Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is traditionally a family time in Japan and many families stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
Traditional New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. They may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is another popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is often presented in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
The Feast of Sinterklaas (a contraction of St Nicholas) is celebrated all across the Netherlands, and also in Belgium, on the 5th and 6th December. St Nicholas was the patron saint of children. While he has a similar appearance to that of Santa Claus (who is derived from Sinterklaas) with his red robes and fluffy white beard, his attire reflects St Nicholas’ historic occupation as the Bishop of Myra (now in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, so he wears a bishop’s mitre and holds a crosier.
Like Santa, he knows which children have been naughty or nice, as he has all that information recorded in a big red book. Traditionally, nice children receive presents but naughty children were packed up in a sack and taken to Spain. Not-quite-naughty-but-not-quite-nice-enough children might have received a bundle of birch twigs or a lump of coal instead of presents in the past. But that doesn’t happen so much these days…
Festivities connected with Sinterklaas start in mid-November (on a Saturday, three weeks before the 5th December) when he ‘arrives’ on a boat from Spain – each time to a different port – and parades through the city on a white horse. Thousands of people turn out so see him and the event is televised. Sinterklaas’s helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), in fact, multiple Pieten also join the parade and carry bags to throw sweets and other treats to children in the crowd. There has been some debate over the depiction of Piet in recent years in the Netherlands and he is Schoorsteenpiet (Chimney Pete), from the soot in the chimneys, in many cities these days.
Although there is an official arrival, most Dutch cities have a Sinterklaas parade. During the weeks that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands tradition dictates that he rides over the rooftops and children put out a shoe with a treat for the horse, such as a carrot or sugar cube, by the chimney (or the radiator if there isn’t an open fire in the house). During the night Piet climbs down the ‘chimney’, takes the horse’s treat and replaces it with a present.
The 5th December is the day that the Dutch give each other gifts, rather than on Christmas Day, which is usually a time for a quiet family celebration. Known as pakjesavond after the Dutch word for present, the family will sit together and hear a knock at the door. Children will open the door to find a bag of presents for them. Older children and adults give gifts and also have a custom of writing irreverent poems to family and friends.
Traditional sweets are pepernoten (mini biscuits), speculaas (spiced biscuits), marsepein (marzipan).
Pepernoten are little spiced biscuits made from rye flour and sugar with anise, cinnamon, and clove flavourings. Sometimes they are coated in chocolate.
Dutch marzipan is awesome – it is often beautifully crafted in a variety of guises: marzipan fruits, a packet of pigs and even chips, presented Dutch-style, with (sugar) ‘salt’ and (white chocolate) ‘mayonnaise’.
Best of all are the chocolate letters associated with Sinterklaas – it’s a massive bar of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of your name. You don’t have to worry if your name begins with an ‘I’ instead of an ‘W’ – you get the same amount of chocolate!
Colin is half-Dutch and has long enjoyed the tradition of Sinterklaas. And no matter how old you are, nor the fact there has been a pandemic raging for the last 20 months, somehow if Sinterklaas can post you a chocolate letter, your day is guaranteed to be filled with joy.
PS – Thanks, Mum!
The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around Quito.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.
The Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.
It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.
Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.
The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.
We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.
It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.
City Tour – In And Around Quito
There are lots of city tours available and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.
The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.
It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.
Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.
We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.
Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.
A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.
Day Trips Further Out
There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.
First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…
…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.
We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.
And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.
It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.
Bellavista Cloud Forest
We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.
It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.
Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in and around Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.
There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country.
Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack.
Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.
It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.
Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.
The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.
Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.
It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.
Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.
Luang Prabang has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.
There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history. Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.
Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.
One of the best restaurants in the city for Lao food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.
We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.
The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.
Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.
The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.
Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.
As the mighty Mekong reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries.
Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic hubbub of the city slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices and each offers various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We made the journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.
Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – compact, but with all the facilities you might want.
All have decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.
Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. These include floating markets and factories that produce rice paper, whiskey or sweets. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.
The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.
There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.
There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the delta. Some are familiar.
Wild limes also grow in the area.
Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.
Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).
Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.
This platter was exceptional. It may seem strange but there is an order to eating the fruit to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the sour flavours and finish with the sweet.
One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli. Delicious!
Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.
Time for a delicious, decadent dinner.
Then after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.
Miso is the very essence of the fifth flavour umami, that enigmatic taste of ‘savouriness’ or ‘deliciousness’ and forms the flavour base of so many Japanese dishes. At its heart it is basically a fermented mix of soy beans, rice, koji (aspergillus oryzae, the national mould of Japan – really!), salt, water and time…
Like many Japanese foodstuffs, miso has regional variations. As a general rule (and there are always exceptions) the colour of finished miso is darker in the north, and lighter in the south of the country. Kyoto is famous for sweet white miso, for example. This means that it is possible to encounter a wide variety of miso on your travels – from rich umami to salty to sweet and with textures from smooth to chunky.
We visited a miso factory/koji park on a trip to Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan. Shinkansen (bullet train) construction reached Kanazawa just recently, in 2015, and the city is now easily accessible from Tokyo; the journey takes around 2.5 – 3 hours. It’s a great city with a lively market (which has some amazing seafood restaurants) and one of the top three gardens in Japan. The miso factory is located at Ohno machi (Ohno port), which is a bit of a journey; you can catch a bus from the Kanazawa station area (ask for the location of the bus stop at the tourist information centre inside the station concourse – it’s a five minute walk away) and it’s the very last stop. When you arrive at the sea you are there. You’ll likely be the last ones on the bus. Alternatively you can get a taxi. The journey from the station takes around 20 minutes but the cost is considerably higher than the bus. Then just walk over the bridge to the little island.
As an aside, at the far end of the island is a charming museum of mechanical toys which has a brilliant hands-on exhibition where you can spend hours playing games and enjoy viewing antique toys and games. The staff were absolutely delightful and very much wanted to make sure we enjoyed the exhibits. They were also very helpful when it came to supplying a timetable for the bus journey back into the centre of Kanazawa.
There are many historic mechanical puppets – karakuri – on display. The museum is a memorial to Benkichi Ohno,a master craftsman who lived in the area from 1831. Many of his creations can be seen at the museum.
Some exhibits show you how the puppet mechanisms work.
Some dolls are cute(ish) which turn into scary (incidentally these words are, respectively, kawaii and kowaii in Japanese, be careful not to confuse the two!).
Around the circumference of the main building there are tables and chairs set out with all sorts of puzzles that you can try to solve.
It’s a really hands-on museum and it was lovely to see families with children of all ages sitting together and working out solutions to some of the puzzles.
This doll is 300 years old, from the Edo period. The craftsmanship is exquisite.
After a lovely diversion, it was on to the Yamato koji park, just a 10 minute walk away at the other end of the island. It’s part factory, part museum, part shop and part café. There weren’t any specific tours when we visited but the staff were super-helpful and directed us to a display where we could understand how miso is made.
Miso basically contains five ingredients: water, koji, soy beans, rice, salt. Koji thrives on the rice. Then it is mashed with the soy beans, salt and water. After about six months yeast forms. The miso flavour develops thanks to the interactions between the yeast and the koji. Fermentation can take as long as three years.
Soy sauce is made using a very similar process and ingredients to miso but uses wheat instead of rice. A mash is formed and then it’s pressed (like olives for olive oil). After fermentation, the resulting liquid is soy sauce. It was fascinating to taste the difference between pasteurised and unpasteurised soy sauce. Unpasteurised soy has a more complex flavour because some of the aromas are lost in the pasteurization process.
Some the the traditional fermentation vessels are enormous.
You can also dip your hands into a koji hand bath which will, apparently, give your skin a soft and delicate sheen. It’s quite nice to be able to dip your hands into a warm bath, especially on a cold, wet day. Apparently two minutes is the optimum time – there is a timer so you can check. And yes, we can confirm that our hands did emerge from the bath silky-smooth.
There is a shop with an extensive variety of products and you are able to sample before you buy. It is particularly interesting to be able to taste different sauces.
Amazake is a sweet, low alcohol drink made from fermented rice and koji. Amazake literally means ‘sweet’ (ama) ‘sake’ (sake, which can be used to describe alcohol). You can buy the paste, mix with hot water and drink. It’s sweet and has a smooth, creamy texture. And for a delicious dressing, you can mix amazake with ponzu soy sauce (ponzu is a citrus juice comprising Japanese fruits sudachi, yuzu, and kabosu and vinegar mixed with soy sauce to give an amazingly tangy, salty flavour) in the ratio 1:1.
And one of the best foodie souvenirs – for the adventurer who cannot travel without seasoning – spray soy sauce, conveniently packaged in a container that would even fit into your hand-baggage.
They also have a café and ice-cream maker. Amazake and soy sauce ice-cream were on offer and we tried both. Soy sauce ice cream sounds so wrong but it was delicious, full of rich salty umami flavour that complemented the creamy ice-cream.
What was also rather lovely was that the CEO, Mr Yamato, was on site that day and came to say ‘hello.’
We shopped for as many products as we could fit into our luggage. One particular packet that we were very happy to find was that of inoculated rice koji. It was also conveniently flat for packing and much cheaper than koji that we can purchase in Europe.
Making our very own miso was most definitely going to be one of our foodie missions on our return home. To be continued…
Limburg in the south of the Netherlands offers a complete rural contrast to the cosmopolitan charms of Amsterdam. When we recently picked up train tickets at Schiphol airport’s railway station to make the two hour journey, the friendly ticket master enquired, “are you sure you are going to South Netherlands?” On receiving an affirmative reply he very kindly printed out a suitable timetable for us showing us where and when to change trains. He was super-helpful.
Limburg is much more rural and the way of life is more relaxed. The flat landscape, interspersed with pretty towns and villages, is ideal for walking and cycling at an easy pace, especially along the banks of the broad River Maas.
Limburg residents are very sociable. This is emphasised by their greeting technique: not one, not two, but three kisses on the cheek. Left-right-left. Or right-left-right. Either is fine.
If you are lucky enough to visit a local home you will almost certainly be offered coffee and vlaai. Dutch coffee is always properly made ground coffee. Vlaai – also known as Limburgse Vlaai – is a tart. The base isn’t made from traditional flaky pastry but from a yeast dough which gives it a light, cake-like texture. Each vlaai comes as a big round disc of deliciousness, usually around 30 cm in diameter. It is cut into large slices for all guests to enjoy.
The traditional vlaai is a fruit-based tart, often with a latticed pasty top. Cherries, apricots, apple – all sorts of soft fruit can be used as a filling. It may also be served with a decadent dollop of rich cream.
And then there are more unusual variations. The gooseberry topped with fluffy meringue combination is both tart and sweet.
Berry mouse and meringue is also a great combination.
The rice pudding vlaai, with cream and chocolate shavings for added decadence, will keep you satisfied for a week.
Tradition dictates that visitors are offered coffee and vlaai and it is polite to accept. Apparently it is also considered to be a little bit rude not to accept a second slice. It’s possible that Limburgians have a secret second stomach as it is genuinely impossible to eat two slices of vlaai in quick succession, scrumptious though it is.
We had always wondered what the point of mosquitoes actually was. As far as we could see all they do is bite people to suck their blood which causes much irritating itching and, worse, they spread horrible diseases. We might be particularly biased against the nasty little blighters as we seem to be strawberry flavoured to them and are guaranteed to attract any within our vicinity so that they can have a really good feast on us.
But it turns out that mosquitoes have a hugely important – and very beneficial – role in the ecosystem: they pollinate chocolate flowers. Yes, without mosquitoes the cacao trees of Costa Rica would not produce nearly enough fruit and hence there would be less chocolate in the world. And Costa Rica’s chocolate is fantastic quality.
Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most visited locations. The primary reason for visiting would be to experience the cloud forest nature reserve with its abundance of spectacular wildlife.
There are all sorts of other activities available, including adventure tours such as ziplining across spectacular scenery.
And, indeed, a number of foodie tours are also available. Don Juan’s plantation in Monteverde offers the opportunity to see chocolate being produced, as well as coffee and sugar cane.
Cacao trees produce a fruit which has the shape of a rugby ball but is a little smaller. It has a tough orange leathery rind.
You cut it open to reveal 8-12 beans inside, all covered in what appears to be a slimy membrane that is white with a pale greenish tinge. It is these almond shaped beans inside that will become chocolate.
First of all, the beans are removed from the pod and undergo a fermentation process for five days. By day five you can really smell the alcohol. This process helps develop the chocolate flavour.
The beans are then dried naturally by spreading them out in the sun for a couple of weeks before they are roasted.
The roasting gives a bitter note to the complex flavour which feels counterintuitive because we all know chocolate to be sweet. But the sweetness is, of course, due to the vast quantities of sugar added to our favourite childhood confections later on in the process.
Winnowing separates the beans from their shells leaving the cocoa nib which forms the basis of the chocolate. You can eat the nibs directly – they have a slightly bitter flavour.
The nibs are then ground into a paste. The result of this is chocolate mass (also called chocolate liquor) – a combination of cocoa solids and fat in roughly equal proportions, the friction of the grinding process brings out the cocoa butter. The cocoa mass can be processed further to make chocolate or squeezed out in a press to separate the two elements – powder and cocoa butter. In combination, the cocoa mass is what gives chocolate its special qualities – the flavour and aroma from the hundreds of chemical compounds and the amazing meltiness. Cocoa butter doesn’t impart flavour but it has a melting point that is at body temperature which means that chocolate remains solid at room temperature but starts melting in the most gloriously decadent way as soon as you put it in your mouth.
Of course there are lots of variations on the next stage of the processing. The nibs continue to be ground and then other ingredients can be added to produce chocolate. Of course, we are all familiar with the different types of chocolate and very likely have our childhood favourites.
Dark chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass.
Milk chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk or milk powder.
White chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder. Curiously, there is no cocoa mass in white chocolate.
There is a further process to making chocolate and that is tempering, which creates uniform crystals of the cocoa butter and makes the texture of the chocolate smoother and less prone to cracking. Tempering involves heating the chocolate to about 50⁰C in order to melt all the types of crystals that form, then agitate at 27⁰C then heat slightly to 31⁰C. This gives the chocolate its silky shininess.
We tried some of the products on offer. These treats were direct from the plantation and had had minimal processing.
Pure cocoa butter is all about the texture – soft and luscious, it is completely different to the white chocolate bars you grew up with as a kid.
And, of course, we couldn’t refuse a cup hot of chocolate made direct from grated cocoa mass. It is a rich, smooth, warming, slightly bitter drink – a very adult hot chocolate.
There are loads of cool and interesting districts to visit that are just a (relatively) short train journey from central Tokyo. Kawagoe is one such place for a day trip. It is just half an hour to one hour’s train ride away, depending on where in Tokyo you are staying, in Saitama prefecture. You can get there directly from Shinjuku on the Seibu line. It’s known as Little Edo because of its old warehouses and merchant homes, called Kurazukuri.
It has a charming old world feel, albeit with lots of shops for tourists, and there are loads of foodie attractions and restaurants to look out for; charcoal boiled eel in a sweet soy sauce is a speciality here, as are sweet potato dishes.
One of the attractions in Kawagoe is Kashiya Yokocho – Candy Alley – a street chock full of traditional Japanese shops offering sweet temptations.
This emporium had a giant penguin minding the store.
The Kawagoe tourism website has a brief history of the alley:
It is said that the beginning of this Kashiya Yokocho was in the early Meiji Period when Suzuki Tozaemon started to make candy in this prospering town in front of Yojuin Temple. In 1923, after Tokyo was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, this area became the main producer and supplier of candy. There were more than 70 shops in the early Showa Period but due to the war and changes in lifestyle the number has decreased.
If you don’t have a sweet tooth, no problem. There are plenty of savoury snacks on offer as well. Takosen is takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls) sandwiched between prawn crackers.
The name combines tako (octopus) with senbei (cracker) and advertises itself as junk food. It is seriously good.
Sweet potatoes are particularly popular, in fact Kawagoe is known colloquially as the city of sweet potatoes. Once considered a staple after the war, when food was scarce, the city still makes multiple products from these tasty tubers.
And if you’re given a photo opportunity to pose as a sweet potato you have to take it, don’t you?
Imo senbei snacks are thinly sliced, dried sweet potato crackers sprinkled sparsely and randomly with black sesame seeds.
The curious thing about these is that you would expect them to be either sweet or slightly salty and they are neither. They are not bland, but rely on the natural sweetness of the sweet potato and have just a hint of sesame for additional flavour. They have a lovely crunchy texture and are great to eat as an accompaniment to a cool beer.
They are also very thin and lightweight – so they are ideal for slipping into your suitcase as an omiyage (a souvenir/gift) for your friends. Or you could just keep them and scoff them yourself when you get home!
The red crowned cranes of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern – and second largest – island, are so famous that they feature on the country’s banknotes and as the logo for Japan Airlines. Half of the world’s population of these distinctive and beautiful birds, amongst the rarest cranes in the world, reside on the eastern part of the island. The cranes mate for life and are known for their ‘dancing’ together as part of their courtship ritual. Many red crowned cranes are migratory but the ones that reside in Hokkaido are resident all year round.
It isn’t always possible to see wild cranes – wildlife being wildlife can be somewhat elusive – but the Akan International Crane Sanctuary is located close to the town of Kushiro and offers the opportunity to see these marvellous birds up close. It can be enjoyed as part of a day trip visiting the beautiful countryside surrounding the town.
Kushiro is the last stop on the line. If you’re using your JR Pass and travelling from Sapporo, the train has a logo at the front that is highly appropriate.
The sanctuary has information about its work which is mostly in Japanese but, like a lot of Japanese information, it uses plenty of graphics as well.
The cranes almost became extinct during the 20th century and remain on the endangered list. The centre acts as a feeding location for wild cranes and also has a number of captive cranes which are held in as natural an environment as possible making it possible to see the cranes all year round.
If you want to see them dancing in the snow you need to visit in winter but be prepared for loads of tourists with very expensive cameras who are all vying to snap that elusive shot of the crane couples’ fascinating dances.
The birds are able to breed. It was rather lovely to see one of the newest arrivals.
And what point is there in a visit to a local tourist attraction without indulging in some edible souvenirs? Made from local ingredients, you can buy ‘crane egg’ omiyage (souvenir gift), which come in presentation box.
Each cake is individually wrapped with a crane logo and, on opening up each wrapper the eggs don’t look as though they survived the journey home! However, any cracks in the shell caused by a slight crushing in our rucksacks as they endured a 24 hour journey home just added to their charm.
The egg’s shell is chocolate which coats hollow cake, and a soft smooth bean paste moulded into a sphere represents the yolk. The flavours are very subtle and not over-sweet. Our only complaint would be that they are much smaller than actual crane eggs and vanish in just three bites.