Friday, December 30, 2011

Japan Day Three: Of Breakfast Steaks and Black Sand Spa

Have I mentioned that from all the hotels I stayed in Japan, Hotel Nikko Kumamoto turned out to be my favorite?

I loved the cozy yet luxurious feel of Hotel Nikko Kumamoto but what sealed the deal for me was the glorious meat I had at the hotel's breakfast buffet (haha). 

Serena, the place where I had breakfast offered a lot of choices...

but this beautiful glistening beef stood out...
So soft that it melted in my mouth... better than some of the steaks I've had in restaurants!

After the memorable steak breakfast, we left Hotel Nikko Kumamoto and went to Kumamoto Castle. 
View from the Outside

Kumamoto Castle dates back to 1467 and it is considered as one of three premier castles in Japan.

The castle looked grand and magnificent from afar but not a lot of interesting things were to be seen inside.

We, at least, spotted actors in costume outside the castle walls.  They gamely posed for the camera:
Rose Among Thorns

Boy Next Door

Oldy Moldy

So Wicked

Castle exploration done, we then visited Suizeji Jojyuen Park, also in Kumamoto. Jojyuen was named after a character in a poem written by Tao Yuanming.

The tall trees at the entrance were perfect in setting the mood.
Peace & Quiet

The park evolved during the reigns of the 4th and 5th lords and it took 80 years for everything to be completed. One of the main attractions of the park is the miniature Mt. Fuji which looked more like the Chocolate Hills to me.
Spot Little Fuji

Mt. Fuji or not, the garden is the perfect haven to spend some alone time just appreciating how peaceful and calm the area is, making me wish that we had something like this back in the Philippines. 

From Kumamoto, we then traveled towards Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan.

It was a long journey of at least three hours so we stopped for lunch at Kusasenri Rest House at the foot of Mt. Aso. 
Fried Tofu


Egg Pudding

Deep Fried Chicken, Omelet, Fish

Tempura and Soba Noodles

Beef Tobanyaki


After lunch, we went to the Aso Ropeway Station where we were supposed to ascend the mountain via cable car. 

I was already imagining how beautiful the view would be on top, up in the air, when we learned that the ropeway was under maintenance!

We had to do it the old fashioned way so climb/walk/crawl, we did! 

Mt. Aso emits sulfur dioxide and it was telling with the rotten egg smell that welcomed us at the summit.

The ropeway, being out of commission, turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the close-up view of Mt. Aso was something else. It's hard to put into words how beautiful Mt. Aso was, but it undoubtedly was one of the best spots we visited during the tour.
Steaming Blue Liquid Was Captivating

It took a long bus ride from Mt. Aso for us to reach Ibusuki Iwasaki Hotel in Ibuski City. 

Ibusuki Iwasaki is more of a resort than a hotel which somehow explained the 70s feel of the entire complex. 

Dinner was in the form of an international buffet at the main dining room of Ibusuki Iwasaki.

Aware that I have been eating non-stop since the tour began, I tried to limit my food intake that night...
The dimsum was the only thing worth noting.

Roast Beef

Fresh Fruits

I could not resist!

We rested for about an hour after dinner before trying what Ibusuki Iwasaki was known for... the black sand spa! 

Here's an illustration on how to go about the black sand spa:

The first step was to be covered in black sand, heated naturally by the resort's hot spring. It was a bit weird and a tad awkward to lie there, waiting for the spa attendant to completely cover you in sand though.
Murtle leading the way

Being buried in the black sand was a warm and comforting feeling especially since we had been constantly exposed to the cold autumn weather of Japan at that point. I, for one, certainly welcomed the opportunity to sweat a little.

The heat could get uncomfortable though so one is allowed only up to 15 minutes to be covered in the black sand. After that, one can relax some more by taking a dip in the outdoor bath. The air was freezing but the water at the outdoor bath was too hot for my liking so I left in less than 5 seconds.  
For Those With High Heat Tolerance Only

To end the black sand spa experience, taking a shower was in order:

Ibusuki Iwasaki claims that the black sand spa helps in improving the health, but even without the health benefits, I'm glad that I was able to try something new because for me having unique, once in a lifetime experiences is what travelling is all about.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Japan Day Two: Three Cities, One Day

I'm not a morning person but waking up to this beautiful view for our second day in Japan perked me up instantly. 

I had to rush breakfast but I still managed to grab a few plates...
The sausages were outstanding.

A Japanese breakfast isn't complete without fish cakes. 

My travel partner Murtle said that this cup of bean sprouts was the best she's ever had.

So thoughtful of the Hirado Kishotei staff to bid us goodbye. The gesture was much appreciated.

Our morning was first spent in the city of Sasebo to cruise the Kujishima Islands.

The Pearl Queen was our transportation of choice with the trip lasting 50 minutes.

One can opt to enjoy the views comfortably inside the ship.

But most braved the strong cold winds to get a better feel of the islands.

There are some 208 islands along the 25km coastline stretching from Sasebo to Hirado, but coming from the Philippines where beautiful islands are aplenty, the scenery was nothing new. What made the trip worthwhile were the fresh air and cold weather.

After cruising the Kujikushima Islands, we then traveled to Nagasaki City where we stopped at Sonoda Shinju Nagasaki for a simple lunch.
noodles,  soup, chicken curry, shrimp with chill, and fish with sweet and sour sauce

With lunch finished, we headed to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum which was opened in 1996 as part of the 50th anniversary projects of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. 

At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Picture below is a clock that was found in a house near the Sanno Shrine, which was approximately 800 meters away from the center of the blast.

This is the life size model of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. When the atomic bomb exploded, its energy emission was equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT.

The energy released from the explosion is said to have consisted of 50% blast, 35% heat rays, and 15% radiation. It inevitably caused serious destruction to the city and its people. 

When all was said and done, out of the 240,000 residents of Nagasaki, 73,884 were killed with another 74,909 injured.  It is such a reminder that war is never the answer.

The museum put us in a pensive mood but we didn't have much time to reflect because we rushed to our next destination. We had to climb a steep street,

and pass by Oura Cathedral, Japan's oldest gothic style cathedral,

to reach Glover Garden. Glover Garden, also known as the Madame Butterfly house, was built by Scottish entrepreneur Thomas Blake Glover in 1863. 

We were not given much time to explore the entire estate and these are the only pictures worth sharing:
Statue of Tamaki Miura

Dock House

Dining Area

The Glover Garden visit was a blur because we had to catch the last ferry out of Nagasaki. 

Travel time from Nagasaki to our next city Kumamoto was about 40 minutes, so we all got off the tour bus and made ourselves comfortable inside the ferry.

Inside, I watched sumo wrestlers fight.

Action was so captivating that time flew by so fast!

Upon reaching Kumamoto, we went straight to our hotel, Hotel Nikko Kumamoto where Christmas was already in the air.

A Real Fireplace

Dinner was at Hotel Nikko's Japanese restaurant Benkay where we had a traditional kaiseki meal.

Kaiseki is a multi-course Japanese dinner consisting of small and often artistically prepared dishes.
Appetizer 1: Vegetable with Roe

Appetizer 2:  Steamed Egg

Appetizer 3: Sashimi


Grilled Fish

Tempura Set


Fresh Fruits

It was another heavy dinner, so we decided to walk the streets of Kumamoto in the hopes of burning a few calories.

We reached a shopping street near the hotel but most stores were already closed.

There was nothing else to do at Kumamoto so we retired to our room. 

Our second day in Japan was very productive with us visiting 3 cities in just 1 day. Little did I know that the multi-city hop would be the standard for the rest of the trip. I get exhausted just thinking about it!
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