Sunday, September 20, 2009

Minshuku "Chime" in Kushimoto, Japan

The husband likes to stay at places with character and attitude. A minshuku is kind of like a B&B but in some cases even dinner is included, too!

We found Chime on the Japanese Rakuten Travel website and it really stood our because it wasn't some major hotel. It looked cute and the reviews (there were only 2) were good, too.

I took pictures, but my camera reformatted itself or something, so those are gone, gone with the wind.

Kushimoto is the southernmost place on Honshu (the main island of Japan) and is a great place for seafood. I believe there are tuna farms or something, but we didn't go as it's pretty difficult to get around without a car.

The owner of Chime came to pick us up at the train station, cooked us dinner (sashimi, soup with a huge chunk of Ise ebi (spiny lobster) in it, rice, and a bunch of other stuff that I can't really remember), then after dinner, she drove us to a local hot spring, and came to pick us up!! Talk about serivce...

She was very lovely and accomodating but to be honest, I don't think I was in the mood for a place like this. We had a very long day, our morning didn't go the way we planned, we had to rush through a lot of our sightseeing, and so the last thing I wanted was to make small talk. I just wanted to crash on a bed. When you stay at a place where the owner is making your food and basically watching you eat it, you feel so guilty leaving stuff uneaten but I had to. There was so much food and I just couldn't fit it all in. The husband tried to help but our stomachs can only hold so much!

Chime might be a fun place to stay if you're travelling at a relaxing pace and feeling like mingling with a local. I really did appreicate everything the owner did for us. I'm just afraid I came off as an aloof, indifferent person... Sorry!

Maybe if we decide to pass through Kushimoto we'll rent a car (this is a must), stop by and say hello again. She was a bit surprised to have foreign guests but in a good way.

Hotel Camelot in Yokohama

We stayed here on the last night of our trip, and it was the best decision ever! We had been staying with my aunt for the past few days and it was getting to us (or to me, I guess). She's a sweet lady who just wants to be helpful and feed you every minute of the day and we appreciated that SO much!! As sweet as she is, we wanted a bit of a break from eating, and to give her a break from cooking and buying us food all the time!

Back when we were trying to decide on a hotel, here were the things that were important to us:
  • Cost (we wanted to keep it under 10,000 yen)
  • Easy to get to the airport (basically, we wanted a direct line where we didn't want to have to change trains with our big bags)
  • Location (a central station for us to get where we needed to go, and a station that had a lot to offer)
and of course,
  • Comfort (we were going to be flying to Australia the next day and attend a wedding upon arrival, so we wanted to be sure we would be well-rested)
Here's what the Camelot Hotel offered us:
  • 9,700 yen, no breakfast, double bed, bar fridge, clean bathroom, a/c and free luggage storage for the day (well, they keep it on a trolley and cover it with a net so not the most secure...)
  • Right next to Yokohama Station where we could board the Narita Express (direct express to the airport)
  • A ton of shops and restaurants within walking distance. I bought a dress, gifts for people in Australia, the husband bought a jacket, and then we walked to a restaurant for dinner.
  • It was clean, cool (we were there in the humid summer), and we were able to sleep comfortably (oh did I mention the a/c was busted at my aunt's place and we slept on futons?)
We were quite happy with the Camelot but of course if you're going to be staying a few nights, you might want to find a hotel that includes breakfast. There were 2 restaurants and what looked like a cafe in the hotel but I'm personally not a fan of paying for breakfast at the hotel I'm staying at. Call me cheap.

IMO, Japan isn't really a "breakfast" country. It's not like North America, where you can basically turn up anywhere and get a hearty breakfast, unless you go to McD's or Denny's. Personally, I like lunch or dinner to be the big meal of the day when I'm travelling.

The exception to this, is if you stay at a traditional-style inn. Those places will fill you up for breakfast and it's usually included in the price!

Website: Rakuten Travel

When I used to live in Japan, I remember hearing about this website a lot from my students and Japanese friends who got great deals on flights and accommodations both domestic and abroad. They have a Japanese website (obviously) which is filled to the rafters with accommodation choices all over Japan. I haven't really looked at the overseas choices, though. I referred to this website a lot when we were looking for affordable hotels in Japan. They have a very limited English website as well, which is where we found this Osaka hotel.

One VERY affordable hotel was near Shin-Osaka Station and I believe we paid a mere 6,500 yen for it. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take pictures but it was called something like Hotel Vienne Osaka or something like that. If you know what Japanese budget/business hotels can be like, well, it's exacly what you'd expect. If you don't, it's going to be a lot smaller than your average hotel room with a smaller bed and cramped bathroom.

Anyway, this hotel was very basic but had a clean bathroom, decent bed (a double, I don't think you can find a queen or a king unless you stay somewhere really flash), TV, tea making stuff and a bar fridge. There was a convenience store nearby (I think it was a Lawson's) for stuff like water, beer, snacks, etc.

Breakfast was even included!! It was a very decent breakfast and we saw the guy who checked us in the night before, clad in an apron bringing out rolls and making sure there was enough coffee. The most popular breakfast choice was onigiri, which are rice balls with fillings like salted fish, pickled plum, kelp relish or something. These are hand made (I think) on-site thus are limited in quantity and go quick. There were also baskets of rolls and what looked like croissants with jam, butter, etc. A soup dispenser held about 4 kinds of soup but they all looked like instant soup so I didn't try any of those. A big put of miso soup sat simmering away and that looked like they had made it on-site so I had a bowl of that. It was fine. Oh yeah, there was also a salad of shredded cabbage and carrots.

We chose to stay near Shin-Osaka station because we had to catch an early train the next day. If I'm ever in the same situation, I think I'd stay here again just for conveniece and value's sake. If you're just looking for a hotel in any part of Osaka, I'm sure there are good-value hotels all over town, so consult your guidebook for a neat area like Umeda, and cross-reference it with Rakuten Travel.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Parrotfish Lodge Hostel, Port Dougls

In my 20's I was a budget traveller. Through Europe and Asia, I stayed at some places that would make your hair stand on end. But hey, if that meant I had more money leftover for site admission, food, and shopping, all the better!

It turns out, I'm not in my 20's anymore. We booked the Parrotfish lodge, thinking we could handle it, we were still in our 20's at heart, and as long as we booked a private room, it'd be OK. Turns out I was wrong...

Staff: As with most hostels, the bulk of the staff at Parrotfish consists of other travellers looking to make some $ so that they can keep travelling. Although this makes for great conversation on where they've been, it doesn't make the staff very customer-service oriented or knowledgeable. There was one staff member (a lady) who was quite knowledgeable, but that was about it. You really can't tell who works there and who doesn't.

Breakfast: It's included and you get a choice of Wheetabix or toast with jam and margarine. They claim there is free coffee and tea all day but I don't think I could get any hot water out of the pot thing once. It was always empty or unplugged, and there was no one around to ask whether hot water would be available or not. Ehg.

Kitchen: There is one for guests to use but it's very busy during lunch and dinner (obviously), and not many people wash up after themselves. If you really want to save $$ by cooking your on meals, for out the extra $$ for an apartment. Then you're only dealing with your own mess.

Noise: I have to say, the Lodge was not as loud and boisterous as I was expecting it to be. They have a no-noise-after-11PM policy and I guess it's enforced because the noise really did die down later in the night. Our room overlooked the pool area where a lot of people hang out so we were expecting the worst, but were pleasantly surprised.

Rooms: Not bad. The floor was bit grimy, the A/C noisy, but the bathroom was functional, and the linens were clean. We saw 2 roach friends but hey, it's Australia so what can you do?

Location: It's on a street that isn't very well lit at night. I was always with the husband so I wasn't too worried but anyone travelling alone might be, and also, it's hard to see where you're stepping. Other than that, It's very easy to get to Four-mile beach

Great Barrier Reef with Poseidon Cruises

Being divers, the GBR was a must-see during our trip to Australia. We did a lot of research online for different operators that did diving tours and decided on Poseidon Cruises.

I can't even remember what the decided factor was for this. I know we were contemplating Silversonic as well. We really wanted to go for Silversonic's dive-only vessel, Pure Dive, but the price was just a bit too high.

Our experience with Poseidon was fine. They picked us up on time, got us settled in, had anti-nausea meds on board, fed us snacks (coffee, tea, cookies, muffins), and fed us lunch (bread, cold cuts, prawns, veggies and fruit). If you want to save $3, bring your own meds, very absorbant towels as the indoor area gets very wet, and anything else that might make you feel less nauseous on the boat trip out. It's a long boat ride and can get VERY bumpy. I wish I had brought my Tiger Balm because the strong smell of mint makes me feel a little better. It can also get very cold and windy (esp while the boat is cruising) so a fleece would be a good idea.

Oh, if the sigh of other people getting sick makes you sick, um, you might want to stock up on their biodegradable barf bags.

We had 13 divers on board, and maybe 30 snorkellers. I think the numbers can quadruple in high season. They divided the divers up in to 2 groups so I was happy about that. Our dive master was a nice guy and was quite thorough in his explanations. He kept an eye on all of us divers and went at what I felt to be a pretty good pace, although maybe a bit too fast at times? The husband likes to really take his time to look at everything around him (and he almost always spots something neat!) so I felt like I was trying to keep up with the DM but had to keep looking back over my shoulder for the husband.

I don't know if I'd book Poseidon again, though, but this is because they cater more to snorkellers. Not that I have anything against snorkellers or snorkelling (which I love) but they obviously have to pick dive sites based on how snorkellable it is. Pure dive, the dive-only vessel costs a small fortune, but might be worth it if we can take our time and go dive sites that are good for diving, not snorkelling.

Remi Pan

As a belated wedding gift from my cousin, we got this interesting looking pan. He told me it was called a Remi-pan, named after the person who created it; Remi Hirano.

I know quite a few Japanese TV personalities but I'm not very familiar with her. She's got a cooking show and I believe has put out a few books as well. This pan is supposed to be a one-stop shopping kind of pan that can fry, deep fry, saute, steam and boil. It's also supposed to be the perfect pan for making gyoza. The lid keeps the oil from splattering, you can pour water through the top part to steam the gyoza, and the non-stick coating ensures your little g's are crispy on the bottom without sticking to the pan.

The husband loves gyoza but I'm trying to avoid wheat so we'll have to come to a compromise here. I haven't made any gyoza yet, and have only been using this Remi Pan as a regular pan... Sorry, Cousin K! I promise to experiment more with this pan... In the meantime, it's just cute!

Green Tea Shortbread

It was my sister's bridal shower the other day, and as favours for all the guests, we decided to bake cookies. G baked some lovely chewy ginger cookies, and I yoinked a Martha Stewart Matcha Shortbread recipe. You'll notice these cookies are in a strange shape and it wouldn't surprise me if you've never seen such a shape. G said they looked like dog treats! Actually, they are supposed to be shaped like a section of a Japanese pine tree. I will have you know, G, the Japanese pine lives a really long time (don't ask me for a specific age, but I do know some of these trees have been around for centuries) and when you try to pluck a needle off of a pine tree, you'll always end up with 2 needles stuck together. So there.

I changed up Martha's recipe a bit by using 1 tbsp Japanese matcha powder, and 1 tbsp Japanese green tea leaves. These cookies are buttery and delicious. I used salted butter as well so omitted the extra salt that her recipe calls for. The saltiness of the butter and the slight bitterness of the green tea goes together very well. In a weird way, the bitterness almost brings out the sweetness of the cookie, too. Maybe that's the key to marriage. You've got to get through the bitterness to taste the sweetness, and then you become an old salt.

Martha Stewart's matcha Shoretbread Cookies:

Makes 3 dozen

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese green-tea powder (I used 1 tbsp Japanese Matcha powder and 1 tbsp Japanese green tea leaves)
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt (I omitted this)
  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature (I used salted butter)
  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, or granulated sugar
  1. Sift flour, tea powder, and salt into a small bowl; set aside. Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream on medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add sugar; continue to beat until very light in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes more. Add flour mixture; combine on low, scraping sides of bowl with a spatula if necessary, until flour is just incorporated and dough sticks together when squeezed with fingers.
  2. Place a piece of parchment on a clean surface; dust with flour. Roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness; chill in refrigerator or freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Cut chilled dough with 2-inch leaf cutters. Using a wide spatula, transfer to baking sheets. Chill until firm. Gather scraps together, re-roll, chill, and cut shapes. Bake until firm and barely starting to color, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating halfway through. Cool completely on wire rack; store in an airtight container for up to 3 to 4 weeks.