My name is Lisa and I'm a crafty girl with wanderlust working as an engineer by day. My blog chronicles projects in my home as well as pictures and stories from my travels.




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Entries in Asia (165)


Sake Tasting by Vending Machine in Niigata at Ponshukan

At the end of August I was back in Japan for a business trip. At the end of a long work week I was looking forward to a fun weekend of sightseeing before heading home Sunday afternoon.

I wanted to visit Sado Island on Saturday so I planned to stay in the city of Niigata (新潟) on Friday night to be able to grab the first ferry to the island in the morning. After arriving in Niigata and checking into my hotel I decided to venture out a bit since the night was still young. In doing a little research on Niigata I had read about Ponshukan (ぽんしゅ館), which offered sake tasting. Niigata prefecture is famous for its rice and sake so it seemed like a great way to enjoy the evening.

In Japan there is a vending machine for just about everything so I wasn't too surprised to learn upon arriving that the sake tasting was done by vending machine. For ¥500 (about 4 USD) I got five tokens and a little tasting cup with each tasting costing one token. 

After paying my money and receiving my sake cup and tokens I was ready to start but with over a hundred types of sake from Niigata prefecture to choose from it was hard to know where to begin. Each sake had a number assigned to it for easy identification. After walking around a bit I randomly decided to try number 50 (越後長岡藩, Echigo Nagaoka-han).

Pouring the sake was quite easy. First you place the cup so that it sits in the hole in the metal grate. After you deposit your gold token you press and hold the yellow button until the sake finishes pouring.

After my first tasting I noticed two huge chalkboards off to the side. The left side had staff recommendations and the right side had the top ten rankings from the previous month. I decided that this might be a better guide for my tasting and decided to try the top three ranked sakes, number 25 (越後鶴亀 Echigo Tsurukame), 103(地上の星, Chijonohoshi) and 55 (越の寒中梅, Koshi no Kanchubai).  For my last sake tasting I skiped the fourth ranking sake and tried the fifth, number 92, purely because it was called Cowboy and I couldn't resist the name.

One of the neatest things about Ponshukan was that each sake vending station had a tiny purple map of Niigata prefecture on its label with a red star showing the location of the sake brewery. If the sake was a staff selection or one of the top ranked it also had a white label by it. I also thought it was cool that they had a large map of Niigata prefecture on one of the walls with all of the types of sake shown by location so that if you wanted to try something from a particular region you could identify it.

After I finished my sake tasting I wandered around the store. There was a huge selection of sake that you could purchase so I picked up a bottle of my favorite from the tasting, Echigo Tsurukame, to bring home. It was only ¥1296 (less than 11 USD) so I couldn't resist.

In addition to sake, the Ponshukan was full of foodstuffs made in Niigata Prefecture. They had a bunch of soy sauces that you could try and I ended up loving and buying a bottle of garlic soy sauce for ¥540 (about 4.50 USD) that was fantastic.

Tucked in the back were some fun t-shirts. There was a black one with a map of Niigata prefecture made out of white silhouettes of famous foods from Niigata that was just too awesome for me not to buy.

I had a great time sake tasting at Ponshukan plus I was able to bring home some fun souvenirs. It is a good half hour stop when traveling in Niigata City and I recommend it especially if you are a sake or food lover.

Ponshukan is located on the third floor of the CoCoLo Niigata West building which is just southwest of the Niigata train station. At the time of this writing the store is open from 9:00-21:00, however the sake tasting is only available from 9:30-20:30.


A Winter Morning in Karuizawa (軽井沢)  

On a recent trip to Japan at the end of February I decided I wanted to visit the famous hot springs town Kusatsu Onsen on the weekend. After I finished work on Friday evening I took the train to Karuizawa (軽井沢) to spend the night since it was too late to continue on to Kusatsu Onsen that evening. As long as I was in Karuizawa I decided to do a little exploring the next morning before catching my bus to Kusatsu Onsen.

Karuizawa is known for being a tranquil place in the mountains to escape the summer heat in Japan and it seemed to be fairly quiet in the winter while I was there. As I set out walking in the morning it was really lovely strolling along the tree lined streets with remnants of a recent snow fall.

My first stop was Kumoba Pond (雲場池), which is known for its beautiful views in the autumn reflecting the colored leaves on the still water. The name Kumoba means "Cloud Place" and refers to the frequent mists that linger over the pond but while I was there the sky was bright and clear. 

As lovely as the pond was, I found the little stream that ran beside the pond to be even more enchanting with its moss lined banks dusted with snow.

From Kumoba Pond I headed through more tree lined streets toward Kyu-Karuizawa (旧軽井沢), the old part of town. The main street through the area, Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza (旧軽井沢銀座), was fairly deserted with most shops indicating an eleven am opening time but I could imagine quite a bustling scene in the summer.

I turned off Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza to visit St. Paul's Catholic Church (聖パウロカトリック教会). Built in 1935 the rustic wood church was designed by Czech-American architect, Antonin Raymond, who had also designed a summer house for himself in Karuizawa a few years prior.

I returned back to Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza and stopped for breakfast at French Bakery (フランスベーカリー). John Lennon used to frequent the bakery when he and Yoko Ono stayed in Karuizawa and the bakery proudly displays a poster of him with their baguettes. As is typical in a bakery in Japan you pick up a tray and tongs as you enter and use the tongs to select the baked goods you would like to buy. I ate an edamame and cheese bun which I don't think is very French but was very delicious. I also couldn't resist buying an apple pastry and a bacon and cheese bun to take with me for later.

Continuing up Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza out into the countryside there was a monument to the famous poet Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) erected in 1843. It displays a haiku that Basho wrote while in the Karuizawa area that reads "馬をさへながむる雪のあした哉". Through looking at a few sources I found that while literally it means something like "even a horse gazing out on a morning of snow" the haiku conveys that on a snowy morning even a horse appears elegant.

I continued along a little farther up the road to the Alexander Croft Shaw House and Memorial Chapel. Shaw was a Canadian Angliclan minister who founded St. Andrew's Church in Tokyo. He has been credited with popularizing Karuizawa as a summer resort when he visited in 1886 and subsequently built a summer home in 1888. Although the buildings were closed when I visited I enjoyed wandering around outside in the lovely setting among the forest.

From Alexander Croft Shaw House and Memorial Chapel I headed back to my hotel to pick up my luggage. My route back took me along a pretty little creek and I couldn't resist taking a few last pictures while I was in Karuizawa.

While Karuizawa was definitely sleepy on my winter morning visit it was a lovely place to walk around for a few hours and I'm glad I had a chance to make the short stop.

Karuizawa Train Station is conveniently located on the Nagano Shinkansen line and takes about 70-80 minutes from Tokyo depending on which Asama train you take. Kumoba Pond is about a 20 minute walk northwest of the the station and Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza is about a 25 minute walk north of the station.


Up and Over Mt. Rokko

In September when I was in Japan I spent a relaxing Saturday at Arima Onsen after a long work week. When evening came I needed to head back to Nagoya since I was flying home from Centrair the next day. Arima Onsen lies north of Kobe on the other side of Mt. Rokko giving me two options to get to Kobe where I needed to catch the Shinkansen back to Nagoya. I could go back the way I had come which was by a train line that went west around Mt. Rokko. The second option was to go up and over Mt. Rokko by cablecar which is what is what I decided to do.

I walked up to Arima Onsen Station (有馬温泉駅) and purchased a Rokko - Arima one-way ticket (六甲・有馬片道乗車券). The ticket includes one way on the Rokko Arima Ropeway (六甲有馬ロープウェー), on and off riding the Rokko Mountaintop Bus (六甲山上バス) and one way on the Rokko Cable (六甲ケーブル). The station was pretty desolate and only one other person boarded the aerial tramcar with me. The views as we rose up the mountain were fantastic but due to the speed we were moving the few pictures that I tried to take all turned out super blurry.

We rose from 433m above sea level to 880m, arriving at Rokko Sancho Station (六甲山頂駅) twelve minutes later.

From the station it was a short walk to the Rokko Garden Terrace (六甲ガーデンテラス) with shops and restaurants. I was intrigued by the beautifully illuminated Rokko-Shidare Observatory (自然体感展望台 六甲枝垂れ) and headed toward it.

The structure was designed by architect Hiroshi Sambuichi almost entirely from hinoki wood. In the winter the lattice structure attracts frost and in the summer ice that was collected in the winter cools down a seating area inside. It was quite beautiful to walk around inside and admire the architecture as well as the view.

While I was visiting an art installation called Rokko Meets Art was taking place on the mountain top. At various places different pieces of artwork were on display and you could walk around to see them. My favorite was Cosmic Seed by Kazumasa Taniguchi (谷口 和正) which was located inside the base of the thermal chimney of Rokko-Shidare Observatory. A metal egg shell frame was composed of words and illumated from inside casting out blurred shadows of the words. Upon looking at the sculpture up close I noticed that there were tiny birds nestled among the letters. The whole effect was really beautiful and serene.

Walking back out of the thermal chimney I took in some more of the lovely views over Kobe and Osaka Bay.

It was getting late and so I thought it was time to start heading on. I walked to the bus stop where there was quite a line waiting. When it arrived I managed to squeeze on since I didn't want to wait for the next bus. Luckily the ride only lasted fifteen minutes since I was not terribly comfortable standing up wedged in between the door and a bunch of tightly packed people.

When I got off the bus at Rokko Cable Sanjo Station (六甲ケーブル山上駅) I thought I would stop for a few last glimpses of Kobe from the mountaintop before taking the cable car down. It was a beautiful, clear night and I couldn't have asked for better weather to enjoy the view.

I headed into the station, boarded a cable car and ten minutes later I arrived at the base of the mountain at Rokko Cable Shita Station (六甲ケーブル下駅).

The view from the top of Mt. Rokko is said to be one of the best night views in Japan and I would have to agree that it was gorgeous. Although going over the mountain instead of around it took longer and was more expensive it was definitely worth it.


Nagoya Oktoberfest (名古屋オクトーバーフェスト)

When I was in Japan last week my trip would not have been complete without an evening at Nagoya Oktoberfest. I know that you are likely thinking 'German beer in Nagoya?' 'Oktoberfest in July?' but honestly it is a really fun time and a great place to hang out and relax with friends.

Nagoya Oktoberfest began in July 2011 and my first time going was in 2012. The pictures in this post are a combination from that summer as well as this one. Stretching over two plazas in Nagoya in Sakae, Oktoberfest consists of huge tents filled with picnic tables ringed by German beer and food stalls and a stage for some German entertainment.

First off, I have to say that I love the logo. Oktoberfest in Japanese is "オクトーバーフェスト" and they turned the "ーバー" into two hands clinking beer mugs. Very cute and very Japanese!

If you are at Oktoberfest you can get wine or soda if you would like, but why would you when there are over 40 German beers available from 10 different breweries. All the beer is served in glassware individual to the brewery. To get a beer you pay for the beer plus a ¥1,000 (about $10 USD) deposit for your glass. If you go back to that same brewery's stall for another beer they will swap out your glass and you just pay for the beer. At the end you return your glass and get your deposit back. The tricky part is that you have to return the glass to the correct brewery stall since each one has different glasses. It's not a big deal but wise to make a note of before you start drinking.

In addition to beer there is a wide variety of wurst, sauerkraut and other German food that you can enjoy. I did also see among other things available edamame and churros, which I thought would make for quite an interesting pairing with wurst.

At the far end of the plaza, a stage is set up with dancing and music that is fun to watch and enjoy made up of both German and Japanese performers. You haven't seen anything until you've watched a Japanese guy dancing in lederhosen.

Both summers that I went to Nagoya Oktoberfest I had a great time catching up with friends who still lived in Japan as well as other friends who happened to be back in Japan at the same time as me. With the laid back atmosphere and German beer you can't go wrong on a summer evening in Nagoya.

Nagoya Oktoberfest is held in Nagoya at Hisaya Odori Koen Hisaya Plaza (久屋大通公園久屋広場) and Angel Plaza (エンゼル広場) which you can access by a short walk from either the Sakae Subway Station on the Higashiyama Line or the Yabacho Subway Station on the Meijo Line. Oktoberfest lasts for two and half weeks in the middle of July, open from 11:00-21:00 on Saturday and Sunday and 15:00 - 21:00 on weekdays. This information was accurate at the time of writing, but please confirm prior to visiting in case time or location has changed.


Kehi no Matsubara (気比の松原) 

This past week I've been in Japan on a work trip. I'm actually writing this at the airport about to head back to the states. Although I had a lot of long work days, I did squeeze in a bunch of fun over the past weekend. One of those things was visiting Kehi no Matsubara (気比の松原) in Fukui Prefecture on Saturday morning.

I took the train to Tsuruga and then walked about 40 minutes to get to Kehi no Matsubara. Along the way I passed though a cute small shrine, Matsubara Jinja (松原神社),  nestled among some pine trees.

Approaching Kehi no Matsubara I walked through the lovely pine grove on the way to the water.

It was blistering hot outside so most of the Japanese visitors were enjoying the view from the shade of the trees or in pop-up beach tents.

The view was really spectacular with the pine grove along the water. Over 17,000 trees line the shore on Tsuruga Bay.

I walked down to the water to put my feet in. Honestly, it was not the most fun beach to walk on since it was very coarse pebbles instead of sand. I did think it was pretty neat that just a week and a half earlier I was walking in the surf on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.

The extreme heat was getting to me (it was about 90 degress and very humid) so I walked around in the shade of the pine grove for a little bit and then decided to take a taxi back to the station.

If you find yourself in Fukui, I think that Kehi no Matsubara is worth a stop for the view, but due to the rocky beach maybe not the best spot for a beach day and swimming.

To get to Kehi no Matsubara you can take a bus to Matsuba-cho from JR Tsuruga train station and get off at Kehi no Matsubara stop. I walked from Tsuruga station and taxied back which is also an option.


10 Pictures From Halong Bay in July 2013

When I was visiting Vietnam two years ago I spent a few days in Hanoi. My time was limited but I squeezed in a day trip to beautiful Halong Bay. A bus picked me up a little after eight in the morning and three hours later we were at Bay Chai Wharf.

As we pulled out on the boat I was a bit bummed that it was a miserable rainy morning but in the hour that it took to get out to the islands the weather cleared a lot.

Our first stop was a small floating fishing village nestled in the water below towering limestone cliffs. It looked straight out of a picture book.

Floating Fishing Village in Halong Bay

As we got closer to the village we could see several traditional bamboo boats filled with produce for sale.

When the boat docked we had the option of renting a kayak or hiring someone to take us out to Luon Cave in a bamboo boat. I was traveling alone and was in the mood to relax so I chose to go out in a bamboo boat.

Me on Bamboo Boat on Halong Bay

Luon cave has a height of only 2.5 to 4 meters depending on the tidal level which necessitates using a small boat to see it. In the bottom right of the photo below you can see the entrance at the bottom of the cliffs.

Entrance to Luon Cave Through Limestone Mountains in Halong Bay

Approaching the cave it was much bigger than it first appeared at 4 meters wide and 60 long. It was so peaceful paddling through and listening to the soft echoes of the lapping water.

Paddling Through Luon Cave

Passing through Luon Cave was a lake enclosed by limestone mountains. The water was a beautiful emerald green and combined with the beautiful cliffs it was truly idyllic.

Woman Rowing Bamboo Boat on Lake Beyond Luon Cave

All too soon I was back at the dock and then back on board the boat setting off for other spots in Halong Bay.

Boat Among Limestone Cliffs in Halong Bay

We sailed past Ga Choi Islet (or Trong Mai Islet), the two white rocks in the bottom left in the picture below. The rocks take their name, either fighting cocks or kissing cocks, based on the fact that at a certain angle the two rocks look like birds leaning in to touch beaks.

Ga Choi Island (Fighting Cock Island) in Halong Bay

We next docked to visit Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Cave). After a bit of a climb we entered an amazing cave complex illuminated with different colored lights. My favorite part was a spot where there was an opening in the cave roof allowing natural sunlight to stream in.

Sunlight Streaming Through Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Cave)

From Thien Cung we headed back to Bai Chai Wharf arriving at dusk. It had been a lovely day and my only regret is that I didn't have more time to explore the islands of Halong Bay.

Boats docked at Bai Chay Wharf at Dusk



The image of gold clad Kinkaku-ji reflected in the waters of Kyoko-chi is one of the most recognizable in Japan so I thought it would be a great place to take my friend from work, Cassie, on her first trip to Japan while we were in Kyoto a month ago. I actually visited Kinkaku- ji on my very first trip to Japan and thought it would be fun to visit again over seven years later.

After the third Shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利 義満), abdicated to his son he purchased the site from the Saionji family in 1397 to build his retirement villa which he called Kitayama-den. Kitayama-den was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect upon Yoshimitsu's death in 1408 per his wishes. The official name of the temple is Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Deer Garden Temple) after Yoshimitsu's posthumous name, Rokuon-in-den, however the gold pavilion became so famous that it is more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Temple of the Gold Pavillion).

Although the rest of the buildings in Ashikaga Yomitsu's complex were destroyed through war and fire, the golden pavilion stood the test of time until 1950 when it was burnt down by Hayashi Yoken, a 22 year old monk. The current pavilion was built in 1955 as a replica of the original and was restored with thicker gold leaf in the late eighties. In 1994 it was registered as a World Heritage Site.

Kinkaku-ji was our first stop of the day in Kyoto and as Cassie and I walked through the entrace gate we could see the first initial signs that the some of the leaves were just beginning to turn color.

The disc shaped end cap tiles, called gatou, on this building near the entry displayed the 5-7-5 leaf paulownia kamon (家紋, crest). Emperor Godaigo conferred this crest on the Ashikaga family in the 13th century during the Ashikaga Shogonate. In modern times this kamon, known in Japanese as go-shichi-no-kiri, is used by the Office of the Prime Minister of Japan and is a symbol of the Japanese government.

Soon we approched the lovely golden pavillion which serves as a shari-den (舎利殿, reliquary hall) to enshrine relics of the Buddha. During Ashikaga Yomitsu's time the pavilion served as a guest house where he met with foreign dignitaries and Japanese aristocracy.

Each of its three floors of the pavilion are designed in a different architectural style. The first floor, Hosui-in (The Chamber of Dharma Waters, 法水院), was built in the Shinden style used for palaces in the Heian period. With white plaster and unpainted wood it is the only floor not covered in gold leaf.

The second floor, Cho-on-do (The Tower of Sound Waves, 潮音洞), was built in the Buke style of samurai houses.

The top floor, Kukkyo-cho (Firmament Top, 空竟頂), was built in a Zen temple style with beautiful bell shaped windows. The tiled roof is topped with a bronze statue of a phoenix leafed in gold.

Set within Kyoko-chi (鏡湖, Mirror Pond) are several beautiful islands with pine trees.

These Jizo Buddha statues in the temple's garden are a popular place to toss coins for good luck. 

Built during the Edo period the Sekkaitei (夕佳亭, Place of Evening Beauty) tea house is perched on a hill with a lovely view of the golden pavilion and is currently the oldest building on the temple grounds. Inside features a famous pillar made from nandina wood.

After seeing Sekkatei Cassie and I stopped in the visitor's tea house so that she could try matcha for the first time. Matcha is finely milled green tea that is used for Japanese tea ceremonies. Because of matcha's bitter taste it is traditionally served with a wagashi sweet which you eat prior to drinking the tea.

Our last stop before leaving the grounds was to visit Fudo-do (不動堂). The small shrine houses a stone statue of the Buddhist deity Fudo-myo-o. Although it is normally not on public display the statue can be seen during Setsubun in early February and on August 16.

Kinkaku-ji is a truly beautiful spot and definitely a great place to visit while in Kyoto. Located in northern Kyoto you can get to Kinkaku-ji by taking the 101 or 205 bus from JR Kyoto Station and getting off at the Kinkaku-ji machi stop. From the bus stop it is a three minute walk marked by signs. Kinkaku-ji is open from 9 am until 5 pm every day with a 400 yen cost of admission for adults and 300 yen for children.


Picture of the Day: School Girls Playing Instruments in Toyota City




















Toyota City, Japan


Picture of the Day: Banaue Village Among the Rice Terraces



















Banaue, Philippines


Picture of the Day: Boats on Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam