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Friday, September 9, 2016

8 Uniquely Awesome Things To Do In Japan!

Konichiwa, minna-san!

You've probably read a few of my Japan travelogues:  I am a lover of Japan and all things Japanese. From the food to the culture, to the beautiful sights and sounds, Japan is a country that I never get tired of. I've now been to Japan five times, and yet I constantly dream about the next trip back. 

Every visit to Japan brings me new experiences and discoveries, and this time round, I'm going to share with you - the top 8 unique and fun things to do the next time you visit Japan! I experienced lots of firsts on this trip, which was a breath of fresh air and gave me the opportunity to discover a lot more of Japan's rich agriculture and traditions. Let's go!!

8 Uniquely Awesome Things To Do In Japan!
Japan travel blog 2016

1. Taste Local Seasonal Japanese Produce in Chiba!
The Japanese are famous for their local produce. You may have seen these fruits selling at our Singapore Isetan supermarkets for mind-boggling prices: I'm telling you that you need to try them freshly picked from the farms to understand what the hype is about!

A visit to Tomisato-shi Farmer's Market in Chiba Prefecture yielded us these freshly picked Japanese watermelons! They are locally grown, super sweet, super juicy, and super crisp suica (watermelon) newly procured from the plant in the morning! These watermelons are grown in very limited quantity and are 100% for local consumption. They don't get exported anywhere else in the world!

Japan travel blog 2016
You know how serious the Japanese are about everything they do. It seems that even watermelon farming is no exception! Each watermelon comes with its own QR Code to identify which farm it came from so that buyers can be informed of every watermelon's place of origin and even know which farmer grew it.

The watermelon was so fresh and crunchy!

I was deeply amused to know that there's a watermelon mascot for the province of Chiba, it's such a quintessentially Japanese thing to have!

We visited the local fruit and vegetable shops: They sell only the freshest local produce that you won't be able to find anywhere else in the world.

These rockmelons were so huge and looked superb!

Japan travel blog 2016
I couldn't resist buying a bunch of my favourite Kyoho grapes; they were delicious! You must try Kyoho grapes if you visit Japan during August-September. That's when they come into season and are abundant and plentiful! Kyoho grapes are nearly twice the price in Singapore as compared to Japan, so don't miss out on them when you visit Japan.

Top from Zara // Culottes from Uniqlo // Shoes from Castaner

2. Learn How To Make Futomaki Sushi
Making sushi is an art. Even more so when it comes to futomaki matsuri-zushi, a particular kind of sushi unique to Chiba Prefecture!

This art of rolling sushi has been passed down for many decades and is enjoyed at special occasions such as weddings, celebration of child birth and funerals among families and communities within the Chiba region.

The special thing about Futomaki sushi is that it's not just a sushi roll, but also a work of art! Futomaki sushi can be made with different motifs, from Sakura flowers to even cartoon pandas and other more complicated patterns!

Our sensei did a demonstration on how to create this beautiful work of art before we attempted it on our own. It was amazing how layer upon layer of sushi rice, nori and other ingredients miraculously formed into a charming motif contained within a tamago-yaki (Japanese egg omelette) roll!

Look at the many different variations: I especially love that Sakura tree futomaki sushi!

Japan-ABC-Cooking-Studio-2016-30Here goes nothing! With guidance from our sensei, even a beginner like myself managed to create a decent-looking futomaki sushi successfully, HAHA.

This was my first time making sushi, and it required some deft hands and careful rolling! Practice makes perfect.

Jiehui, Juli, our cute sensei and I with our completed futomaki sushi rolls! My favourite part was slicing the futomaki apart to reveal the artwork you created within. It was a proud moment!

We were famished by the time we managed to complete our futomaki rolls, and were delighted to tuck into our own handiwork. These tasted as delicious as they looked!

3. Train like a Samurai and make Japanese Ujyou-toothpicks
Japan travel blog guide 2016
Have you ever given any thought to how Japanese wooden toothpicks (also known as kushi/skewers) are made? I've always regarded these wooden toothpicks as mass-produced products and never thought twice about them. It turns out that there are still existing skilled craftsmen in the Land of the Rising Sun who painstakingly make these wooden skewers one by one!

When I first saw this activity on my itinerary, I wasn't much impressed, to be honest. Toothpick making? Sounded like it was going to be lame, boring and dry.

We stepped into a tiny space after making our way through a small, dark alley way, then got settled down in front of wooden stumps and little green wood stems. It was with much reluctance that I finally picked up the knife that lay in front of me, and half-heartedly started whittling away at my first toothpick.

It was SO difficult!

That straightforward and unassuming toothpick that looked so easy to create was giving me a nightmare. When I exerted too much pressure, my knife got stuck in the wood. When I exerted too little pressure, I ended up slicing slivers of wood shavings off to no effect. When I pushed at the wrong angle, I ended up carving an entire chunk off.

I was close to giving up when our toothpick-making samurai sensei sat down with me and patiently showed me how he used sure and steady strokes to quickly turn a piece of wood into a tapered, rectangular toothpick seemingly effortlessly.

Despite the language barrier, I could see how sincere Sensei was in imparting his wood-cutting techniques. Although I didn't understand most of what he was trying to say, I decided not to give up and attempted repeatedly to make a better-shaped wooden skewer each time.

"铁棒磨成针" is a Chinese idiom that literally translates to "grinding an iron bar into a needle', and the act of creating a bamboo skewer from scratch gave me an insight into how this idiom came about. Perseverance and dedication are key to succeeding!

Strangely enough, our session ended faster than I wanted it to, despite my initial disinterest in this activity. Look at my above efforts, and how I managed to progress from a roughly-hewn and misshapen wooden piece to a more refined and beautiful end product!

This was truly a test of my patience and concentration. It was extremely frustrating at first, but I found myself enjoying the intense concentration it took to carve each and every piece as I slowly got the hang of it.
Japan travel blog 2016
Of course, the wooden toothpick that we attempted is the most basic version; these are some of the more elaborate handmade wooden skewers used for special occasions like traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and meals.

Did you know that the making of Ujyou-toothpicks was part of the training of a Samurai? This act not just trained their sword skills, but also honed their mental strength, patience and concentration. It was such an eye-opener for me, and I have a newfound respect for these samurai masters!

4. Go Naked In A Japanese Hotspring Onsen
Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki
For the uninitiated, baring it all in a Japanese onsen is the first step to living it up like a Japanese local. The Japanese don't bat an eye to nudity in the onsens (hot spring baths) and it's as natural to them as the act of breathing.

Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki
We checked into the lovely Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki, a resort popular for its huge hot spring onsens! It has indoor pools, outdoor pools, sand baths, and even a famous "golden bath" with a tub made entirely out of gold!

Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki
Our Japanese-style ryokan room at Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki was cosy and homely, with a sea view through those windows.

Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki
It wasn't my first time in an onsen, but of course it was still slightly awkward with my fellow blogger friends.. Haha!

Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki
Nonetheless, we were game for it and changed into our yukatas (bath robes) and headed to the onsen! Most onsens are separated with gender-specific areas for males and females, so there is nothing to be shy about. You'll see Japanese ladies of all ages, shapes and sizes, walking around without a care about being naked at all!

Found this photo of Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki from Google!

Obviously, I wasn't allowed to bring my camera into the hot spring area, so I'll leave you to imagine what it looks like, somewhat like the above, except that everyone was fully nekkid without a single article of clothing on them.

We were a little shy initially, but it felt completely natural to be naked in the hot springs once the awkwardness wore off. Juli, Jiehui and I spent close to an hour soaking in the relaxing hot spring water before dinner time, and it felt really good!

I found the experience more liberating than anything else, and fully enjoyed the soothing hot spring waters that left me feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and clean! Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content, too. Although I can't attest to those magical healing properties, I did feel that my skin was softer, silkier and smoother after my time in the onsen! I was marvelling at how many of the Japanese ladies that I observed in the onsen had smooth and youthful skin, even the older obasan.

Some etiquette practices to take note of: Guests are expected to wash their bodies and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water, as it is considered unclean otherwise!

Apart from their huge and elaborate onsens, Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki also had a huge and extensive buffet restaurant where we enjoyed a decadent spread of everything from sushi to steamed crabs and tempura!

Dinner with the ladies after onsen-soaking. What a lovely time!

5. Go Blueberry-Harvesting On A Blueberry Farm
Simply tasting fresh Japanese produce is not enough for you? Go one step further: Pick your own blueberries straight off the tree and pop them right in your mouth, you can't get any fresher than that!

At Yokohama Asahi Blueberry Forest, over 1000 blueberry bushes are cultivated organically, free of pesticides. We were allowed to roam freely through the blueberry trees to pick as many blueberries as could fit in the huge box we were given, and to taste them along the way.

Japan travel blog 2016
My fellow farmers, why so chio one?

I've always liked blueberries, but I was blown away by how naturally delectable these freshly-picked blueberries tasted. They were so huge and sweet, with no tartness at all! That dusty white bloom you see on these blueberries is actually a sign of freshness, the more powdery they look, the fresher they are.

We ate them straight off the blueberry bushes as we looked for the biggest and plumpest ones to pick for ourselves!

Eyelet Crochet Maxi Sundress Dress from TheVelvetDolls // Sandals from Charles & Keith // Bucket bag from Bimba Y Lola

Those pink ones looked so cute! I didn't know that blueberries started out as little green buds that then turn pink, and finally a dusty blue that indicates its ripeness!

I was very pleased with my blueberry harvest at Yokohama Asahi Blueberry Forest!

After our enjoyable time in the blueberry forests, we then proceed to the little cafe area for some fresh-baked blueberry muffins and a blueberry smoothie that was so refreshing and yummy!

The first taste of blueberry muffin was unforgettable, fresh ingredients truly make all the difference! My blueberry smoothie tasted so naturally sweet without any artificial flavouring added to it.

Fresh blueberry ice cream was also made for us, on-the-spot! Here's the recipe if you want to try it at home:

[ Blueberry Ice Cream Recipe ]

300g frozen blueberries
30g sugar
200ml heavy cream

Mix all ingredients in a food processor and blend until creamy consistency, it's that simple!

Yokohama Asahi Blueberry Forest was one of my most enjoyable experiences in Japan and I'm hoping that the next time I return to Japan, I'll be able to visit a grape farm and harvest some grapes!

6. Experience Traditional Nagashi Bamboo Flowing Somen
Nagashi Flowing Somen is a fun and delicious way to enjoy chilled somen, and is especially popular in the heat of Japanese summer.

We were very privileged to have a local community of Yokohama residents get together to prepare Nagashi Flowing Somen for us!

Somen is put in water flowing along a long bamboo gutter, as guests stand along the bamboo gutter to catch the noodles with their chopsticks.

The somen can plummet down the bamboo gutter rather quickly, so it took some nimbleness to successfully catch hold of the noodles!

It was so fun that I ended up catching more somen than I could comfortably stomach, lol! Along with the somen, little cherry tomatoes were also released down the bamboo gutter to go with the somen, and those definitely required a little more finesse to catch.

The somen tasted especially good in the hot and humid afternoon, and I thoroughly enjoyed slurping up my somen!

Our lunch spread prepared by the lovely Japanese ladies also included onigiri (rice balls), fresh corn, pumpkin and fruits. It was such a wholesome and tasty lunch!

It was wonderful to be able to experience the traditional Japanese culture of Nagashi Flowing Somen, as well as marvel at the beautiful bamboo forests where we were at!

7. Visit A Japanese Dairy Farm For Fresh Soft-Serve Ice Cream
Another way to beat the Japanese heat is to relish a sweet and cold creamy treat: Augusta Milk Farm in Yokohama makes its ice cream fresh daily from their very own cows right on the farm!

You get to visit the cows on the ranch and even feed them some hay should you wish to! They also have a resident goat, and some adorable kitties as well. Too cute!

Pick from a variety of flavours, from matcha (green tea) to goma (black sesame) for your soft serve sundae!

My goma ice cream soft serve was an absolute treat with its creamy texture and rich flavour!

8. Enjoy Dinner With A View On A Traditional Japanese Houseboat
To end off a fruitful (pun totally intended) day in Japan, have a meal in style on a traditional Yakatabune Japanese houseboat dinner!

A houseboat dinner party is a unique and special way to enjoy Japanese cuisine while admiring a gorgeous sea view at the same time!

During a traditional houseboat dinner, fresh seafood caught in the morning is cooked and served on board, while freshly-fried tempura dish is served one by one.

Japan travel blog 2016
The freshly-cooked tempura was especially memorable. We wolfed down course after course of tempura that tasted so good piping fresh and hot! Our tempura didn't even get a chance to cool down before the entire plateful was snatched up by us and went straight into our tummies.

Kampaiiii (Cheers)!

We had a magnificent view of Yokohama Bay as our houseboat cruised along the bay whilst we ate. Dinner ended with a rowdy and unrestrained session of karaoke -- Yes, there was a karaoke system onboard! Our boat captain belted out his best Japanese numbers and there were even English and Mandarin songs for us too! T'was truly an unforgettable night.

9. Master The Art of Japanese Cooking at ABC Cooking Studio
Last on my list but most definitely not the least, we got hands-on with the art of Japanese cuisine at ABC Cooking Studio at Tokyo Midtown!

Our class at ABC Cooking Studio covered two well-known Japanese dishes: Teriyaki Chicken and Uramaki (Inside-out) Sushi!

I'd be the first to admit that I'm not much of a cook. In fact, the only thing that I can pride myself on "cooking" is a good bowl of instant noodles, oops!

Thanks to the easy-to-follow instructions and guidance from our ABC Cooking Studio instructor (who spoke fluent English!), I somehow managed to make my own Uramaki and Teriyaki Chicken, a feat for an unaccomplished chef like me!

Japan travel blog 2016
Looking good, there!

Japan travel blog 2016
Adding the final touch to our Uramaki sushi with fish roe garnishing!

Achievement unlocked! Can't believe I managed to whip up this pretty decent-looking feast, all thanks to ABC Cooking Studio's easy-to-follow lesson!

I was pleasantly surprised at how I was able to whip up this meal, looks like all it takes to cook a good meal is a great teacher and lots of heart and soul! Cooking isn't as daunting and scary as I once thought it would be!

Food tastes especially good when you successfully make it yourself! Yay!

Feeling like a proud mama with my masterpiece in hand! I really enjoyed the cooking class at ABC Cooking Studio :D

Why I listed this as a bonus point is because even if you're not travelling to Japan any time soon, I've got great news for you! ABC Cooking Studio is right here in Singapore too! After experiencing my first cooking lesson at Tokyo Midtown, I'm inspired to take up a course in Singapore as well, I might very well be the next Master Chef Singapore, who knows? Hehehe.

At ABC Cooking Studio Singapore, you can take up cooking, bread, cake and wagashi lessons that allows you to experience the joy of cooking in a comfortable and relaxed environment. I love the variety of courses offered, each and every one looks so enticing and interesting!

ABC Cooking Studio Singapore
391A Orchard Road 
Takashimaya S.C.

Tel: (65) 6694 6259 (65) 6694 6104
Business Hours: 10AM - 10PM

Be back for more next time, Japan! 

This trip was made possible thanks to ABC Cooking Studio. Most of the activities were organised by NTour Japan, so check out their website or contact them if you're keen on any of the above activities!  (Special mention to our guide Vivian from NTour Japan for being so knowledgeable and wonderful, as well as Sun Sun from EU Holidays Singapore for taking care of us!)

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! For more of my Japan travelogues, check out these posts as well!

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© Yina Goes

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