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)


Surviving Summer with Japanese Soft Cream

Japan in the summer is a very hot and humid affair. The area where I lived in central Honshu was pretty miserable in the summer months. The closest thing that I can liken the weather to would be someplace like Georgia in the U.S. You are probably thinking that wouldn't so bad but that is because people in Georgia use air conditioning. Not to say that there isn't air conditioning in Japan, it is just that they use it much more sparingly. By that I mean that if it was in the nineties outside my office would be cooled down to the low eighties. When you also factor in that I would walk to and from the train station and that the train was not air conditioned at all, I would pretty much spend every day a hot sweaty mess from June through September.

On the weekends when I would be traveling around it would be even worse since I spent even more time outside walking around. My saving grace through the summer heat was eating Japanese soft cream and eating it often.

Soft cream (ソフトクリーム, sofuto kuriimu) is a Japanese version of soft serve ice cream that is a little less sweet and more creamy than its American counterpart. I've never been a huge soft serve fan back at home, but part of that is that typically in the U.S. we only have chocolate, vanilla and swirl which is boring when you can have double chocolate chunk cherry ice cream. Soft cream is not only a bit richer than soft serve but also comes in a crazy variety of awesome flavors.

Through my anecdotal experience the most common soft cream flavor is green tea. Green tea (抹茶, matcha) is a very popular flavor for sweets in Japan. I didn't know this on my first business trip to Japan back in 2006 so being an American I thought that the pale green was mint. Haha! I got a cone and was quite surprised. Green tea has a bitter taste so it wasn't something that I immediately loved right off the bat, but green tea soft cream eventually became one of my favorites. The photo below on the left is a plain green tea soft cream cone while the one on the right is a float made with green tea soft cream. Yum!

I love trying fun flavors that I happen upon. Here's a photo of me eating a black sesame (黒ごま, kuro goma) soft cream on a rainy, April day in Yoshino. Just because I need soft cream in the summer doesn't mean I don't succumb to its charms in other seasons as well. The black sesame was super tasty but it turned my tongue black.

One of the most memorable soft cream stands that I stumbled upon was near Onuma Koen (大沼公園), a National Park in Hokkaido. It was blisteringly hot out and I couldn't resist all of the cute cone statues decorating the top of the stand.

Several unique flavors representing foods that Hokkaido is famous for in Japan were featured. Never one to pass up trying a new soft cream flavor I decided that I absolutely needed to eat the lavender before my hike in the park and then treat myself to the squid ink (イカ墨, ikasumi) soft cream after I was done. I loved them both! Also, please note that squid ink soft cream, like black sesame, will also turn your tongue black.

Moving from the northernmost prefecture, down to the southernmost, I also tried some great flavors during a weekend trip I took to Okinawa. Okinawa is well known in Japan for its pineapples so while I was there I just had to visit the adorably kitschy Nago Pineapple Park (you just can't beat an automated tour in a cartoon pineapple shaped car through pineapple fields). They had a pineapple soft cream sundae topped with fresh pineapple that was absolutely delicious. Although it isn't soft cream I also can't fail to mention my bitter melon Blue Seal ice cream cone. Blue Seal is a popular ice cream chain in Okinawa and bitter melon (ゴーヤー, goya in Okinawan; 苦瓜, nigauri in Japanese) is a common ingredient in Okinawan cuisine so I simply had to try it. It was definitely quite bitter with a little sweetness and although it was a bit unusual for me I really liked it.

As you may have noticed I could reminisce forever about all the different wonderful flavors of soft cream that I have had the pleasure of enjoying (purple sweet potato or cherry blossom, anyone?). I'll wrap this up by recommending that any visitors to Japan should definitely not pass up the opportunity to sample some local flavors of soft cream during your trip. You won't regret it!


Picture of the Day: Temple Roof Ornament in the Marble Mountains 

Marble Mountains, Vietnam


Picture of the Day: Moon Bear at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre




















Tat Kuang Si Park, Laos


Picture of the Day: Lion Statue in the Forbidden City

Forbidden City
Beijing, China


Picture of the Day: Paper Lanterns at the Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu)
Hanoi, Vietnam


Cherry Blossom Viewing at the Osaka Mint Bureau

Cherry blossom season is a very special time in Japan. Culturally, cherry blossoms have been treasured for centuries and in the spring it is very common for people to travel to visit places famous for their blossoms.

One of those places is the Osaka Mint Bureau (造幣局, Zoheikyoku), famous for having a path near the Yodo River lined predominantly with yae-zakura (八重桜). Yae-zakura are double-flowered cherry trees (i.e. have more than five petals) and typically have a later blooming season than other cherry trees in mid to late April. 

The cherry trees were originally transplanted from the Todo clan's residence to the Mint Bureau early in the Meiji Era. In 1883 the Director-General of the Mint Bureau at the time suggested that the viewing of the cherry blossoms should be shared with all of Osaka and the annual tradition of the Torinuke (通り抜け) was born. Torinuke means pass-through in Japanese and refers to the cherry-tree tunnel that visitors walk through to admire the lovely cherry blossoms.

Every year for only one week in April the Mint Bureau opens up its path for cherry blossom viewing and people flock there from all over Japan to take in the beautiful flowers. In April 2009 when I visited, the Mint Bureau was celebrating its 126th season with over 600,000 people enjoying the 348 cherry trees from 126 varieties.

The yae-zakura were gorgeous with very showy blossoms in shades of pink and white. It was quite spectacular to see all the trees in bloom.

In the photo on the right below is one of the few trees that I saw at the Mint Bureau that had blossoms with a single row of five petals.

Every year the Mint Bureau picks a blossom of the year. In 2009 when I visited the blossom of the year was the Hirano Nadeshiko (平野撫子) which has beautiful, large pink flowers. The name originates from the fact that the cherry tree is found in Hirano Shrine in Kyoto and the petals of the blossoms have a serrated edge that resembles a dianthus flower (Nadeshiko in Japanese). 

I continued walking along the path, stopping to look at each unique tree, marvelling at the amazing cherry blossoms.

I should back up and mention at this point that when I had arrived at the Mint Bureau, I had a little trouble finding the entrance because I did not realize that you cannot go in the North Gate. As an American I am used to being able to walk around in any direction I would like, but in typical, efficient Japanese fashion you can only walk the path from south to north. To be honest, it was a madhouse full of throngs of people and the only thing that kept it reasonably sane was the fact that everyone was walking in the same direction.  

After my experience, as I exited from the North Gate I couldn't help but take a picture of a little sign that read 「ここからは入れません。 南門へお回りださい。」which means "You cannot enter from here. Please go around to the South Gate." I loved how the sign was complete with a map directing you back around to the proper entrance.

Upon exiting the Mint Bureau, I headed toward a park path right on the river that was lined with yatai (屋台). Yatai (literally meaning "shop stands") are mobile food stands and are very popular at festivals or special events. An individual food stall will typically specialize in a particular food like okonomiyaki, ramen, takoyaki, etc.

I particularly like kushiyaki which are grilled skewers. I was pretty hungry from walking around all morning so I bought two chicken skewers (yakitori) from a little stand for a snack.

As I headed back over the Yodo River for some more sightseeing in Osaka, I had one last view looking back at the yatai stands lining the river with the Mint Bureau beyond. 

Seeing the cherry blossoms at the Mint Bureau was really beautiful and I would definitely recommend it if you are in Japan on the week that it is open. Admission is for seeing the cherry blossoms is free. If you go keep in mind that you have to enter from the South Gate and that the Mint Museum is closed for the week of cherry blossom viewing.

The closest train stations, Temmabashi (Tanimachi Line on the subway), Osaka Tenmangu (Tozai Line) and Temmabashi (Keihan Railway), are all about 15 minutes walk from the Mint Bureau. For particulars about hours and which week in April the Mint Bureau will be open for cherry blossom viewing, please check the Osaka Mint Bureau website.


Picture of the Day: Statue at Onsen-ji in Gero Onsen

Gero Onsen, Japan


Picture of the Day: Carvings of Figures at Angkor Wat

Temples of Angkor, Cambodia


Picture of the Day: Fighting Cocks Rock Formation on Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam


Footbaths of Gero Onsen

Last weekend while I was Japan I decided to spend Saturday in the little town of Gero Onsen. Gero Onsen is famous in Japan for its hot springs and boasts many free foot baths around the town for people to enjoy. I decided to sample a variety of them while I was wondering around town.

To enjoy the footbaths (足湯, pronounced "ashiyu"), you simply take off your socks and shoes and soak your feet in the water. The first one I stopped at was Geruma Footbath (下留磨の足湯). I reached it after walking thirty minutes uphill so it was a nice little break. Tucked in off the side of the road it was quiet and I had the footbath to myself which was nice.

I next headed to the Gassho Village (Entrance fee: Adults ¥800, Children ¥400), which is an open air museum with Gassho Houses that were relocated from Shirakawa-go when a dam project would have flooded them. Among the many exhibits in the Gassho Village there was of course also a footbath (合掌の足湯). It was by far the largest of the footbaths that I visited and I had a nice conversation with an elderly couple who were also enjoying the bath.

After I finished touring the Gassho Village, I visited Onsen-ji and then checked into the ryokan (Japanese Inn) that I was staying at. I relaxed for a bit and then headed out for a little more sightseeing, stopping at the Gero Museum of Hot Springs (Entrance fee: Adults ¥500, Children ¥200). In addition to having a variety of exhibits, the museum also had a footbath, of course. Called Yakushi Footbath (薬師の足湯), it consisted of two troughs lined with stones. The first was very hot that cooled down toward the end with the second being much cooler becoming downright chilly by the time it wrapped back to the beginning again. 

To use the footbath, you soak your feet in the hot end until they acclimate and then walk in a clockwise circle as the water gets cooler and then loop back to the start plunging your feet back into the hot water. Walking on the loose stones barefoot was a little tricky since they were so slippery so I was glad that there was a railing to hold onto as I did my circuit. The changing temperatures is supposed to invigorate your legs and stimulate circulation and going from the cold to the hot definitely made my legs tingle a bit. 

Across the way was the Sagi Footbath (鷺の足湯), which was the first footbath in Gero Onsen. Sagi means egret in Japanese and is a reference to the legend that 700 years ago an egret showed the villagers where the source of the hot springs was. There were some women already enjoying the footbath and I didn't want to intrude so I headed on.

I next walked past Venus Footbath (ビーナスの足湯), which is decidedly not very Japanese looking although it seemed quite popular.

I then walked across town to stop at Tanokami Footbath (田の神の足湯) near the Gero Onsen City Hall. I relaxed my feet for a while in the hot water before heading back to my ryokan for the day.

After enjoying a wonderful bath followed by an elaborate multi-course dinner at my ryokan I decided to make a little stop at the hotel's footbath before heading to sleep for the night.

In the morning I didn't have a lot of time before my train to Takayama, but I did walk by the remaining public footbaths in town on the way to the train station just to check them out. Three of them were right in a row along the main row through town with the first being Miyabi Footbath (雅の足湯) which is decorated with frog statues. Frogs are associated with Gero Onsen because in Japanese "gero-gero" is the sound that frogs make (equivalent to "ribbit-ribbit" in English).

Next was Sarubobo Golden Footbath (さるぼぼ黄金足湯). Sarubobo literally means baby monkey and is a faceless Japanese amulet for bringing good luck. The footbath is located at the Sarubobo Seven Gods of Good Fortune Shrine and features a golden boat with sarubobo dressed as the seven gods of good fortune. On a side note, I am really not sure why a replica of the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) from Rome was doing at the shrine. Just a titch random...

Last of the three was Yuamiya Footbath (ゆあみ屋の足湯). It didn't seem terribly relaxing being right in front of a shop with a TV playing advertisements, but you could make soft-boiled eggs in the water if you wished.

On the way back to the train station I had one last stop, popping by Mori Footbath (モリの足湯), which was quaintly tucked into a building. I wished I had time to enjoy it, but I had to catch my train and didn't have time.

I really enjoyed all of the footbaths dotted around town. They made a fun break in between sightseeing stops in Gero Onsen and were one of the highlights of my visit there.