GRRRL TRAVELER: Solo travel adventure guides and travel videos with GRRR
GRRRL TRAVELER is a travel survival and solo travel site inspiring others to find their GRRR for travel. It's about finding empowerment as a traveler by navigating cultural diversity while experiencing the bizarre, foreign, frightening and often times, funny. Find Travel survival, solo travel tips & adventures by Christine Kaaloa female solo traveler and travel YouTuber.
My Don Quijote Experience: Japan’s Best Discount Store for Travelers
If you’re doing souvenir shopping or even if you have travel needs or wanna pick up a Japanese snack, Don Quijote is your one-stop discount store for anything you can imagine. From souvenirs to anything from household supplies, beauty, medical, clothing, electronic, food and entertaining Japanese products which will make shopping feel like an amusement attraction. Best of all, you’ll find discounted prices and travelers can find tax free shopping.
What can you buy at Don Quijote?
The snack section in Matcha Green Tea Twix, (umeboshi) plum candy, dried seafood. They carry a surprising amount of imported candies as well.
limited edition japan kit kats
Japanese Health Products & Supplements
The health and supplements section is fairly stocked with a lot of health aids to help you with muscle and joint aches to vitamin supplements.
I’m a fan of the DHC vitamin supplements . Japan uses quality products and ingredients and the pills are very tiny. You can practically swallow them without water. Each time I’ve visited or passed through Japan, I’ve bought packets of DHC supplements! Vitamin mixes vary from collagen, B-mix, E, etc… and supplements to help with diet. I’ve also found the muscle relief aids to work pretty well
Japanese Beauty Products
Japanese beauty products is where Don Quijote excels if you’re female…
I love visiting the beauty aisles because there’s always a lot of curious inventions here. As a westerner it’s easy to misinterpret a lot of this. YOu’ve got anything form face slimming, posture enhancers and … uh… beauty aids to firm your cheeks.
I am in love with disposable eye warming masks. The masks heat up to a comfortable warmth when you remove them from the packet and they cover your eyes. Very relieving after a long day on the computer. Also, I bought one of those facial yoga mouthpieces below. The next time you see me on YouTube I’ll have nicely firmed cheeks.
Don Quijote Stores Tokyo: Products for facial yoga and muscle exercising
Don Quijote Stores Tokyo: Face slimming masks
Japanese Adult Toys
In the mega Don stores are larger and are more likely to have an Adults Only Sex toys section. There’s a thin cloth door with the sign ‘Adults Only’ to shield this section from casual viewers and children. It’s a small section with dildos and dress up costumes and … okay, I was embarassed to be there filming so I didn’t stay very long to notice the finer points. It wasn’t nearly as unusual or as seemingly sexual as the Japanese beauty care aisles.
Don Quijote Stores Tokyo
Costumes, Stationary and Household goods
The costume section is interesting and a humorous. If you’d like a unique and interesting costume to surprise friends with during Halloween visit the costume section. Products range from stuffed animal headwear to colorful wigs and fun occupational dress up costumes like policeman, samurai, nurse. It’s a little kinky and offbeat. Some of it can be random, like dressing up as Mount Fuji or a sushi.
Grocery Store & Discounted Foods
It’s unlikely you’ll be grocery shopping but travelers may want to visit the bento or ready-made food section where you can buy anything from mixed bento boxes to rice balls (aka onigiri).
Tip: Prices get discounted closer towards closing.
Don Quijote’s Tax Free Counter for Travelers
Japan charges an 8% sales tax on items, but not only does Don Quijote have discounted products but also tax free counters (you must show your passport to get exempt) .
At Don Quijote, travelers are exempt from Japan sales tax if they go to the Tax Free counter and show their passport. It’s like duty free and generally, you’re not supposed to use the items you just bought, but no one checks at customs. Save all your receipts as you might get asked for them at airport customs.
Mega Don Quijote is a mega store
I’ve visited Don Quijotes all around Tokyo, but Shinjuku had a mega Don Quijote! (It is literally called mega Don Quijote or Mega Donki) This location is open 24 hours. Browsing through Don Quijote, I get the impression that Japan can have a wacky, and occasionally risqué sense of humor. Which is interesting for such a polite, mannerly and seemingly quiet culture. I found the costume section in the Shinjuku location quite big, as if it’s Halloween all year round.
Don Quijote Locations in Japan
Don Quijote and Mega Don Quijote locations in Tokyo here.
Japan’s Best Discount Store for Travelers
My Don Quijote Experience (Video)
Japan Travel Series for Solo Travelers (Video Playlist)
Best Travel Insurance for Japan
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Sakura sake Kit Kat, anyone…? How about Limited Edition Coca Colas, edible sakura, bamboo ice cream… the list of must try Japanese sweets goes on.
I was in the Kansai region to experience Cherry Blossom Season in Japan. Initially in my video, I quoted 10 must try Japanese sakura snacks. Unfortunately found out later, that two of my snacks were Ume and one was strictly matcha tea. The truth is, I didn’t know how to title it — everything on my list are must try Japanese sweets.. and the majority of it are sakura.
During Sakura season, should you only look out for sakura foods?
Due to the fact Sakura season is so short and the blossoms last barely a week, cherry blossom season is a special celebration for Japanese, with hanami gatherings, sakura sales at stores and you’ll also notice seasonal products emerge. You’ll also find traditional Japanese sweets (aka wagashi ) infused with flavors like sakura, matcha tea, strawberry and peach.
10 must try sakura snacks
What is wagashi?
Wagashi is a Japanese sweet that is prepared with plant-based ingredients and which can be served with tea. Wagashi can be mochi, daifuku, manju or fruits. Often, wagashi can have special symbolic meanings which invite good feelings and memories to those who eat it.
Sakura Season in Japan
10 Must Try Japanese Sweets for Sakura Season
1. Limited Edition Japanese Sakura Sake Kit Kat
Kit Kat must have a home in Japan because they certainly have Limited Edition flavors you won’t find in any other country. How about Sakura Sake Kit Kat ? Sakura sake is a product sold in stores around sakura season, but I’m not sure if Kit Kat pulls it off smoothly with its liquor version. Unfortunately, sakura sake seems to only come out during sakura season.Where to buy this: Don Quijote; Daiso, sometimes, Family Mart/7Eleven
2. Matcha Tea Kit Kat
Matcha Tea Kit Kats are popular with tourists and you can buy them by the bag at Don Quijote, year round. But did you know that Match Tea Kit Kat has a milk chocolate and dark chocolate version? I’ve tried both!
The match milk tea version is milder and milkier in flavor, while the matcha dark tea chocolate tastes a bit like you’re sucking on a matcha tea grinds… you might even get your dose of antioxidants in one bite. I preferred the milkier version. Where to buy this: Don Quijote; Daiso, sometimes, Family Mart/7Eleven
limited edition japan kit kats
3. Sakura & Matcha Tea Pocky
Japan loves Pocky. Pocky is a thin and long pretzel wafer stick dipped in chocolate, but in the Sakura Match Tea Pocky version, the wafer stick is sakura-flavored while the tip is dipped in matcha tea milk chocolate. A beautifully delicate combination of soothing flavors. (Watch my video below!)
Where to buy this: Don Quijote.
4. Sakura Jelly
Sakura Jelly is the lovely taste of a first spring and is a sakura flavored gelatin-like dome wagashi. You buy them at confectionary shops in Japan. The taste is a magnificent romance and celebration of spring. The added highlight is the open and edible sakura blossom which sits beautifully preserved, soaking in the heavenly flavors around it. It’s a work of edible art! Where to buy this: Confectionary shops.
Sakura Mochi is a popular wagashi you might have with tea. I call this Sakura Rice Mochi, just to distinguish it from all the other mochis, because this mochi is different. While mochi is typically pounded rice, served in a balled paste, the sakura mochi is similar to a small mochi-sized onigiri. The rice is cooked with sakura flavor, accompanied with a sweet red bean paste filling and wrapped in a picked cherry blossom leaf.
When I stayed with my Japanese girlfriend Yuko on my first visit to Japan, her mother – a tea ceremonialist- prepared tea and sakura mochi. Sweet, light with a tinge of sour, it only invites warm feelings and delightful memories. Where you might find this: tea houses, traditional markets, grocery markets, (sometimes) convenience stores
Japan has Limited Edition Coca Cola and when I was there, sakura, peach and Osaka were standouts for the 2019 sakura season. Unfortunately, I never tried the Osaka version as they were being sold as a package rather than individually (almost like a collector’s item) Where to buy this: Don Quijote; Daiso, convenience stores
limited edition japan coca colas
limited edition japan coca cola osaka
7. Bamboo & Sakura flavored ice cream
Soft serve or Ice cream in Japan is fairly prominent and generally it costs 300 yen. Soft serve is soft and creamy, but it will not feel milky (I never felt very snotty after eating them)! In Arashiyama (Bamboo Forest) I stumbled upon bamboo and sakura ice cream! Of course, I had to try it. The sakura ice cream tasted a bit like a mild cherry-flavored ice cream. The taste was light and not heavy. Definitely a must!
Sakura & Bamboo Ice Cream in Kyoto, Arashiyama
8. Sakura Salt seasonings (Substituted for Ume chips )
The Ume chips I mistook for sakura chips due to the packaging and I loved the sweet, sour, salty flavor. I thought I’d substitute it for the Sakura salt seasonings. Sakura can also come as a salt seasoning which can be used to flavor things like onigiri or chazuke. I was tempted to buy one and they are small enough to carry, but I honestly was not sure if TSA would see the sakura blossoms as seeds or confiscate it for being from a plant. I guess I’ll never know!
Where to find this: Specialty and confectionary shops.
Hanami Dango is a three flavored dango stick and the colors represent the nature and season. Pink for cherry blossom, white the snow which has just melted to be spring and green for freshness of the greens in the spring season. My hanami dango flavors were: sakura, regular and matcha tea.
( Note: the Matcha can also be Mugwort, an herb with a slightly bitter taste but with known health benefits to Japanese) Where to find this: Dango is found in many places, but the hanami one might be special. General places for dango: traditional markets, park vendors, occasional convenience stores, small shop vendors selling mochi items.
10. Sakura breads at cafes and bakeries
Visiting bakeries and cafes, you might find sakura desserts and breads. With Japanese cooking, bread desserts do not look like sugar-coated donuts as they do in western countries. You’ll wonder what the fascination with them is, but often there is either a surprise filling, like custard, red bean, creme or it might just taste surprisingly great! The breads below were at the Miffy Sakura Bakeryin Kyoto.
Where to find them: Japan also has a lot of character cafes. Whatever your favorite cute Japanese character, you might find a character cafe in their honor: Pokemon Cafe (official website– tickets are highly sought after. This cafe is in Tokyo), GudetamaCafe (there is one is Osaka), PEANUTS Cafe, Hello Kitty Cafe, PomPomPurin Cafe, etc…
Miffy Japanese sakura salt bread
Miffy Japanese sakura salt bread
Bonus: Umeko Candy
Ume candy is made from the red umeboshi plum, which has a sour, sweet, salty taste. They sell a lot of these in Don Quijote. It’s a popularized taste although westerners will find it unique and maybe odd. You’ll either like it or you won’t. These plums are ubiquitous fillings for onigiri (aka rice balls). Either way, ume candy is a fun and strange discovery you will find in Japanese candy.
In candy packaging, sakura and plum blossoms look similar and can easily be confused with its pink blossom packaging. The way you might tell sakura and ume blossoms apart is by the flower petal. Sakura flowers have a split at the end of the petal, while ume blossoms do not. Where to buy this: Don Quijote, Daiso, convenience stores.
Where to find wagashi and Japanese sakura sweets ?
Wagashi is found in every city and isn’t hard to find as you might think. You’ll find them at tea houses, cafes, specialty sweet shops, character cafes, markets… you might even find some at Japanese konbinis (aka convenience stories) like 7 Eleven, Family Mart, Lawsons, etc.. Don Quijote has a huge selection of products ranging anything from sakura sake and liquors to Limited Edition Kit Kats and Coca Colas, Pocky and more.
Watch the Experiential Taste Test of 10 Must Try Japanese Sweets for Sakura season
➱ YOUTUBE PLAYLISTS: Tokyo Travel Guides: http://bit.ly/play-tokyo
I love eating Japanese snacks- do you? What are your must try Japanese sweets? Leave your recommendations below!
Under our expert traveler series, this guest post is written by travel and food blogger, Markus Kampl of The Roaming Fork. Based in Ho Chi Minh City for the past 18 months but a lover of this city for years, Markus documents his travels through his food explorations of following ingredients to the final dish. He is your guide, showing you the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh in 48 hours
Ho Chi Minh City is a rapidly modernizing city that is both exciting and fast-paced, yet continues to hold onto some traditions through colonial architecture and an impressive range of museums. 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City will allow you enough time to visit a number of these institutions whilst making time to enjoy the delicious and fresh food with a late night cocktail on a rooftop bar.
9 Best Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh in 48 hours
1. War Remnants Museum
One of the highlights in Ho Chi Minh City are the many museums that capture different aspects of Vietnam’s past. With much of Vietnam’s history being centred on conflict, one of the best places to visit is the War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3, Open 7.30am to 6.00pm, Entry Fee 40,000VND) which catalogues the conflicts of the 20th century through the eyes of the Vietnamese. On the grounds there a number of fighter jets, tanks, and helicopters on display, whilst inside over three levels, various rooms are dedicated to the stories of the wars over the last 100 years, with a particular focus on the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War). The displays are often raw and graphic in nature and provide an excellent way to learn more about the conflicts and their devastating impacts on the local population.
Cu Chi Tunnels are a 120 km network of underground tunnels and trapdoors used during the Vietnam War. The site is located 40 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh and is often combined as a War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels day tour.
3. Independence Palace
A short walk away is the Independence Palace (135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, Open 7.30am to 11.00am – 1.00pm to 5.00pm, Entry Fee 40,000VND) also known as the Reunification Palace. Perhaps the most enduring image of the palace is the vision of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates to mark an end to the war in 1975. The interior of the palace has been maintained from 1975, and it really is like stepping back in time. The communications centre in the basement is a must-see display within the palace. //widget.getyourguide.com/v2/core.js
4. Ben Thanh Market
Ho Chi Minh City’s best known market is the centrally located Ben Thanh Market (Le Lai Street, Open 6.00am to 6.00pm, Entry Free). There are all sorts of handicrafts, jewelry, shoes, souvenirs, and clothes to buy as well as many stalls selling local produce such as rice, noodles, meats, seafood, spices and nuts. If shopping isn’t your thing, the market is worth visiting for the food court, where all the famous local delicacies are available in one handy spot.
At night, the streets surrounding the market building transform into a lively night market.
If the touristy nature of Ben Thanh puts you off, then head out of the centre of Ho Chi Minh City to District 6 where the huge Binh Tay Market (57 Thap Muoi Street, District 6, Open 6.00am to 7.00pm, Entry Free) is located. You will find all the same products on sale as with Ben Thanh Market (and probably more) but with lower prices and less hassle from the vendors. District 6 is also home to the city’s Chinatown.
6. Ho Thi Ky Flower Market
And for lovers of flowers and unique market experiences, head to Ho Thi Ky Flower Market (Hem 52 Ho Thi Ky, District 10, Open 24 hours) where you can wander the many colourful and perfume filled laneways where flower wholesalers operate in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s more serene atmospheres.
GP Ho Thi Ky Flower Mkt
7. Explore Ho Chi Minh’s French Architecture
One of the legacies of the 60-year French colonization of Vietnam are the wonderful examples of French Architecture, that not only have stood the test of time, but continue to be an important element of daily life.
The Notre Dame Cathedral (Cong xa Paris, District 1, 6.00am to 7.00pm, Entry Free) and Central Post Office (125 Cong xa Paris, District 1, Open 7.00am to 7.00pm, Entry Free) are conveniently located next to each other and are great examples of the unique French design. A further short walk away is the upmarket Dong Khoi Street, where in the immediate area classic French designed buildings such as the Opera House, The Majestic Hotel, and the Museum of Fine Arts are located.
Dominating the skyline in Ho Chi Minh City is the Bitexco Tower (36 Ho Tung Mau Street, District 1, Open 9.30am to 9.30pm, Entry Fee 200,000VND, you can book in advance ) with the helicopter landing pad jutting out from the side. Here you will find the Sky Deck on the 49th floor which offers visitors 360 degree views of the city. Grab your camera and head there for a sunset to remember.
With the year-round warm night time temperatures, there is no shortage of rooftop bars to enjoy a few drinks after a heavy day of sight-seeing. Whether taking a step back in time at one of the classic hotels such as the Rex Hotel (141 Nguyen Hue, District 1, Open 24 Hours) or partying the night away at the Chill Sky Bar (AB Tower, 76A Le Lai, Open 5.30pm to 2.00am), there will be a rooftop bar to suit your needs.
Must Try Foods in Ho Chi Minh
Vietnamese cuisine is world famous, and although most visitors will have tried a few Vietnamese dishes prior to arriving, there is nothing like experiencing the food from the source.
And despite many Vietnamese dishes originating from different regions throughout Vietnam, they can pretty much all be found and eaten in Ho Chi Minh City.
Some of the classic not-to-be missed Vietnamese dishes include the classic beef noodle soup Pho, the French inspired filled bread roll Banh Mi, the fried spring roll Cha Gio, and the fresh version Goi Cuon.
More dishes to add to the list are the breakfast staple, grilled pork and broken rice Com Tam, beef rolled in betel leaves, Bo La Lot, and the fiery noodle soup from the imperial capital of Vietnam, Bun Bo Hue.
These dishes, and more, can be found everywhere. From roadside stalls, to small speciality hole-in-the-wall type establishments, in market food halls, through to restaurants offering the full range of dishes.
A great way to explore the depth of Vietnamese cuisine is to take part in a motorbike food tour, where you can taste a range of dishes in multiple locations all while experiencing sitting on the back of a motorbike through the hectic streets of the city.
When friends visit, the one restaurant that I always take them to is The Secret Garden (158 Pastuer Street, District 1 Open 11.00am to 10.00pm For bookings call 090 990 46 21). This local restaurant serves delicious and fresh Vietnamese cuisine, in comfortable surroundings, with a great rooftop view and at affordable prices.
Must Try Vietnamese Food: Pho in Ho Chi Minh
A large majority of sights worth visiting in Ho Chi Minh City are located in District 1, which means it is easy and cheap to get around.
Walking: Many of the attractions are within walking distance of each other meaning that a little pre-planning will allow you to visit a few places within the one outing.
Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and cheap, and are the most comfortable option for getting around. To avoid taxi scams, only use the two main companies, Vinasun and Mai Linh, and ensure the meter is on before departing.
Grab Motorcycle: Grab motorcycles are everywhere and offer the cheapest form of transport. A ride can be booked via the Grab App however they can be easily approached on the street and will work out the fare in advance before heading off for the trip.
Grab Taxi:Grab Taxis exist and are cheaper than normal taxis however are not always easy to book. They will usually call ahead to confirm your location so if you don’t have a local mobile number, or don’t speak Vietnamese, then the drivers will sometimes not pick you up.
Xe Om: These are private motorcycle riders who usually wear a blue shirt and wait on street corners for customers. Prices should be agreed on before starting the trip and be prepared to negotiate.
Buses: There is a bus network running through Ho Chi Minh City and it is very cheap, however if your time is short then the cost saving will not stack up against the inconvenience of working out routes and timetables.
On the whole, HCMC is a very safe city to visit with very little danger to your personal safety. There is, however, an issue with petty crime such as phone and bag snatching and pick pocketing, especially around nightclubs and busy tourist areas.
To reduce the chances of falling victim to one of the petty crimes, follow the usual safety tips such as leaving any valuables in your hotel safe, not leaving bags sitting in places where they are easy to snatch, and if you need to wear a bag, ensure that it is strapped across your body, not sitting off your shoulder. Read Solo Travel Safety Tips
Another precaution to take is with the local currency. Keep larger notes separated from smaller notes, as they can look the same. For example, 10,000 Dong notes look very similar to 100,000 Dong notes, whilst 20,000 Dong and 500,000 Dong Notes are both blue. And sometimes when paying a vendor in a rush, mix-ups can occur.
And finally, when using your mobile phone, or camera for that matter, make sure you are aware of who is around you, and if possible, avoid using your phone casually as you walk around the streets, as phone snatching occurs more often than it should. Please don’t think this can’t happen to you.
As a majority, if not all, of your 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City will be spent in District 1, it makes sense for your hotel to be located there. There are few areas within Ho Chi Minh City where you can consider staying depending on your plans and budget, with the following two areas covering all budget and location needs.
Pham Ngu Lao (PNL)
This area, also known as the backpacker district, has plenty of cheaper accommodation and hostels. It is an especially popular area for those looking to spend more time socialising in the local bars, restaurants, spas, and night clubs. PNL is home to the (in)famous Bui Vien Street.
This area has a majority of the more expensive hotels as well as being next to an area known as the Japanese Quarter, which is a quieter area with many mid-priced hotels.
Stay:Paragon Saigon(22-24 Thi Sach , District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam –)
AirBnb: Ho Chi Minh City is awash with AirBnb options (get $40 credit by using my GRRR link) from shared accommodation, entire apartments, to large houses for groups. There are options all across the city.
Penned under our expert traveler series, this guest post is written by San Diego based travel and food blogger,Angelica of Things to Do & See, who shares the best budget-friendly activities and the most delicious local foods from places she’s traveled. She will be your guide to showing you the best things to eat in San Diego.
San Diego is one of the best places to eat.
That’s not me being biased because I live in San Diego. Yelp recently ranked San Diego a #5 in best foodie destinations around the US! The huge increase in signature dishes and talented chefs secured its spot on the list, according to the study.
But if you ask me, San Diego has been a foodie destination for years. It has access to so many fresh ingredients. It is a melting pot of different lifestyles and cultures and that mix created so many unique dishes.
What should you eat in San Diego, if you want to try the things that foodie locals would say really represent the taste? It can be hard to decide, because there are so many popular restaurants, favorite dishes, and great places to eat! So I put together this list of some of the many foods and restaurants that represent the flavors of San Diego or are popular with the locals. When you finally make it to your trip, check out these 10 best things to eat in San Diego!
10 Best things to eat in San Diego
Note: If you’re vegetarian or just aren’t used to eating a ton of meat, you might notice that food in San Diego is extremely meat heavy. Some of the dishes in this list are meat-free, but for the meat-full ones, I added some delicious vegetarian alternatives when possible!
1. Carne asada fries
Carne asada friesstarted in San Diego, so you have to try them when you’re here. If you don’t know what these are, picture crisp fries topped with flavorful, perfectly grilled carne asada, shredded cheese, cotija cheese, guacamole, and sour cream. It’s a little like Canadian poutine! The toppings can vary a bit depending where you go– sometimes there’s pico de gallo, and sometimes there’s grilled shrimp!
Lolita’s Mexican Food usually takes the credit for being the original restaurant that created this dish, but it’s only one of the many places you can try them. Another popular restaurant to try carne asada fries and my personal favorite is La Puerta. Go during their happy hour if you’re on a budget!
For a vegetarian alternative, check out Pokez Restaurant, a vegetarian friendly Mexican spot, and order the tofu fries. Their tofu is full of flavor and while the vegetarian version is arguably a bit better for you, you’ll still have that super full feeling like with the carne asada fries, even if you split them.
Carne Asada Fries
2. California burritos
California burritos are basically the above but in a burrito– so carne asada, fries, guacamole, etc. But don’t be deceived by the name– different cities in California have their own style of burrito. And California burritos are the ones that started in San Diego.
You can find these almost everywhere- from 24 hour taco shops, to bars, to high end restaurants. A popular local favorite and my personal favorite is atTaco Surf PB. Their carne asada is perfection, and their prices are so reasonable! Also if you aren’t used to finishing 1 lb burritos on your own, you might need to split these with a friend.
To get a tasty vegetarian version, check out Ranchos Cocina! While they don’t exactly have a vegetarian California burrito, their vegetarian version of carne asada burritos are amazing! These are like the California burrito, but without fries.
best foods to eat in san diego: California burrito
3. Fish tacos
With the ocean and Mexico so close by, it’s not that surprising that amazing fish tacos are so popular and easy to find in San Diego. Again, every taco shop and bar will have these, and they’re another can’t miss staple in a San Diego diet!
For people who love affordable, fresh, and creative fish tacos, check out the local Fish Shop restaurants, with locations in Point Loma and Pacific Beach. These have a rotating freshly caught fish that you can base your taco on and is a popular spot for a quality fish taco. For the classic, authentic Baja-style fish taco that San Diego is known for, you need to check out the food truck Mariscos German. It can be a little out of the way if you’re just focused on staying in the main parts of San Diego, but it’s a quick, must do trip for any foodie!
4. Avocado toast
If you’re anything like me, you might roll your eyes at this section. Yes, you can get avocado toastin many places around the world, but trust me- it won’t taste the same as avocado toast in San Diego!
Because did you know that California grows 90% of the US’s avocados and San Diego County grows 60% of that 90%, according to SanDiego.org? The avocados are so fresh here, which makes the toast next level. I didn’t think there would be such a noticeable difference until I moved to San Diego. Trust me!
You can find these almost anywhere, from brunch places to coffee shops. I personally like Parakeet Cafe, a ridiculously cute, local coffee shop with a few different San Diego locations like La Jolla and Little Italy. Their avocado toast is great, but they also have other creative toasts- like mushroom toast! And for a full on, avocado toast bar, check out Son of A Toast.
Best foods to eat in san diego: avocado toast
5. Bacon Cheeseburger at Hodad’s
Hodad’s is San Diego’s hyper local fast burger joint. Like In N Out for California or Dick’s for Washington, state- except Hodad’s has actually made it on a ton of “top burgers in the US” lists- from Zagat’s to Men’s Journal’s to Insider’s, etc. Its double bacon cheeseburger is its signature burger, and they even offer mini sizes for people with smaller appetites. Be prepared for a long line full of both locals and foodie tourists!
Note: People will kill me for saying this, but I preferBurger Lounge for another extremely popular, local Southern California fast burger. Their beef is all grass-fed, and they have an amazing quinoa veggie burger!
6. Donuts from Donut Bar
If you’re looking up “can’t miss places to eat in San Diego”, Donut Bar is almost always on everyone’s list. And for good reason- their yeast donuts are amazing and creative! I didn’t even like donuts or sweets until I had their donuts. You can’t go wrong with any of their donuts, but some of the more popular ones are their French toast donut and their pop tart donut (yes, it does have an entire pop tart inside).
Don’t be daunted by the line because it moves quickly, but do head early because they close once they run out of donuts. Since it’s also a bar, if you end up craving donuts for dinner, they reopen at 5 on Fridays and Saturdays and have beer and milk on tap!
7. Brunch at Hash Hash A Go Go
Did you know that Hash Hash A Go Go, one of the restaurants that’s on food shows like Man vs Food, is actually from San Diego? The Las Vegas location gets a lot of press in food media because it’s in Las Vegas and delicious, but you have to check out the original location in San Diego!
Known for delicious, gigantic portions of “Midwest” style brunch, their creative Bloody Marys (like their BLT Bloody Mary – which could pass for a meal) and their fried chicken eggs benedict (aka the definition of perfection) are my personal favorites. Their red velvet waffle is a close second too. Make sure you go with a group, because their portions will probably be too big for you to finish on your own!
8. Pork Sandwiches at Carnita’s Snack Shack
You might think that good pork is more of a Southern or Midwest US thing, but the pork sandwiches at Carnita’s Snack Shack are a massive local and national favorite. This is the place to get a sandwich that has way more flavor than what you actually paid for. Their sandwiches range from pulled pork, bacon, and pork loin to pork belly, ham, and bacon. It’s pretty ridiculous, but there’s a reason that so many top food magazines have written about them.
Unfortunately there are no good vegetarian main dish options or analog here, but if you love pork, you have to check out their sandwiches!
9. Fried chicken sandwiches at The Crack Shack
More of a chicken person than pork? Then you have to check out The Crack Shack! This is one of the most popular restaurants in San Diego, and for good reason, because their sandwiches are awesome. It’s like Carnitas Snack Shack for chicken lovers. If you want something lighter than a sandwich, get the chicken oysters, which are basically like adult chicken nuggets, made with real chicken.
10. Acai Bowls
The perfect way to cool down along the beach (besides with a margarita) is with an acai bowl. Because they were popularized in this region, they’re so cheap and delicious here compared to other cities! If you haven’t had them before, acai bowls are almost like smoothie bowls made with a super fruit berry called acai, then topped with anything from fruits to nuts to chocolate. You can find these almost anywhere along the beach, and they make a quick and satisfying snack.
If you want Instagram food, get an acai bowl inside of a pineapple from Rum Jungle Cafe. If you want one of the most popular, less sweet acai bowls check out Everbowl when you’re in Little Italy.
best foods to eat in san diego: Acai bowl
What did you think of these 10 Best foods of San Diego? What would you add to this list? Comment below.
Cherry blossoms (aka sakura) in Japan- is it on your bucket list?
For a long time, I thought sakura season in Japan was just travelers hype. I mean, I did not discount the rare occasion to celebrate cherry blossom (aka sakura) beauty. I just thought– yeah, cherry blossom flowers. I’ve seen them in Korea, so what’s the big deal. You see, I’ve never been a flower-type of person nor do I travel much during peak tourist season.
After experiencing sakura season in Japan, I retract that bit about it not being a big deal. It is. Whether I thought i was a flower type of person or not… it is something Japan and its sakura transformed me into while I was there. In this post I’ll be sharing a Kansai travel guide of my Top 10 Cherry Blossom Spots of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara.
Best Cherry Blossom Spots of the Kansai region
This was my first time experiencing cherry blossom season in Japan. Sakura season typically occurs between the months of March and April. I’ve already visited Tokyo. Now wanted to explore the Kansai region for its picturesque and diverse beauty. When I arrived, the sakura in each city was just starting to go into full blossom, which meant I had about a week, to chase them down.
Visiting the best cherry blossom spots may be important to foreign travelers like myself. But for the Japanese the focus is different. During cherry blossom season in Japan, the Japanese celebrate hanami (otherwise known as cherry blossom viewing, while picnicking under the cherry trees ). Due to the fact cherry blossoms last for a short time after they bloom- a week if you’re lucky- sakura season is a time where Japanese are reminded of the precious beauty and fragility of life and how it should not be squandered. Thus, Japanese celebrate with hanami gatherings of family and friends to picnic, drink and eat while celebrating the fragrance and beauty of this short season.
Seasonal Foods & Celebrations during Cherry Blossom season
During sakura season there are also sakura discounts and special Japanese foods made with sakura. I noticed the seasonal fruits to try in the Kansai region around this time where strawberries (they even have light pinkish white ones!), sakura foods and well, there is an abundance of matcha green tea popularity. Matcha desserts seem to work hand-in-hand with sakura ones and you might find chocolates or soft serve with a combo of both. As far as sakura foods go, I’ve tried and/or seen anything from sakura sake, jelly, candies, soft serve, snacks, mochi and limited edition drinks from Coca cola and Starbucks.
You’ll notice most of my top cherry blossom viewing spots are in Kyoto. While there are certainly lovely cherry blossom viewing spots that I did not mention of Osaka and Nara, I made my top 10 list from cherry blossom locations that were easily accessible for independent solo travelers. I also planned it to maximize time as not only did I have a little over a week to get around but I was also dealing with bad back issues and plantar fasciitus in my feet. I needed to be smart with my walking and filming time. Thus, at least half of my Kansai travel guide listings will be at/ near major sites, so you can maximize time. They are top cherry blossom spots as well.
Best cherry blossom spots in Kansai to experience hanami
These are cherry blossom locations where you will find Japanese relaxing and enjoying a picnic or interacting with cherry trees.
1. Osaka Castle Park / Osaka
Osaka Castle Park was my welcome intro to Osaka and my first favorite sakura experience and my first understanding of hanami. As the second largest park in Osaka, the park is quite large and I did not even make it to Osaka Castle. The park winds around the moat with cherry blossoms leading the way. Meanwhile Osaka Castle is a good 20-30 minutes walk further inside. It’s easy to get distracted as there are almost 600 cherry trees. Immediately the trees will welcome you into the park like a canapé. Blue tarp mats are laid out at Osaka Park under the trees for hanami and so family, colleague and friends can gather, eat, and drink while enjoying the beauty of this short but beautiful season.
Located in Higashiyama district next to Yasaka Shrine of Gion, sits Maruyama Park, a popular social spot for hanami. There are over 680 cherry trees of different varieties and a restaurant area where you can gather with friends to enjoy a meal. The most popular gathering spot is at the iconic weeping cherry tree which is lit up at night. At night the park has illuminations (or tree lightings) so you can continue their merriment under the sakura stars.
As Yasaka shrine is neighboring, it’s ideal to explore the shrine grounds, where there is a shrine dedicated to fertility and to beauty. The latter is said to be one that many maiko and geisha like to visit. During sakura season, you may find food vendors lining the path from the shrine grounds to Maruyama Park.
Getting there: 10 minute walk from Gion Station (towards the direction of the Opera house; not bridge).
Togetsukyo, or ‘Moon Crossing’ Bridge is Arashiyama’s iconic bridge crossing over the Katsura River . Next to the bridge is a river park lined with dozens of cherry trees, where you can picnic against the scenic beauty and romantic location.
Getting to Arashiyama: These metro station stops arrive in or near it- JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, Keifuku Arashiyama Station and Hankyu Arashiyama Station. Or take bus #23 to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae
You can’t quite picnic here, but maybe you can pack a sandwich! Keage Incline is an abandoned railway, which used to transport ships between the Lake Biwa Canal to the Okazaki Canal. The cherry trees create a kind of a tunnel over the tracks. When it is not sakura, the tracks make for a popular Instagram spot.
Getting to Keage Incline: 4 min walk from Keage Station , Higashiyama,
These cherry blossom locations are notable ones but you might not want to linger long in one place with them. Unlike other locations where you can enjoy hanami or the sakura area fully, these can be more like one-offs where you’re on your way to somewhere else. The one exception may be the Kiyomizu-dera temple which is a substantial attraction you will spend time in.. just not necessarily for hanami. My timing might have been bad, but the sighting of cherry blossom trees were not as full as promised.
5. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple is known for its wish-granting waters, but it’s also houses 1500 cherry blossom trees on its hilly slopes. I didn’t see that many blossoming trees when I arrived but it is possible the area was not blooming at that time. The iconic temple shot is said to be a panoramic shot from behind the temple looking out. Unfortunately, the temple is currently under construction. But as a temple grounds, you can explore the area, enjoy the three story pagoda, wishing waters and find your own sakura moments.
Note: The streets leading up to Kiyomizu-dera are lined with souvenir and snack shops but the architecture is reminiscent of an old Kyoto.
Okazaki Canal, located a stone’s throw from Heian Shrine, is a waterway that connects to Lake Biwa Canal, the main canal that brings water to the city of Kyoto. The cherry trees lining the sides create a semi canape over the canal.
Getting to Okazaki Canal: Take bus 5 or 100 to Heian Shrine. It is right before the giant red torii gate that stands as a welcome towards the shrine grounds.
Last but not least, you can always find wonderful impromptu spots around the city. One of my favorite but lesser known spots and one that tourists don’t know about is Kiyamachi Dori or Kiyamachi Street. In the heart of Kyoto, near Gion, parallel to Pontocho Alley and the Kamo River, Kiyamachi Street is a popular local nightlife and restaurant walking street with a river canal running through it. If you get lost, just follow the barbeque scent which permeates the area. Lit at night with lights of its surroundings, its buzz is almost romantically electric. Nearest Stations: Gion Station / Higashiyama Station
These are definite musts if you visit the Kansaii region. I would definitely add Osaka Castle Park to this category as well. The park is overwhelmed by sakura trees and the most impressive by sheer number. But it is also a great hanami experience which is why I placed it there originally.
8. Sagano Romantic Train Ride, Kyoto
Beautiful at all seasons is the Sagano Romantic Train Ride. This is a sightseeing train which runs through the picturesque Arashiyama-Sagano area to Kameoka Torokko station. Once at Kameoka Torokko station you can either take a lovely boat ride back down the river gorge or take a return train. Unfortunately, I went on a day the boat docks were closed due to the rain. You can tell me how your boat ride went- I’ll bet it’s jaw dropping!
Admission: roughly around $12 roundtrip ticket; $6 one way ticket. The only way to book advance tickets is through a tour aggregator site like Klook and each vendor will have a limited supply. The rest is sold through the station.
Getting to Sagano Train Ride station: You can take the Sagano Train from either direction- Saga Torokko or Kameoka Torokko. The easiest is from Kyoto Station, take a train to JR Saga Arashiyama station (there is a train that goes direct to Kameoka Station as well). The JR Saga Arashiyama station is right next to the Saga Torokko Station (you can’t miss it). In the station you can purchase tickets to the Sagano Romantic Train Ride. Directions here.
saga torokko station kyoto
saga torokko station kyoto
9. Nara Park, Nara
Free roaming Sika deer, pretty girls in kimonos, three world heritage sites (Todaiji– it has a giant buddha- Kofukuji, and Kasuga-taisha) and over 1700 cherry trees of different varieties, Nara Park is a mixed bag of unforgettable experiences. To be honest, when I went I was too preoccupied with the deer to explore the entire park in search of sakura. But I couldn’t go wrong either way. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’d recommend to anyone during all times of the year. Best yet, it’s only 45min from Osaka by metro train.
Nara Park is large but walkable. Things are much closer than they appear on a map. The deer in Nara Park are wild but are special Sika deer and they bow for the crackers. You can buy deer crackers (which are specially made for deer consumption) to feed the deer. Some of them can get aggressive and nip at your clothes to draw your attention. Expect to be swarmed. Please do not feed the deer anything other than the deer crackers as they can get sick on people food or trash. Also, do not tease the deer. If you are not going to feed them, it is unkind to tease them in that manner.
Getting Around Nara: Straight off Nara station, there is a tourism information office where you can buy a pass for the circular bus (it’s a specific yellow bus). While the main deer parks, Japanese restaurants and Nara Park are within walking distance, the bus will move you around faster and only cost around $5 for unlimited rides. The office can give you a map to show you where the main attractions are.
Noted as one of the Top 100 Paths of Japan, The Philosopher’s Walk is a path running along a canal stretching two kilometers with 500 Yoshino cherry trees lining the way. The path was named after a famous philosopher who used this walk as his meditation. The path runs from Ginkakuji temple to Nanazenji Temple.
Best ways to get around the Kansai region
The travel distances between these cities are close, with Osaka being 45 minutes from Nara and an hour to Kyoto. It’s so close, it is like taking a subway train from Manhattan to Queens. You do not need a JR metro pass but can suffice with yourICOCA card, PASMO or SUICA. So I planned my crossover into each city in a sort of circular progression- Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka. I knew that -at thevery most- I might have seven days to experience hanami and sakura in the cities. But given a storm or strong winds and rain, I assumed those flowers could fall within a day, as well.
Osaka is the best strategic home base for visiting nearby cities it seems. Intercity it is well connected with trains, metro and bus and it has two airports which can both be reached by metro, bus or train. While Osaka is not as lovely as Kyoto and its mountains and rivers, Osaka has a fun character, great food and you’ll easily find a lot to do and shop in Osaka. Tip: Get an Osaka Amazing Pass (unlimited rides and free attractions- I got a two day pass)
Nara is a MUST. It is a day trip and a much smaller city to navigate. From Nara station, you can get to the main attractions and Nara Park on foot. However, it’s much easier and inexpensive to just get the unlimited circular bus day pass (the loop buses are yellow), sold at the Bus Information Center right outside the station. One day passes cost around 500 yen (under $5); otherwise, individual bus fare is 210 yen.
Kyoto is a large city but it will feel like a pedestrian one due to the fact the metro and train system is smaller than Osaka and buses are used more readily. It is relatively easy to use the bus as a foreigner as there are English translations and many bus drivers can have a slight understanding of the language. There is no airport in Kyoto.
I’ve always felt at home in airports. Some travelers love arriving at their destination, but i’ve secretly always loved airport layovers. Airports have always felt like a place of transition for me. It has movement and is a place, where travelers cross paths with an impending sense of excited anticipation of a destination. It is as if it is a midway point to a long-awaited and much saved-up-for dream. Yes, I love staying in airports so much that I didn’t mind sleeping in them on occasiona for layovers.
Until now, the only type of airport hotel I’ve ever known, were defined as hotels conveniently located in the neighborhood of the airport. Generally, they have free airport shuttle service for door to door pickups and drop-offs at the airport. I’ve never considered the worth of staying at one of those hotels because I know mostly, i’m paying for a pillow vs an experience. Feeling fully rested would be unlikely, because I cringe at the idea of oversleeping and missing my flight.
For my Mazda trip to the Arctic Ocean, I had a layover in Vancouver International Airport. I was conveniently booked at an airport hotel. Normally, I try to research where I’m staying- at least how to get there- but the trip planning was running at the last-minute. Being this was a trip with Mazda, I also knew I was traveling in a corporate way, which typically means they will get me to the place I need to be at, fairly efficiently, conveniently and with least fuss. I knew there was a priority of getting me to where I needed to be, so I could be well-rested and give my top performance. If they were booking me into an airport hotel, it would likely be the closest hotel to the airport so I would not miss have an opportunity to miss my flight! My travel itinerary said: Fairmont Vancouver Airport- for a night’s layover and then two days upon return.
Arriving in the airport, I went to the airport information desk to ask about my hotel’s airport shuttle. To my surprise I was directed upstairs, “No, your hotel it is in the airport”.
Whuuuh? I had to be hearing incorrectly… inside the airport?
“Yes, inside the airport… above the U.S. check-in area in the International wing.”
This… couldn’t be right. But those were the only directions I had.
At the end of the international check-in terminal was an escalator and walkway to my hotel. It was mind-blowing pushing my airport luggage rolling cart over a walkway suspended above airport check-in counters. Entering my hotel lobby never felt so good.
The Fairmont Vancouver Airport is an airport hotel with a boutique feeling. There’s a warmth and liveliness to its atmosphere and a cheery professionalism to its staff.. as if walking into a spa. You can drop your airport luggage cart at the door’s entrance.
I was booked into a deluxe room with a king bed and a floor to ceiling window to a most wonderful view of the runway and the North Shore Mountains. Walking into my room, there was a pleasant fragrance and light music playing from the television monitor which was on and set to the hotel TV channel.
The room is boutique chic for business travelers. The flat screen television is set up to accept plugin from your laptop or DVD player in the case you want to test out your powerpoint presentation on the television screen ( I freelance in A/V, so it was a surprise to see they had a decent hookup for business professional needs). There is a mobile charging port by the bed and daily turndown service.
Knowing the airport check in counter was located below my airport gave me peace of mind. I knew I’d be able to rest fully and roll out of bed into the baggage check-in line!
Okay, let’s talk about the view. What makes this hotel unique and one of the best airport hotels in the world is the room view. If you are an airport lover like me, you’ll squeal as I did when you look outside your window. I love staying in airports, even if its staying in less than comfortable means like a seat, lounge or a bench (okay, comfort would be nice).
How would you love to wake up to this view of the airport gates and runway … without having to have slept on an airport bench?!
Pretty cool. Despite the front row seats, it is as if you’re in a sound-proof world… a peace bubble. The windows are soundproof so you don’t hear a thing from the runway or airplanes outside.
I had a spacious western style bathroom. The bathing and showering area was separate from the toilet. The toilet was in its own room furthest from the bedroom- from the outside you might mistake it for a closet! I found this weird because a toilet is one of the headliners of a bathroom experience, but at Vancouver Fairmont Hotel, it was being treated like an ugly kid brother or a dark family secret.
The toiletries were premium quality- Rose 21 brand . The brand is a lightly scented floral and fruity scent. It was the same scent as the air in my hotel room. The shampoo and conditioners were amazing and softened my thick and wiry Pacific Asian hair- I wished I could bring home more! You can buy it on Amazon here or at the Fairmont store. (I’m buying some as soon as I finish writing this post!)
It’s not often that I remember hotel toiletries. I’ve only felt this way about two other hotels in my lifetime… one, was the Fairmont Copely Plaza hotel in Boston (another bucket listable hotel that I lived in for two weeks during my television producing days) ! Apparently, I should shop Fairmont hotel toiletries more often! I bought my mom that hotel’s citrusy shampoo and moisturizer and she loved it so much she made it last two years when it was discontinued (FYI, I have a very frugal Asian mom who is good at making things stretch).
fairmont vancouver airport hotel bathroom
The Jetside Bar was the first thing I noticed when walking through the lobby. The floor to ceiling windows opening to the airport tarmac is impressive. The bar is the largest I’ve seen stocked to the hilt, with carefully chosen wines, craft beers and liquors.
GLOBE@YVR restaurant is discretely tucked next to the bar/lounge in a quieter area next to an open kitchen. It serves a menu of locally sourced ingredients from British Columbia. It is not your standard menu but is quite creative with cuisine, which is flavored to give you a taste of the Pacific Northwest and Canada. There’s an impressive selection of seafood appetizers such as pacific mussels, dungeness crab cakes, and beef braised ravioli, while the main farm and sea dishes own names like Sakura Pork Tomahawk, Pan head Steelhead Salmon, Vegan Beet Rissoto.
The hotel facilities :
Day Use Rooms – Rent a room for shorter periods (4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours)
Jetside Bar- serves wines, cocktails and beers. Live music nightly. Floor to ceiling windows to the airport tarmac.
Globe Restaurant & Afternoon Tea – The restaurant at Fairmont Vancouver Airport prides itself on freshly sourced, sustainably grown ingredients. It even has a period where it holds afternoon tea.
The Fairmont Vancouver Airport is conveniently located in the Vancouver International Airport (YVR), above the U.S. departures check-in counters. It is about a 10 minute walk from the domestic airport wing. The domestic and international wings are fairly close together. Vancouver Airport itself has a lot of convenience options.
From a basement level 7 Eleven store to food courts, an outside Japadog vendor on ground level outside the metro station (highly recommended), and a metro into downtown Vancouver, it was a perfect location for a layover visit. With my love for being in the airport, this hotel definitely makes me hungry to try more airport hotels.
Fairmont Vancouver Airport Information
BookFairmont Vancouver Airport Ratings: Five stars Location: Vancouver International Airport, 3111 Grant McConachie Way, Richmond , British Columbia, Canada
If you ask travelers about their bucket list for Japan, one thing might be~ taking a Japanese cooking class.
When I passed through Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokocho I was disappointed I was unable to experience ikazaya food (aka bar food), because it is mostly all grilled meat. Luckily, Local Bites JP reached out to let me know they offered Japanese cooking classes in Tokyo. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect timing! While tasting Japanese food, I began developing questions about the flavor, the food culture and the sentiments behind Japanese cooking. What better way to enhance my understanding of food than to take a cooking class !
What is Community Home Cooking with LocalBites JP?
Local Bites JP offers community home cooking classes. These are authentic cooking classes hosted in Japanese homes with locals teaching you their tradition. The service allows the local community to share their culture, while also earning a little income for their hospitality, resources and time. Classes range from how to make sushi, teriyaki, tempura, vegan ramen... and they change according to the availability of hosts and their cooking specialty. As the classes take place in a local home, your host can modify the recipe according to your dietary restrictions.
The cooking class I chose was… you guessed it– an Izakaya cooking class! My host teacher Satoru-San customized my class with vegetarian – pescatarian friendly substitutes.
The Art of Japanese Soul Food
I emerged from Shinjuku East Station, harried, uncertain if I was at the right exit. It was mid morning. My cooking sensei, Satoru San stood waiting for me with a sign. There he was, a kind-looking man, with gentle eyes and a youthful soul. There was a harmony and delightfulness to him. Satoru San was someone you’d definitely enjoy cooking with.
Satoru san led us through the flavored streets of Shinjuku. The grilling smoke from izakaya bars from the night before, were long dissipated and the alleys of Golden Gai were deserted like old jazz bars shut in their coffins in avoidance of daylight. The character and flavor of the environment had to touch the soul of any food created here, if not stir it. Aferall, Izakaya food is bar food, a lusty bed partner of beer and sake.
“Yes, many of the streets here are run by Yakuza… they just had a big fight last night”. I asked Satoru if they were problematic landlords. “No, they don’t bother residents. They are just concerned with their own matters”.
Satoru explaining parts of Golden Gai
The back alleys of Golden Gai
Finally, we arrived at his humble but retro-stylish Tokyo apartment. Food ingredients were neatly laid out on his table and there was a lot of it. I wasn’t sure if we could fit all this into 3 hours and Satoru felt it might take a bit longer. On our cooking class Izakaya menu was:
Miso with tofu
As Satoru instructed each step, we also talked about his upbringing in Hokkaido farmlands to his grandfather’s miso factory, his move to San Francisco and his cooking inspirations. The soul of the food we were creating was imbued with Satoru’s memories and his grandmother’s home cooking and family tradition. It wasn’t just miso soup flavored with bonito flakes but miso made with a bit of his family’s specially-aged miso, a secret quality of familial pride.
Japanese Craftsmanship: Precision and Presentation
One thing I learned was there is a great deal of pride that goes into Japanese cooking and it went deeper than my American mass consumptive consumer mind could fathom. . Did you know that making a beautiful gyoza is a reflection of how you value or respect your guest?
( I will apologize to any of my future guests right now ~ my gyoza does not mean I think you’re ugly.)
Satoru explained that due to Tokyo’s differing quality of water, many popular ramen masters in Hiroshima, will never move to Tokyo to open a shop. This is because Hiroshima is known to have the highest quality water of Japan, and the change to Tokyo water will change (if not ruin) the signature taste of their ramen. No one wants to ruin their flavor or reputation.
Japanese cuisine emphasizes high quality craftsmanship. Watching Satoru preparing the rice, I began to understand. He took meticulous care to measure everything exactly, so that his rice would be just right… cooked to be both, firm yet sticky. Tasting Satoru’s rice was comforting,… a subtle flavor of the wakame seaweed opened in my mouth, enough to flavor but not impose its taste. The rice alone was distinct and yet, seemingly uncomplicated. Satoru’s rice was perhaps one of the most “perfect rice” I’ve eaten!
making shrimp gyoza
Cooking Japanese Gyoza in Japan- the act of forming a beautifully ridged dumpling is symbolic of how you care about your guests.
Cooking in a Tokyo home
Pressure cooker Japan to fry up the gyoza, while rice is cooking next to it.
When it came time to flip the gyozas from the frying pan to the plate while keeping them perfectly char-crisped on one side while lightly crisped on the other, I realized it was going to get dangerous if I did it, so I handed that job over to Satoru. This is what he performed in one flip. The gyozas were deep fried but not oily; they were brown enough for crunchy, but nothing got burnt.
japanese gyoza 2: One flip from frying pan to plate
wasabe salad- enoki, Japanaese mayonnaise, tuna, with veggies
Japanese cuisine and palette
Japanese cooking can feel so refined with subtle flavors. The food is not overpowering, too spicy, seet, sour or even too hot or cold. Everything is temperate and ingredients seem to find a harmony with each other– an ensemble vs a cameo.
Satoru pointed out is that there are no knives in table place settings. That is because if anything served needs to be cut, the host will cut the food into bite-sized pieces for his guests! Mind-blowing, right?
He also explained that Japanese people are very picky about their food. “They like good food.. they like their foods to be pleasing…. they like it to complement the seasons.” Japanese feel that foods must make them feel warm during the winter and cool during the summer.
Finally came eating time and I don’t have to tell you that it was all delicious. I won’t go into the ingredients, because you’ll have to take the class. I was learning more than just cooking dishes. I was learning how the Japanese care about their food as much as their guest. The ingredients you won’t visibly see going into Japanese food is a host’s history, family tradition, environmental influences, respect and hospitality.
Thanks to Satoru san and Local Bites JP for sharing all these things with me so I could understand how Japanese cuisine is a precious art.
Disclosure: Special thanks to Local Bites for sponsoring such a wonderful cultural experience! As usual, all opinions are my own.
For years, I thought the only way I’d ever see the Northern Lights was to book a ticket to one of the Nordic countries in Europe. Cha-ching, cha-ching… my bank account would be drained, I thought. My budgetary backup was to plan a Northern Lights trip to Alaska, which is much closer to the U.S. and significantly lighter on the wallet…
But this past December, I was invited by Mazda to participate in an ultimate road trip to the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk. How could I refuse such an extraordinary adventure? An expedition team, comprising of six influencers, six automotive journalists, drive expedition specialists and film crew, we drove through exquisite British Columbia, while testing the all-wheel drive power, ease and fuel-efficiency of the Mazda CX car series ? Saying yes was easy.
Seeing the Northern Lights was definitely on the itinerary, but my excitement for it quickly fell away to more amazing bucket list promises like winter wildlife, Canadian Rockies, Arctic Circle and gasp, the actual Arctic Ocean! Who gets an opportunity like this??? It was as if all my sleepless nights blogging and editing YouTube videos had finally paid off. Finally, I was going to take you inside an exclusive experience! But here’s the thing I discovered as I traveled it- it’s not that exclusive– anyone can do it! Yes, you.
Okay, okay…trip planning and research is obviously necessary. So here we go!
Planning your road trip to the Arctic Ocean
The daily experiences and phenomena are documented in my video series. Refer to the video if you want more visual references.
Note: Apologies for any grammatical errors- these are blueprint notes. Much of my time is spent editing video travel guides where I have patrons. My written blog guides are complementary extras. You can help me make YouTube videos and gain behind-the-scenes access to my filmmaking here.
Safety: Driving on Roads to the Arctic Ocean
Accessibility: Driving to the Arctic Ocean obviously feels like an undertaking of epic proportions. Yet, it is the same as planning a road trip through Italy or through the United States. In fact, upon the launch of my YouTube series, I got comments from viewers, who had already undertaken parts of this trip alone… most seemed Canadian and excited about exploring their backyard. One viewer had even traveled over the Dempster Highway solo on a motorcycle, during a warmer season!. The road trip route we took is not the only route, but gives you an idea of the breadth of Northwestern Canada. You can start your route from Dawson City (if you wanted the Dempster Highway challenge), Inuvik or even fly direct to Tuktoyaktuk.
Scenery: The landscape scenery is ridiculously breathtaking- I was seldom bored with its beauty or even the curves of the road as it wrapped around mountains and painting visual snow designs against valleys of snow tipped pine trees.
Safety: Despite my thirst for adventure and the safety of Canada, this is not a road trip I felt I could do alone. First, we were doing this drive in December, the height of winter and snowy and ice road conditions and I – a mostly west coast/island girl- were not compatible. I’ve never driven in snow! Secondly, there are a lot of remote areas on this route, where you might not come across a gas station, have cellphone signal or see civilization for a good stretch of time. Thirdly, most of our drives were a full six to eight hours, with at least two rest stop breaks to change drivers, recharge and refuel. Lastly, from a YouTube standpoint, while driving, it is hard to fully film and enjoy the scenery you’re passing through!
All wheel drive vehicles: For this winter road trip, Mazda knew the drives would be snow and ice all the way. We used all-wheel drive cars (for me that means I can still drive automatic, which is good because I cannot drive 4WD) . They used Blizzak tires (aka snow tires) vs chains or spikes. i’m not sure what the road conditions are outside of winter but we did get a lot of windshield knicks from rocks, sand, salt and dirt laid for road traction.
Things to Know Before your Road trip to the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk
As a traveler, these are all new terms for me so apologies in advance as some of this information is summarized the best way I can understand it.
New Arctic Destination: In 2017, an all-weather highway to Tuktoyaktuk opened, inviting accessibility and tourism to the small town of Tuktoyaktuk, which guards the Arctic Ocean border and whom has a unique and special Inuvialuit culture. This highway is a lifeline between mainland British Columbia and the Arctic Ocean (and Tuktoyaktuk). In the past, Tuk locals relied on air and ice roads for goods and resources, driving their lifestyle expenses up and creating food scarcity.
All-Weather Highways: All-weather highways are roads that cannot be flooded and can be traveled at more times. As you get more north into the Arctic, you’ll find locals travel by ice roads (see map below). Concrete roads cannot be built over ice roads as the ground underneath is continually shifting and flooding with climate changes. All weather roads are rather rugged- usually gravel- but able to withstand the harsh climate and its changes. They can be harsh on your car (and its windows as gravel kicks up and flies). Main all weather roads: Dempster Highway and Tuktoyaktuk-Inuvik Highway.
Continental Divide: Taking the route we took through the towns we did, we crossed the Continental Divide. The essential thing that travelers need to know about the Continental Divide is that it is an invisible divide which ultimately affects your time zone settings. Driving up to the Arctic Ocean along this divide would both, add and subtract an hour from the clock and it unconsciously adds daylight hours longer in tourist centers and subtracts them in more low key towns.
Polar Nights & Polar Days: Taking this route in early December, we were also up against the 24 hours of darkness phenomenon, where nightfall hours are longer than daylight. There were times where 11am feels and looks like 7am. Finally, driving the Dempster Highway requires additional travel preparation, where you will likely want to bring along an extra reserve can of gasoline and spare tire.
Arctic Circle: At a latitude of 66.5 degrees north of the Equator, you’ll find the Arctic Circle. It is a point where at least one day, you will experience a complete polar night and polar day.
Northern Lights: Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is when gaseous particles from Sun and Earth are released and collide with each other. Despite what you think and see in photos, it is not apparent to the naked eye- it’s not like “Oh, there’s dancing Northern Lights!“. Hooo noooooo, not that easy and I don’t know why photographers don’t mention it more often. The colors are only apparent in time lapse photography (you won’t capture it with an automatic point and shoot). To the naked eye, they appear like wisps of clouds low on the horizon. Prime conditions are cloudless nights with little light and are crisp, cold and clear. Download the Aurora app for Aurora borealis tracking and predictions.
Read Driving Tips for Driving the Dempster Highway (coming soon)
Map of roads to Tuktoyaktuk
Alaska Highway, Continental Divide and the Canadian Rockies
Our first day’s goal was to drive the Alaska Highway up to Muncho Lake. Although we left at around 6:30a and the cloak of dark made it feel like 3am. This is a lovely drive during the winter. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are boldly striking and feel especially expansive in the final hour of getting to Muncho Lake. There are rock climbing sheep and if you really look, you might spot one. The views during sunset are reminiscent of an Apple screensaver, with contrasting black and white mountains set against a pastel sky. You will definitely want to stop on the side and take photos where you can.
Canadian Rockies along the Alaska Highway
Fort St. John
If you ask locals what there is to do in Fort St John, they’d probably look at you and scratch their head. Fort St. John is one of the largest industrial cities along the Alaska Highway. Its main industry is gas and oil. The town has a population of over 18,000 and has hosted many winter games. I’m not sure why Mazda chose that as a leaping point for the drive, but I’m assuming it had to do with logistics- a gorgeous drive along the Alaskan Highway, getting ten Mazda cars driven out to Fort St John and a convenient airport where everyone can fly into. The drive to Muncho Lake took around 7.5 hours.
Travel Tip: Flying from Vancouver to Fort St John, set your clocks +1 hour as it’s a town on the Continental Divide.
fort st john
Leaving Fort St. John; it is around 9am and the sun is just coming up
Mid day drive on the Alaska highway.
Muncho Lake is the largest lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountain region. It freezes over during the winter but otherwise, is open for fishing. The surrounding mountains and valleys on the drive to it are absolutely spectacular. There isn’t much out there including hotels or shops. The last major town before Muncho Lake seemed to be Fort Nelson (about a 3 hour drive away), where we stopped to fuel up and get lunch at a pizza joint. Where I stayed: Northern Rockies Lodge, Muncho Lake
Liard Hot Springs
A half hour drive from Muncho Lake is Liard Hot Springs (since 1957), a natural hot springs surrounded by woods. A five minute a stroll on wooden plank walkway raised above a marshy pond and you’re there. During the winter, when it gets below freezing, it is a winter wonderland. At night, it’s especially striking under the stars. It is a natural hot springs (temperatures 42°C to 52°C. ) with a simple outdoor wooden changing room. Sitting benches are inside the springs so you can relax, so watch your step. There are warm, hot and cool areas of the springs; the temperature varies. Remember to bring a towel! During the winter, getting from the springs to the changing room, your wet feet will stick to the surface snowy surface. Fees: Seasonal. Apparently you can camp there. Check Liard Hot Springs Website for more info.
Day #2 -3 we followed the Alaska Highway onto the Klondike Highway. Hello Yukon! The Yukon territory is known for its 1890’s history of settlements due to the Klondike gold rush. Thus, the Klondike Highway runs from Alaska’s coastal town of Skagway to Dawson City. Wildlife in the Yukon and along this highway ranges from lynx, RockyMountain elk and mountain goats, moose, etc.. and we saw wild bison and caribou on the side of the road. You never want to get out of your car when spotting wildlife as they may charge at you.
alaska highway river
On the Klondike Highway: Day 3
Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake
Towards the end of the Alaska Highway, there is Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest. Built in 1942 during the building of the Alaska Highway, a homesick soldier was tasked to put up directional signs at his camp, put up a sign for his own hometown in Danville Illinois. That started a tradition which grew into Sign Post Forest, a place where folks come to put up license plates and signs from their own hometown. Map here
Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, B.C.
Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon territory. The city is known as the Wilderness City, has an airport and is the largest city of the Northwestern Territory. We arrived late and only spent the night but Whitehorse felt like a city with substantial options should you need to get extra road trip supplies and clothing. You can visit the SS Klondike National Historic Site,a large 1930’s sternwheelers. Admission is free; hours: 9:30a – 5pm.
We stayed at the Skky Hotel (mid-budget), 5 minutes from the city center and off the Alaska Highway.
Dawson City is a cute and quirky town and home of the historical Klondike Gold Rush. It is also significant to our drive as it is the city housing entry onto the Dempster Highway (It’s literally around 10 minutes from town if not less). The Dawson City architecture certainly preserves and embodies a eclectic Wild West charm of saloon-styled buildings and signs and wooden planked side walks. With the town’s quirky character takes you a step back into time. Today, the city still retains its gold mining industry and you can take a gold mine tour.
For a great view of Dawson City, Midnight Dome is the most panoramic spot high upon a hill overlooking the town. Jack London Cabin is 120 km south of Dawson City and on the North Fork of Henderson Creek. It used to belong to the famed author of White Fang and Call of the Wild. More Yukon Infohere.
Dawson’s Sour Toe Cocktail experience (Watch Video)
“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow—but the lips have gotta touch the toe,” is the saying at Sourdough Saloon (at Downtown Hotel) where they have a signature cocktail called the Sour Toe Cocktail. It is a mummified human toe in 80% proof alcohol. The traditional alcohol of choice is Yukon Jack (although they offer other options. If you’re into a meal, you can try poutine or dine in the hotel at the Jack London Grill for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
soudough saloon, dawson city
Northwest Territories : Arctic Circle, Dempster Highway, Innuvik to Tuktoyaktuk
Both Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk have airports. But the bucket list challenge is driving the Dempster Highway, an all weather highway of gravel and shale from Dawson City to Inuvik. It’s a good 13 hour drive (say whaaat???) The highway during warmer seasons is picturesque, alive with wildlife and is open for camping and potentially easier to drive. Yes, you don’t have to drive it all in one go. The first midpoint mark and gas station/hotel is Eagle Plains. Be sure to stop at the Arctic Circle sign to take photos.
It is the point where the center of the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a 24 hour period. You may experience polar nights and polar days. As it was winter when we traveled, we experienced a polar night or 24 hours of darkness.
Travel Tip: Drivers should fuel up at Dawson and carry a spare tire before undertaking this highway, as there is no cellphone/wifi signal available and you’ll find very few drivers on this road.
Read Tips for Driving Dempster Highway (post coming soon)
Driving the Infamous Dempster Highway
Dempster Highway during winter in December
Watch episode: Dempster Highway
Inuvik or “Place of Man” (in Inuvialuit) is a small arctic town 6 hours from Tuktoyaktuk. Drive on the main street, MacKenzie road and you’ll find North Mart, a large grocery/household store as well as, shops and a convenience mart. But a few minutes drive outside and I finally got to photograph the Northern Lights.
Notable attractions are the Igloo Church (a must!) , the Midnight Sun Mosque, the Inuvialuit Cultural Centre and the Aurora Research Institute. The town office will give travelers a free souvenir pin and a Certificate of Passage – North of 60° Arctic Circle. The lowest it goes in freezing is -56 degrees Celsius (-70.06 degrees Fahrenheit) We stayed at : MacKenzie Hotel
arctic circle certificate
northern lights from Inuvik
Tuktoyaktuk- Inuvik Highway
After reaching Inuvik but moving onward take the new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, the first all-weather road to Canada’s Arctic Ocean. This latter highway is open from January to April and is generally paved over by snow and ice. During this season, rivers and ocean can be frozen over and you can drive on them. This is the way locals get around. The highway is the only road connecting Tuktoyaktuk to mainland Canada. Roads are maintained by the government and you’ll find the roads cleared and its ice thickness is measured for safety. When the road is open, they put up signs.
Tuktoyaktuk : Gateway to the Arctic Ocean, Canada B.C.
Tuktoyaktuk( Inuit means “Looks like caribou” ) -lovingly called “Tuk” by the locals- is a small and unique town (population: 900+, mostly Inuvialuit people ) that is the Canadian gateway to the Arctic Ocean. In 1995 Metallica flew in for a publicity concert for Molson beer for a Polar Beach Party on the Arctic Ocean. You can arrive by plane or drive during the winter, by car. Connected by ice roads once a year, Tuk’s lifeline to the mainland is thin, forcing a majority of its population to live off of hunting, fishing and food insecurity. Even some of the clothing locals wear are made from fur and skins from animals they’ve hunted.
In November 15, 2017, a new all weather road, the Tuktoyaktuk – Inuvik highway makes Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean accessible. It has had its challenges in building, but now the road is open from January to April.
This has been a longtime dream for Tuk locals, whose previous survival challenges was getting supplies and resources, while being saddled with exhorbitant costs. Tuktoyaktuk has one grocery store with limited supplies which are often more costly than the locals can afford. Vegetation is scarce in the Northern Tundra, so locals must live off the..
“You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow—but the lips have gotta touch the toe,” is the saying when drinking a sour toe cocktail in the Yukon’s Dawson City.
One of the bucket list traditions of Dawson City is to try a Sour Toe cocktail at the Sourdough Saloon. Located in Downtown Hotel, a red brick-colored saloon style building, the saloon sells a signature drink comprised of a mummified human toe drink in 80% proof alcohol. Yes, a human toe! Many travelers are averse to trying it due to hygienic reasons or just because the thought is disturbing. If you can eat deep fried bugs, then you can do the toe. Personally, I couldn’t tell it was a toe– it actually looked like a dried twig!
The traditional alcohol of choice is Yukon Jack, although they offer other options. All options have to be 80% proof, as a safety standard and health code (alcohol is a sterilizer). Yukon Jack is a fairly lovely drink for those who aren’t very into alcohol. It’s sweet and aromatic flavor and easy going down, although the first sip you might be able to light a flame with. The cost of the drink is fairly inexpensive- it is the cost of the drink + $5 for the toe (and don’t forget to tip your bartender).
sour toe cocktail club)
The first toe is said to have belonged to a 1920’s gold rush miner, who’s frostbitten toe had to be amputated and was preserved it in a jar of alcohol. In 1973, the jar was found by Captain Dick Stevenson and turned it into a drinking challenge. Today, you can try your hand at the drink and get your name written in a Sour Toe Cocktail Club membership ledger- you even get a membership certificate- it feels so official! (Note: I am Sour Toe Cocktail Member #84883)
soudough saloon, dawson city
The Toe Keeper- Terry Lee keeps the toes and usually administers the drink challenge. Over the years, the saloon has had a handful of mishaps regarding the toes- it’s been stolen, even swallowed and today, anyone who causes loss to the toe pays a hefty fine of $1000. It’s safe to say the saloon has gone through a number of toes, such that it has backup toes. It is also open to toe donations. Toe time is 9 – 11 p.m.
If you’re hungry before or after, you can dine at the in-house restaurant, Jack London’s Grill (Note: I had ordered some poutine as an after drink chaser!)
Poutine at Jack London’s Grill
1026 Second Ave
Dawson, Yukon Territory, British Columbia, Canada
How adventurous are you ? Would you try the Sour Toe Cocktail at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City? Would you try a drink with human toe?
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