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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Climbing Mount Everest and the Matterhorn, and a Tuscan dinner after a Hokkaido holiday

Last night, we arrived from Sapporo's Chitose Airport after a short but happy holiday in Hokkaido, living a Travelife.

There's never enough time for anything and everything in a never-ending Travelife, and there certainly wasn't enough time for us in Hokkaido.

But it was better than nothing, and we had a very good time enjoying good food, wonderful scenery and some very nice Japanese inns.


It was really nice, actually, and I especially liked being able to get away from almost everything for some hot springs time.

Noboribetsu, which is one of the hot springs towns we stayed in, is supposed to have some of the most "powerful" geothermal waters in Japan, and it's reportedly excellent for regaining vitality.

But after our trip it was back to reality, and almost straight from landing at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, we headed to our respective dinner appointments.


I was set to meet my neighbour S, who I have been so remiss about catching up with.

The last time we'd had a really good talk was about two years ago, when I was a guest at her beautiful weekend home by the sea in Chiba.

But last weekend, I bumped into her at the neighbourhood Halloween festivities, and we arranged to have dinner last night.

Initially we were going to go somewhere fancy.

But after non-stop eating, especially in Hokkaido where every single meal was the equivalent of at least eight courses, I couldn't think of any more food and would have been happy to just have a glass of water for dinner.


So at the last minute, we ended up going to a neighbourhood Italian restaurant famous for its Tuscan cuisine.

We ordered the steak Florentine to share and a couple of salads and pastas and exchanged updates.

Talk about an update. 


My friend S is planning to climb Mount Everest.

Apparently she's climbed almost all the major mountains in the world, save for Mount Everest and one other mountain.

She's climbed most of the ones in Europe, Asia and Africa, including Mount Kilimanjaro, which I only saw from an airplane.

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I asked her: "So which is the most enjoyable mountain to climb?"

She replied: "Probably the Matterhorn. Because you can climb it and then get a helicopter to pick you up at the top and take you down. Then there's a spa when you're done."

She added: "Climbing up isn't really a problem. It's the going down that's so hard on the knees."

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Then I asked her: "And how on earth do you prepare for a climb up Mount Everest?"

She seems like such a regular girl, after all. She runs a company in Tokyo, grows organic vegetables in her weekend home, and likes holidaying at the Aman resorts.

Halloween festivities in Tokyo

When I saw her over the weekend, she and her husband were putting up Halloween decor all over the front of their house.

S shrugged and said: "Climbing isn't really very difficult, especially if you're not heavy. It's really a matter of luck with the weather and getting a very good guide. And hiring someone to carry your gear if you don't want to do so on your back, although I always carry my own."

How's that for an entirely different kind of never-endingly eventful Travelife?

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening in Hokkaido. And a poem by Robert Frost.

Earlier this week, in Hokkaido living a Travelife, we drove to a lovely lake in the middle of nowhere with a luxury Japanese inn by the edge of it.

We were in Hokkaido for a hot spring and foodie holiday, and I'd chosen this inn because it's supposed to be very beautiful and the food is excellent.

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The Travel Companion and I were not disappointed at all by this inn I had chosen.

It was simple but stylish in a very contemporary way. We liked it at first sight, with its interesting art work and decor.

We also had a very nice hot spring pool on the terrace with a view of the mountains and the forests. 

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So just before a very big dinner of delicious Hokkaido specialties, we decided to take a stroll at sunset by the edge of the lake.

Hokkaido is about the same latitude as Europe so it's very cold, and at least 10 degrees colder than Tokyo. Fortunately we were well prepared for the cold, so we headed out into the forest and walked down to the lake.

How beautiful and peaceful it was to be amidst all this nature, especially as there was no one else around.


We saw snow on the nearby mountains, and some of the trees were dramatically lit up to showcase their flaming autumn colours.

And then, as we walked around the lake, towards a footbridge at one end, it began to snow ever so lightly, making everything so pretty, and reminding me of a poem by Robert Frost.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 

Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here 
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

My little horse must think it queer 
To stop without a farmhouse near 
Between the woods and frozen lake 
The darkest evening of the year. 

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake. 
The only other sound’s the sweep 
Of easy wind and downy flake. 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep, 
And miles to go before I sleep, 
And miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The best sushi in Hokkaido, Japan, and it has a Michelin star and cheap prices

In Hokkaido on a hot springs and foodie holiday until last night, living a Travelife, we had so many wonderful and delicious meals.

This part of Japan is just full of fresh and incredibly high quality produce, so that it's almost very hard  to find a bad meal there.

Nevertheless, we weren't taking any chances, so we'd booked some of the best restaurants on the island for lunches, and some of the best hot springs inns for stays that included dinner and breakfasts.

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The Travel Companion left almost all the planning to me for this trip, unlike in our trips to Africa where I chose the hotels and he did his homework on other things.

But thankfully we have almost the same taste in everything Japanese, save for a world-famous innovative restaurant in Tokyo which he loved from his very first visit there, and which I'm not too impressed with.

But almost every visitor from Manila wants to eat at this world-famous restaurant he likes so much, so I'm stuck with eating here pretty regularly. It's quite good food, but it's way over-hyped, in my humble opinion.

Hokkaido is simply beautiful in the fall


Anyway, the Travel Companion made me laugh yesterday as we were driving back to Chitose Airport from a hot springs resort to catch our flight back to Tokyo. We've traveled a lot together -- over 40 days in just short of the last two years, to be exact -- but mostly it's been to Africa, which we discovered almost on a whim.

So we already have a pattern for planning trips and traveling together, and so far it's worked out rather well.

Hokkaido is simply beautiful in the fall

And as he was driving us back to the airport, he reminded me: "When I landed in Japan last weekend, I had no idea where we were staying or eating. Or even what kind of car we were renting."

Of course he knows me well enough to understand that when I book a holiday trip for us, it's always going to be best of breed. 


Well, the first place I'd booked for a meal upon arrival in Hokkaido was one of the island's best sushi restaurants.

Of course, when you're in Hokkaido, you must eat sushi, and so I'd booked a Michelin one-star sushi restaurant in the middle of nowhere. 

This was my second choice, actually, as the only other highly rated sushi place -- a Michelin two-star -- is only open at night, making it impossible for us to visit from our hot springs resorts.


Really good sushi in Japan is quite expensive, but we knew that Hokkaido would certainly be cheaper than Tokyo.

Still, when we passed a completely nondescript soba restaurant near our sushi destination, after parking the car, I'd teased him: "You might want to take me there for lunch instead."

Wouldn't that be rather funny? For two pretty serious foodies to fly to Hokkaido, drive two hours to a town facing the Japan Sea, and to end up in a nondescript soba restaurant with plastic displays in the windows.

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The prices at this nondescript soba restaurant were pretty attractive, though. A comprehensive soba set with tempura included cost something like 1200 yen, which comes up to US$12.

Not one to miss a beat, with his usual dry humour, he'd replied: "Well, if I took you to lunch there instead, I would sure save a bundle of cash."

But of course, that wasn't going to happen.

We were both psyched for really good sushi since Tokyo. In fact, for breakfast on the airplane, we'd shared a chocolate and banana pastry from Joel Robuchon just to be hungry for lunch.


At this famous sushi restaurant, we ate about 19 pieces of truly good and fresh sushi each, which is really quite a lot of food. And neither of us can recall one piece out of those 19 that was just okay or ordinary.

In other words, we'd had 38 excellent pieces of sushi between us, and two bowls of miso soup.


We stopped by a famous fish market in Hokkaido
before our sushi lunch
Just before the Travel Companion asked for the bill, we'd done a guessing game on how much our lunch would cost.

In a good sushi place in Tokyo, it's not unusual to pay $200 or $300 per person at all, but we were in Hokkaido.

Both of us had the same guesstimate. US$200 for lunch, which would make it US$100 per person. And the Travel Companion had said that if this fantastic sushi lunch of 38 pieces of sushi for two would only cost him US$200, he would be a happy camper.


When the bill came, I didn't look at it at first.

But then I literally felt his shock, seated next to me at that sushi counter, and so I peeked at the bill just in case he was having to fork out US$500 for what we thought would be cheap-ish sushi for two in Hokkaido.

It turns out the bill was something like US$60 per person, which is really unheard of for what we ate at a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Japan.

The Travel Companion said, when he saw the bill: "I wondered whether this was the bill for the tea or  for the parking. Or maybe they were going to give you your own bill. That's certainly the most delicious value-for-money sushi I have ever had in my life."

As for me, it was one of the most enjoyable sushi lunches I've ever had in Hokkaido, living a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.