Top three things to do in Utsunomiya

Utsunomiya is the main city of Tochigi prefecture, a place that`s consistently voted one of the most boring prefectures of Japan.

Many people are underwhelmed with this city and see it as just a gateway to Nikko, one of the most culturally rich places in Japan.

Don`t wipe Utsunomiya from your itinerary though. This city has lots of hidden gems and it`s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon before you head back to the Metropolis of Tokyo.

1) Eat Gyoza
Throughout Japan, people say one thing when they hear someone say Utsunomiya, Gyoza! Utsunomiya consumes the most gyoza in Japan and in my opinion the restaurants in Utsunomiya are the best. You can try regular gyoza, fried gyoza, gyoza wrapped in chicken skin or my favourite; gyoza covered with spring onion and smothered in mayyonaise.

Wherever you choose to eat gyoza, you won`t be disappointed! Be sure to get a photo with the gyoza statue in front of the station too!

Famous Utsunomiya Gyoza
Famous Utsunomiya Gyoza

2) Futaarayama shrine
I was walking along the grey streets in Utsunomiya when I looked up. Prched on top of a small hill overlooking the city was an absolutely beautiful shrine. I decided to investigate and suprised to find a relaxing and ornate shrine with great views of the city.

It`s a great place to relax whilst exploring the city. Be sure to check out the orange tori gates and the dragon statue at the area where you cleanse before praying.

Address: 1-1-1 Babatori, Utsunomiya 320-0026, Tochigi Prefecture

 

shrine utsunomiya

dragon shrine

3) Kayabuki Izakaya (Monkey Izakaya)
In a dark street in Utsunomiya, in an unsuspecting, plain building is Kayabuki Izakaya. Only notticable because of the monkey wood carving at the door.
In the early evening it`s just another izakaya, serving alright beer, gyoza and basashii (horse sashimi); albeit a smelly one. At around 7 or 8 depending on how many customers there are, the monkeys come out to play. Sometimes the whole family comes out, about 4 full grown monkeys and 2 baby monkeys or sometimes there will just be one or two `waitresses`.

when I visited the izakaya was quiet so we got time to play with the monkeys and pose for photos. The monkeys were extremely lively and jumped around on us without a care in the world. Some monkeys were dressed up in creepy outfits and some were forced to wear extremely disturbing masks and wigs, like a simian version of a maid cafe.

After photos, one of the monkeys acted as waitress and scurried across the izakaya, picked up a wet napkin and gave it to me.

All in all it`ts good fun and a unique experience. The monkeys can only work up to 2 hours a night and they seemed well cared for. be aware that you will pay a non optional `tip` for playing with the monkeys, in my opinion it`s worth it.

Izakaya Kayabuki (Miyuki-honcho 4688-13, Utsunomiya-shi, Tochigi Prefecture, tel. 028 662 3751)

monkey izakaya utsunomiya

monkey izakaya

Monkeys

Trying Kobe beef in Kobe

I must have been a teenager when I first heard about Kobe beef. I was watching a TV programme that said it was the best meat in the world and it’s only found in Japan. The cows were reportedly massaged daily and given beer instead of water to drink, secrets to make the meat so tender and succulent. This sounded so quirky, so Japanese. The cattle seemed to be living my ideal lifestyle too!

Kobe beef (Wagyu beef) is from a special breed of cattle that resulted from breeding Western and Japanese cows, as demand for beef consumption increased after the end of WW2. Unfortunately the cattle are not fed on a diet of beer or massaged but they’re fed a diet high in grains.

Kobe cattle produce beef with delicately marbled fat. This fat is so fine that it melts at room temperature. Although Wagyu beef can be bought around the world, Kobe beef is the original and the best quality.

I had to try it!

Unfortunately a world renowned delicacy like Kobe beef doesn’t come cheap. Some restaurants offer lunch time specials but the price is still extremely high. Out of my poor English teacher budget. I initially walked into a restaurant to try it, tempted by the cheap prices outside. I found out they were not the prices for Kobe beef so I swallowed my pride and up and left to find something more to my budget.

Hidden in the outskirts of Kobe’s vibrant China town is a stall that sells small individual portions of kobe beef. For just 1200 yen ($12) you can taste this delicacy and still afford a bed for the night.

The bigger the portion, the higher the price. I ordered the smallest portion as I just wanted to try it. It wasn’t enough for a full meal but just enough to try this exclusive delicacy.

The stall where I bought my beef
The stall where I bought my beef
Cooking my Kobe beef!
Cooking my Kobe beef!

So what does it taste like? Kobe beef should be cooked rare and I was pleased to still see some pinky blood on my portion of Kobe beef. The fat melts during cooking and the beef has a smooth, velvety taste and a subtle flavour that lingers in the palate for hours. It’s decidedly Japanese.

It was worth the 16 year wait! 

Mmmmm
Mmmmm

 

 

Have you ever tried Kobe beef? If so what did you think? Would you try Kobe beef in Kobe, Japan?

Trying Japanese food in Tokyo

 

I love exotic food. I stayed in Asia for over 7 months in 2013 and loved eating exotic dishes everynight. I ate curry with my hands in Sri Lanka and ate from a giant leaf in Malaysia. In the UK I’d rarely choose to eat Japanese food, why eat expensive sushi when I could have a delicious Italian or Indian for the same price? Needless to say I wasn’t that excited about the food in Japan before I moved here. I just hoped I would be able to tolerate it.

Oh my, how I was wrong!

Food in Japan is insanely cheap. When I was in Tokyo I ate out at least twice a day and still had plenty of change left in my pocket. Every dish in Japan is made with tender loving care whether it’s from a Michelin star restauraunt or the local 7-eleven. People here respect food.

Kombini food

My first foray into Japanese food was surprisingly the Kombini! The 7-11 here is very different to 7-11 in Thailand. There’s row upon row of carefully crafted ready meals, not the usual slop that is sometimes found in the UK. My first taste of Japanese food was Gyoza, a food that I actually used to eat regularly in the UK! Even though the Gyoza were from a Kombini, they were delicious and not too greasy.

gyoza, japan, Tokyo

Even though the Kombini had a lot of foods that I recognised, it also had lots of food that I had no idea what it was made of. Lots of unidentified meat and very little writing in English.

Sushi

I was wandering around Shibuya at night, marvelling at the beautiful neon signs and tall buildings when I realised that I hadn’t eaten all day. By  change I came across a small sushi place that was full with people. I sat down and was pleased to find out that It was a sushi train restaurant with an actual little train that bring your order right to your table. How Japanese!

I somehow managed to get the individual ordering screen to display English and then I started ordering Sushi! After my first mouthful I was in love, I couldn’t belive how fresh the sushi was and the sensation as it melted in my mouth. I ordered plate after plate and left feeling very full, and with a plan to retirn the next day. Surprisingly the sushi place that I went to is a chain and has a restaurant a five minute walk from my apartment!

bullet train sushi sushi sushi

sushi

 

Ordering my meal from a machine in Akihabara

It was late at night, I was hungry and I wanted food fast. I had seen restaurants scattered around Tokyo where you ordered and payed for your meal at a machine at the front of the store, then gave the slip to a waiter/waitress and looked forward to your food. Like many things in Japan this scared me a little. I’m not a fussy eater but I like to know what I am eating. One night in Akihabara I took the plunge and decided to try.

What’s the worst that could happen right?

 

Japanese food japanese food

Despite eating in a small dingy place In Otaku central, the food was fresh and appetising. Service was gret too and they had free water, like every restaurant in Japan. The food above cost about 450 yen, less than $5!

Sukiyaki

As you know I love trying new foods. I walked past a restaurant in Asakusa and saw locals huddled on benches and eating from BBQ like contraptions. The place was cheap so I decided to have a look and try something new!

I’ve never had Sukiyaki beef before. I just knew that I wanted to order the meal with the BBQ contraption. As I now expected, I was not dissapointed. I was surprised to be served a raw egg but I wateched how the locals ate their food and proceeded to plop the egg into the BBQ beef. The egg cooked a little, as did the beef. Do delicious and so cheap! Just $6.5o for a mini feast!

sukiyaki tokyosukiyaki tokyo

Ramen

Ramen is one of the most famous Japanese dishes and I was very excited to try it. I was walking around Ueno, a cool area that’s a bit grittier than other areas of Tokyo and I saw a packed Ramen place. Curiousity got the better of me and I decided to try Ramen for the first time. I sat down and was confused by the Japanese menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu had photographs. I ordered gyoza to start and the classic pork ramen and helped myself to free tea.

When the waiter placed the steaming hot bowl of Ramen in front of me, I was surprised by the sheer size of the bowl! How was I going to finish it? You certainly get value for money with some Japanese dishes. Before I came people told me that the portions tended to be small but I’ve found the opposite to be true.

Ramen was hot and filling and would be perfect on a cold winters night.

ramen tokyo

Starbucks Frappes!

Hmm. I know that starbucks is not traditionally Japanese but I think that Starbucks is a great place to try popular Japanese flavours. Whilst in Tokyo I tried Matcha (green tea) frappes and a deliciously delicate Sakura and white chocolate frappe! It’s such a  shame that they don’t have a Starbucks in my small town of Nasushiobara.

Where better to enjoy a Sakura frappe than at the Starbucks overlooking the famous Shibuya crossing? I scored a coveted seat and watched the fast paced life of Tokyo pass before my eyes. Wondering how people manage to effortlessly avoid each other whilst walking across the crossing. I guess it’s a Japanese thing.

frappe shibuya crossing

So there you have it, my first foray in to Japanese food! Please remember that all the foods mentioned above are budget food. I’m a budget traveller so try to eat cheaply for the majority of meals and treat myself for special occasions (Or just when I feel like it).

Japan is the country with the most Michelin stars in the whole world. Although I don’t think Japan has the tastiest food available, the care of preparation and the quality and presentation of ingredients is second to none. I hope to try more upmarked food in Tokyo and Japan whilst living here, maybe even dine at a restaurant with a Michelin star…

Have you ever tried Japanese food? If so what did you think about it? Have you ever dined in a Japanese restaurant with a Michelin star? As always I’d love to hear your thoughts.

First impressions of Singapore

singapore

When I arrived in Singapore I was a little bit burnt out from travelling around Sri Lanka. Although I loved the country it was not an easy country to travel in as a newbie traveller and I was frequently overwhelmed by the sighs, sounds and different cultural practices.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I arrived in the vast Singapore Chiangi airport. I window shopped at all of the Western luxuries that I had been without for weeks and my mouth watered when I saw a Subway. Sri Lankan food is delicious but it does get a bit repetitive. It’s very hard to find bread and mayonnaise that is not sweet out there too! I had actually dream’t about a tuna and cheese sub when I was on my bus to the airport in Sri Lanka.

My backpack was now 19kg so I treated myself to a taxi to the hostel to save my legs and my dignity. It was strange not having to barter for ten minutes before agreeing on a price. The hostel was cosy but absolutely tiny! Luckily it was very well laid out and every square foot was useful and functional. I would soon learn that most Singaporeans live in small government owned flats. It’s a very densely populated city state!

 

I wandered around the sprawling city after recharging with a nap. I absolutely love architecture and Singapore’s skyline was nearly as impressive as Dubai’s! Despite the city landscape there were areas of grass and trees too.

 

 

 

Singapore is modern, clean and English speaking. It was a welcome rest-bite from ‘real Asia’ and I spent a week relaxing and eating delicious local and international food. I love fashion and I loved the Singaporeans quirky fashion sense. I spent hour looking at kooky Asian cosmetics and beauty products, I couldn’t believe that they had strips to make their eyes a more Western shape and every face product was whitening.

I guess everywhere in the world people want what they don’t have.

The rumours are right, Singapore is spotlessly clean and there are signs everywhere telling you not to chew chewing gum, jaywalk or even bring smelly Durian fruit on the metro!  Other bloggers have described it as being too perfect but I thought that it still had lots of character and history.

In Singapore I was anonymous. It’s very overpopulated so people barely acknowledge your existence as they push past you in the busy streets or busy metro system. Surprisingly I had mixed feelings about this. I sometimes got annoyed at how much I stood out in Sri Lanka, how people would chase me down the street trying to sell me things or talk to me. Here everyone just went about their daily business, barely glancing up from their smart phones.

I missed the attention.

I ended my first day in a hawker centre near Bugis street. Eating the delicious and very cheap food (just $3 for prawns and noodles!) I felt excited to further explore the city. Singapore has world class museums, art galleries, monuments, nightlife and undoubtedly the tastiest and cheapest food in the world. I felt completely safe.

Despite all this I felt like I wasn’t in Asia anymore….

 

Have you visited Singapore? If so did you think that it was too perfect or an example of how a well run city should be?

You can keep up to date with my adventures by following my Facebook page. I update it daily and it’s an easy way to contact me.

https://www.facebook.com/PearlsandPassports

 

 

 

Review: The restaurant that changed my opinion of Vietnamese food, The Blue Dragon restaurant, Hoi An

bwviet

I have been in Vietnam eleven nights now. Before I came I was so excited to try Vietnamese food. Every traveller that I would meet on the backpacker trail seemed to rave about how delicious each dish was. 

Then I arrived in Hanoi.

My first taste of Vietnamese food was the famous dish, Pho. Whilst it tasted ok I was put off my the fatty meat and the bland flavour. After spicy Thai food I love eating a meal that has a kick to it!

Subsequent dishes also disappointed me. Plain fried rice, adequate seafood dishes and slimy noodles made me think that Vietnamese food was not just to my taste.

Then I stumbled across the Blue Dragon restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam!

What initially drew me to the restaurant was the fact that all of the profits go to charity. The Blue Dragon children’s foundation helps Vietnamese children who are born in to poverty or disadvantaged families affected by problems such as HIV and drugs. Surprisingly many families survive on just $1-$2 dollars a day! The Blue Dragon foundation helps the children through educating, feeding, housing and providing medical care. It also plays a role in rescuing trafficked children.

Impressive work!

b1

The Blue Dragon Restaurant: Location

Located beside the river front in the centre of Hoi An the restaurant is a perfect place to watch the world go by. As I ate I watched food sellers hawking the streets wearing the traditional conical hats and boats sailing up and down the river.

Service

Service is famously bad in Vietnam but the waitress actually smiled at me here! The restaurant wasn’t that busy and I was served my food quickly. She even showed me how to roll the shrimp rolls that I ordered and asked to keep my business card when I said that I would be reviewing the restaurant!

Drink

I love beer and this was the first restaurant in the whole of South East Asia to serve a frosted glass to pour the beer in to! Perfect for hot and Humid Hoi An!

b2

Food

This is where the restaurant really impressed me. I ordered a Hoi An speciality; white rose which is shrimp dumpling covered in fried onions. It was delicious and so delicate!

For my main course I chose shrimp and vegetable wrapped in rice paper. You wrap them yourself. The wraps were full of flavour and fun to make and eat. I did make a little bit of a mess so probably not the best food to choose if you are on a date!

white Rose

White rose

rolls

Vietnamese rolls

Overall

Overall I was really impressed with the restaurant and I love that by eating there I contribute to a children’s charity. I would definitely recommend that you visit this restaurant in Hoi An. It completely changed my view on Vietnamese food. No more pizza for me in Vietnam!

Do you enjoy Vietnamese food?

window

 

 

 

Three months of Travel: Summary and review

thai

My third month of travel has been filled with many ups and downs. The major downer on the month was when I contracted Dengue fever in Koh Chang. It was the hardest time so far in my travelling and I was so ill that I was going to go home ASAP! Something made me want to stay though and continue travelling.

That was the best decision that I could have made!

Luckily I recovered well even though I was quite weak for a few weeks and had to retire to my room for an afternoon nap each day when I started to feel dizzy.

From Koh Chang I travelled to the North of Thailand to the amazing city of Chiang Mai. I made the most of the vast array of international food available and I stuffed my face with Tacos, Sunday Roasts, burritos and cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches……. With the odd bowl of Kao Soi thrown in for good measure!

 

I stayed in Chiang Mai for over a week, relaxing, walking and exploring the many beautiful Wats and Temples. After a week I felt bored of relaxing and decided to go on a three day jungle trek which was one of the best experiences of my trip so far!

For three days we trekked up and down the Thai countrysides various hills with our crazy guide Ping Pong who was hilarious. For some reason we started trekking just as the midday sun started to blaze down upon us. Thai logic!

I also got to experience riding an Elephant (again), white water rafting and bamboo rafting down the river.

It’s surreal that in the past three months I’ve ridden Elephants and Camels but not Horses! I really miss horse riding actually!

 

Feeling brave after all of my adventurous activities in the Jungle’ i decided to volunteer at Happy Healing home which is located in the Mountains not far from Samoeng with the intention of learning about meditation from an ex monk.

Unfortunately the Happy Healing home was not so happy for me due to a variety of reasons that I will be writing about in a future blog post. I also learned very little about meditation.

Even so it was a unique opportunity to live with a Lanna family and learn how an organic farm works. I have honestly never been so dirty in my life! Covered in sweat and mud each day and I didn’t look in a mirror or wear a scrap of makeup the whole time I was there!

 

After two days of recovering from my farm experience in Chiang Mai I am now in the charming hippie town of Pai a little further North. My Thai Visa runs out soon so I will be moving on to a completely new country; Laos!

 

Total countries visited= 1, I’ve been in Thailand for the whole month!

Tropical diseases contracted= 1, Dengue fever in Koh Chang. Damn you stupid mosquitos!

Boxes sent home= 1, full of souvenirs from Chiang Mai.

Modes of transport= Overnight train, bus and ferry. The ride to Pai was a particularly crazy bus ride, the road has hundreds of sharp corners!

Hospital visits= 3, The hospital in Koh Chang was very posh and safe but also very expensive! What kind of hospital has fountains outside?!

Lessons I have Learned= That I am now officially a hippie and it’s something that I have to embrace. I now describe places as having ‘negative energy’ and ‘bad vibes’ and I even visited a Taoist healer for an abdominal Chi massage. I have also hardly worn makeup in the past month and basically lived in my hippie pants!

Axes used= 1, at the ‘Happy’ healing home I cut logs with an axe and asaw. How bad ass is that!

Monks chatted with= 3

Hill tribes visited= 2, Lisu hill tribe and the Meo hill tribe.

 

Can you believe that I have been in Thailand the whole month? Would you have done the same as me and continued travelling after contravting Dengue fever or would you have booked the first flight home?

As always I love hearing your thoughts and comments!

First impressions of Madrid

I arrived in Madrid in the afternoon, clinging on to my suitcase (just in case anyone decided to pickpocket one of my retro dresses from my suitcase!). As soon as I got off the plane I could sense a change in mood, Spaniards are a lot happier and more relaxed than the English! I could also see the sun through the darkened windows of the airport (Yay!)

Look how romantic this flower vending machine is!

I was feeling very brave so I decided to take the metro. The metro was fairly easy to navigate and similar to the tube in London, just a lot cleaner! I eventually found my metro station and walked out into the sunny street! I asked a lady (in Spanish!) where I could find the street where my hostel was and I eventually found my hostel.

Having never stayed at a hostel I didn’t really know what to expect. I had booked an all female dorm room as I didn’t like the idea of sharing with smelly guys!

The dorm room was small and consisted of 2 bunk beds. I had the bottom bunk (thank God!) A pretty Canadian girl was sat in the dorm room as I went in. We had a small chat and she asked if I would like to join her for some food at a nearby market. I then realised that hostels are a great plece to meet like minded people, just like all of the travel bloggers say!

She took me to the Mercado de San Miguel and reccomended that I try croquettas. Feeling fairly adventurous I chose 2 random croquettas without reading the descriptions.

What the hell, I am on holiday, in Spain alone! Nothing phases me!

The Canadian girl turned to me with a look of shock and said ‘do you know what that is?’ I initially thought that it might be mushroom. She told me that it was calamares with SQUID INK! Hmm, certainly something that I have never tried before. I ate it and it was actually quite nice if you can get over the dense black colour!

Mercado de San Miguel, a food hall filled with amazing Spanish food, tapas and Pinxos!

We then walked around the centre of Madrid and the Canadian girl was kind enough to show me some of the tourist attractions of Madrid such as the Plaza Major, The palace and the Cathedral. She even knew facts about each place that she had learn’t whist attending a free walking tour of Madrid! I have rarely had the pleasure of someone going out of their way to help me and make me feel at home. I really appreciated her kindness and friendliness. Especially because it was my first night alone in a foreign city!

The palace

The Cathedral

After showing me around the city the Canadian girl then went back to the hostel…to bed! I was full of energy and excitement at this point and I decided to find out what the Madrid nightlife was like.
I ended up in a place called Museo de Jamon where it was 1 Euro for a cana of beer and they gave out free tapas with every beer! What an amazing place! An older Spanish man started talking to me, he said that he was an English teacher in Madrid. He was friendly and we talked a lot about the differences between Spain and England.

I loved standing there in the  warm chaos of the bar. Everywhere I looked people were talking to their friends, talking to each other and generally being very sociable. It seemed worlds away from the drinking scene in the UK. A completely different drinking culture, and I loved it!

Eager to explore I then went for a stroll around the city. Even though it was dark and different I felt safe.

I eventually found a few more bars where the beer was cheap and the food was plentiful! Every bar gave out food with each drink that I boight. In one bar they gave me enough food to make a meal out of! How do the Spaniards stay so petite and slender when they have to eat this much food every time that they go out for a drink!  The men in the bars were happy drinking half pints of lager too (canas), very few men in England drink small beers, mostly pints!

I love Spain!

I went to bed in my bottom bunk and actually had a good nights sleep. I woke up and tried my best not to disturb anyone, I even remembered the ‘no plastic bags rule’ of hostels.

I then traversed through the chaos and confusion of the metro in the rush hour. All around me were (slender!) Spaniards wearing full suits. How do they not feel warm in the suits? I was boiling and I was wearing shorts and a vest!

I made it, to the coach meeting point for Pueblo Ingles. Little did I know that it would change me irrevocably…..