an Irish pub

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If you told me that during one of my days travelling, I’d stumble across a strange place in between Hakone and Tokyo and, this being totally unplanned, would lead to one of the best days I’ve had in Japan so far, the organiser in me would have snorted. But alas, my friend and I found ourselves in this strange place called Odawara on a “travel” day (getting back from Hakone to Tokyo), decided to have a roam around and subsequently gatecrashed a festival filled with locals, saw a castle, and got drawn into a Japanese football game whilst eating some of the best pub food I have ever eaten. This is the story of the day that makes me smile the most out of all my “Tokyo days” (next posts will be on Kyoto). This was the day we discovered Odawara.

The morning started off really well- we were checking out of the Hokane Kowakien hotel and had some breakfast/brunch (a lot of days we’ve skipped this meal due to an early start or sheer tiredness). And this might sound really melodramatic, but being able to have toast with butter and strawberry jam was a total luxury for me (especially due to the struggle to find vegetarian food). And I caved into temptation and got an éclair. After my friend indulged in an overly cheesy pizza and we were both feeling nicely stuffed (again a contrast to the hunger pangs I’ve had at times in Japan), we walked to the local train station and hoped onto a train to Odawara, with the intention of heading straight back to Tokyo.

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We found Starbucks in Odawara with the intention of getting some wi-fi and looking up what we could do in this completely novel place. And we failed- there was no wi-fi in this branch. However, we soon stumbled across a map at Odawara station which listed some local attractions and my friend mentioned how the Soshu Odawara Castle rang a bell and maybe we should check it out? So we left the station and my initial first impression was… meh.

But then we walked on, and we found a brilliant bright orange building, an irish pub called Celts (my friend joked “we’re going there” and I laughed at the time), a café in a department store which served “safe” veggie food and finally, best of all, a gorgeous lake with a bridge leading across it and the sounds of people and music drifting from the archway on the other side of the bridge.

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A street in Odawara                                          The orange building brightening up our day

 

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The pub. More about that later 🙂

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Standing in front of the bridge leading to the people and noise…

Upon entering the archway, the dulcet sounds of a Japanese rock band met our ears. Heaps of local people were milling around-watching the band, eating, shopping and chatting to each other. Although we were obviously tourists, the people and ambience were incredibly friendly.

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Entering the festival                                           The Japanese rock band at the festival

My friend and I picked up a soda we had found at one of the festival stalls (the same kind of soda we had in Asakusa- see Tokyo Time Part 1 blog entry if interested) and meandered around the stalls which displayed an array of items including glass bottles (like cola bottles) shaped as vases and a number of kitchen items. Such items in particular were coveted by my friend, who said he would have brought them were he heading straight back to Hong Kong (our next country is instead South Korea).

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A gate belonging to Soshu Odawara castle in their garden/back entrance

It materialised that we had arrived at the Soshu Odawara castle through the back entrance. As we walked through the gardens, we came across these little fellas:

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Makes a change from Carp 🙂     

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 The pathway towards the main castle

We eventually came across the castle itself: a huge, cream coloured, Japanese style building.

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Soshu Odawara Castle- the first views you get

We paid 450 yen each for tickets around the castle and walked through a number of the levels. Exhibits were very interesting but photography was unfortunately prohibited in some places. We climbed the stairs right to the top of the castle and managed to get some pretty decent views of the Odawara area.

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Odawara from the top of Soshu Odawara Castle

By this point, we’d got hungry and because of how difficult finding vegetarian anything is in Japan, my friend suggested we head to the Irish pub. So, with expectations low (because I guess the patriot in me could not see how a Japanese Irish pub would be any better than a British or Irish pub) we headed to Celts.

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And yes, I was impressed. Very. I enjoyed the Japanese football in the background (although there were times where it was painful watching the teams play- very few goal attacks), I enjoyed my Gin & Tonic (there gets to a point where you don’t fancy Kirin beer) and most of all, we both loved our food. Who’d have thought chips covered in herb with a basil mayonnaise dipping sauce on the side would be such a comfort? Add to that some onion rings (for me) and deep fried mushrooms (my friend) and we both left the pub feeling very happy. The only slight downside is that you can smoke in pubs in Japan so, for me anyway, the passive smoking was not great. But it was a small price to pay for the friendliness and comfort food.

We headed back to Odawara station where were due to get the bullet train back to Tokyo (and yes, that impressed me too- less so my friend who had seen it before). Like the name suggests, watching the train travel past the station created a visual blur and the journey itself was rapid and pleasant.

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The bullet train in action

Having re-checked into where we were staying in Ikebukuro, we decided to go to Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop (veggie safe but with meat options according to Vegetarian app Happy Cow). This small restaurant (like a narrow shoebox) had two small tables squeezed into it, a kitchen and posters of glorious looking Taiwanese food. Also, the lady who owned it was amazing: super maternal and understanding. Anyone in Japan who beams upon hearing I’m vegetarian, checks whether I eat egg (I do) and comments on my smile  (bonus) is someone I become instantly grateful towards and fond of.

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The food board                                                                                My fixed meal

She brought out lovely Jasmine tea, made me a vegetarian fixed meal (650 yen) and my friend a standard fixed meal and we ate sticky rice, soy plum sauce, a red pepper, spring onion and egg dish and these amazing multi-coloured gyozas (filled with meat for my friend and vegetables for me). She refused to accept a tip and asked us to come back (which we did- the next day). It’s so lovely to meet people who genuinely take pride in seeing others enjoy their food (my travel companion- who is an excellent chef- also does this) and the meal itself provided the cherry on top of what was a really lovely day.

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Happiness 🙂

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Cheung Chau: sunshine, seafood and street stalls

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Today I woke up to bright sunshine in Hong Kong, which was fortunate since my friend decided it would be nice to visit Cheung Chau. Cheung Chau is a small Island 10 km southwest of Hong Kong Island and is a very popular destination for tourism, as well as being renowned for its street food stalls.

In order to get there, we got the train (MTR) from Tin Hau to Central, picking up some breakfast from a bakery on the way to Tin Hau station. I’m ashamed to say that I caved into temptation and got a coffee cake for breakfast, but I still feel that this was a better shout than the spam, cheese and tomato ketchup bun my friend decided to have!

Upon arriving at Central, we headed to the ferry terminal (terminal 5) and just before we got there, were greeted by some stunning views of the harbour.

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The view from Central, near the ferry terminal

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This made me smile

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Arrival at the Ferry terminal

I was somewhat apprehensive about the 35-minute ferry journey, having been prone to occasional bouts of motion sickness in the past. However, the water was very smooth and the journey to Cheung Chau seemed to fly by (no travel-related pun intended). The only slightly annoying point was that in the downstairs deck where we sat, the windows were quite murky so photos didn’t come out quite so well. Fortunately though, this was not the case on the ferry journey back 🙂

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My attempt at taking a photo from next to the window on the way to Cheung Chau

Upon approaching Cheung Chau, you witness beautiful sparkling water, with boats and fishing boats dotted across the harbour and a backdrop of stalls selling everything from jewellery and clothing to food stuff and bubble tea.

I think my favourite view, however, was when we were able to observe the boats from dry land:

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Walking along the harbour front was probably my first prolonged experience of the humid heat that my friend told me I would experience in Hong Kong. Whilst this occurs on the main island, many buildings, shops and restaurants have incredibly efficient air conditioning, meaning that sometimes you even find yourself reaching for your jacket! Nonetheless, the heat went hand in hand with the sun, which made all the colours of the harbour brighter and led me to make the urgent purchase of a pair of sunglasses (my original pair somehow broke in my backpack during my London to Hong Kong flight).

Alongside sunglasses, I found some over really nice gifts and was particularly impressed by a shop whereby you could select your own pearl from an oyster in a bucket of water. You then got to pick a pendant and watch the jeweller as she polished the pearl, drilled a hole into it (if necessary) and set it into the silver pendant (within whichever shape was picked). This is actually a gift for a friend I’ll be visiting soon, and I was also allowed to take a video of the pearl selection so have that to show her. But it does mean that I’ll have to block her from seeing this particular post on Facebook!

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Although the island has plenty of street food, and although my friend was desperate to try a twisty fried potato that was being sold on a street stall as well as mango filled buns, he decided to take me to the Rainbow Café along the harbour front for lunch. This was a good place to go because although Hong Kong caters very well for Vegetarians, fish is a fairly big deal on Cheung Chau and many restaurants serving Hong Kong food on the waterfront were using fish or fish sauce in their dishes. The Rainbow Café, however, was a contrast to this since it serves some Western dishes too (one of the rare occasions where I didn’t have some form of delicious Asian food). However, I couldn’t complain too much because part of me enjoyed returning to the home comfort of potato wedges and garlic bread (I’m not going to lie though, Dim Sum still wins). What was particularly lovely was being able to sit in an air conditioned café, which was light and cosy with little bear cushions and lots of written messages from past visitors, and sipping on an ice cold Lime Soda. Total bliss when wanting to take a brief break from the glorious sun.

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What’s more, the Rainbow Café has a service whereby you can pick however many postcards, write them and then pay for them to be delivered (including international delivery)- all whilst eating your food or enjoying your drink. So mum, dad and sis- postcards for you and the rest of the family should be there in a week 🙂

After lunch, we went back to roaming around the harbour front. As previously mentioned, there are lots of street food stalls (see the first picture below) and fresh or dried fish stalls (see picture two).

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 A street food stall                                                 One of many dried fish stalls

And just because this really impressed me:

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See the fruit in the white crotchet coats? That is to maintain quality and ensure that the fruit does not bruise.

Much of the rest of the time was spent chatting and enjoying the sun or taking pictures. Oh, but we did find these really cool steps by the ferry terminal on Cheung Chau:

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We only had to wait around fifteen minutes for the next ferry back to Hong Kong Island and the journey once again was relaxed and pleasant (cooler too since the windows were open this time). All in all, I’m very glad I got the chance to visit Cheung Chau- it was a beautiful place with a really friendly ambience.

I hope you’re enjoying these blogs so far! On Wednesday (or tomorrow since this is probably when I’ll post), I’m heading over to Tokyo so I hope to keep you informed. I am very excited for Japan, so if anyone has a heads up on what I should see there, let me know in the comments below.

Will blog again soon!

A day documented in snapshots: Hong Kong, day 2

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Bakeries and patisseries are rife in Hong Kong. Note to self: try an egg tart (bottom middle cake).

To be honest, I’d eat any of them!!!!

 

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A street in Fortress Hill.

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Advertising Halloween, Hong Kong Style, Laforet Shopping Centre (a less than conventional approach to advertising a scary holiday).

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My travel companion pandering to the awkward vegetarian

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Sichuan style noodle soup (dam dam mein), steamed vegetable dumplings, dipping sauce and at the front of the photo…

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Pan fried spinach buns (san jin bao). Despite initial scepticism (I thought nothing could beat noodles), these are unbelievably delicious and just a bit addictive!

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From Central to Causeway, politics permeating.

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Most efficient metro system? My travel companion wanted me to say “simplicity and efficiency absent from London underground”. Which might be true, but nothing beats the Metropolitan line (childhood bias).

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Hong Kong mini-bus

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First scenic (ish) shot of Hong Kong. The harbour in the background, skyscrapers in the foreground.

Thanks to “no name travel companion” for making the cheesiest caption suggestions ever (and since I lack that level of wit, I had to reject them or my envy would overwhelm me).

Hope you enjoyed this slightly different (to my usual essays) blog post!

From UK to HK: my food thoughts, first Cathay Pacific experience and initial impressions of Hong Kong

Hot Almond and Black Sesame Soup?

Black glutinous rice and wheat congee in coconut milk?

Yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, but less than 24 hours into my arrival in Hong Kong and already I’m having a bit of a love affair with the food. The above soups are two traditional desserts which I’m told are popular with the locals in Hong Kong and which I got to sample as a late afternoon snack at Ching Ching Desserts, a dessert restaurant in North Point. Picking a sweet when a) the concept of having a soup for dessert is unfamiliar and b) the menu is full of glorious pages of colourful and varied concoctions definitely led to some feelings of confusion (although this also may have been a result of jet lag). But eventually, having just sat down after being caught in an unexpected bout of rain (and in spite of the heat and humidity), I chose the hot almond and black sesame soup, while everyone else went for black glutinous rice and wheat congee in coconut milk. My travel companion and his mum told me that if you take a traditional Chinese approach to medicine, almonds are good for the skin and thought to “nourish internally” whilst black sesame (which I had never tried before) is supposed to be beneficial to the kidneys, regulating many bodily functions. In addition, the soup was really nice- rich with a creamy texture and akin to the kind of sweet, warm drink you sometimes want to enjoy before going to sleep. As someone who is not a big fan of rice pudding, I was also pleasantly surprised by the black glutinous rice and wheat congee. I think the word “glutinous” made me reluctant about the dish but the texture was similar to porridge and the coconut milk base made it very tasty! The restaurant itself was small, casual and brightly lit, as well as being not too busy.

I also really enjoyed the dinner that my friend’s mum made, lettuce wraps filled with peppers and beancurd with a small bowl of sticky rice. The first snack food I’ve tried in Hong Kong (mango covered biscuit sticks), are also incredibly moreish and so far, I’m finding food to be very light. This means that you can eat something full on flavour without feeling as though you are caressing your very own food baby 🙂

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Almond and black sesame soup                             The outside of the dessert restaurant

Flying with Cathay Pacific

The past 24 hours have been very eventful, mainly because they consisted of a last minute panic regarding packing, saying bye to my parents and sister at Heathrow, an 11 hour flight between London and Hong Kong and submitting a china visa application in Hong Kong.

But the flight itself was a particularly interesting experience. As a girl who has travelled (at most) maybe 4 and a half hours in an aeroplane before now, I figured the flight might be challenging for me. However, I cannot condemn Cathay Pacific. Although I struggled to face my greasy hash brown and omelette breakfast after 8 hours (at that point) on a plane, the staff were helpful, the earlier dinner was was edible, the plane was nice and the woman at the check-in desk was amazing and gave me a better seat than what I had originally been allocated (still economy but with more leg room). So thank you to that lovely member of staff!

On the flight itself, I was lucky as I had another passenger next to me who was very nice, and who I ended up chatting with. And after 4 hours in the air went fairly quickly, I didn’t know why I had worried about being on the aeroplane for so long. However an hour later, I found myself inadvertently adopting a new persona. Picture Tigger from Winnie the Pooh on a long-haul flight and you’re not far off! Because, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about knowing you have to sit for such a long time (even if you do stretch your legs) which makes you want to be doing anything but sitting still. I also had a massive struggle with sleep, which I think was because I could not trick my body into believing that it was in a natural sleep-like horizontal position (as you normally are in a bed or in a sleeping bag). I’ve discovered in the past that I can’t sleep in cars or on trains, and I can now add to that as I couldn’t sleep at all on an 11 hour flight! However, feeling sick with tiredness couldn’t numb how excited I felt when I first spotted the islands of Hong Kong and their skyscrapers from the sky. And whilst I really struggled with jet lag during the late afternoon, taking a nap and having some food helped me feel more human again.

Initial impressions of Hong Kong

This is a tough one because as previously mentioned, tiredness and jet lag have definitely been affecting me today. Also, I’ve not done too much exploring yet! But on first impressions, so far so good.The places I’ve seen have a brilliant buzz, the metro system is efficient and shop and café fronts are so much more colourful than what I am used to back in the UK. Although I have caught sight of a few protesters from a distance, this isn’t really something I wanted to focus on as my blog across all counties is intended to be from a tourist’s perspective surrounding food and attractions. I make this point just because I know a few people might have stumbled across my blog post under the category or tag “Hong Kong” and expect to see a minute-by-minute account of what’s happening politically. Nonetheless, I hope you found some interest in what I had to say 🙂

Thanks for reading!