Monday, July 30, 2018

Playing with Harry at the Hedgehog Cafe Harry (Harajuku, Tokyo)

Tokyo has its quirks and never fails to deliver an eclectic experience - like visiting a "cafe" for petting hedgehogs. It's not a proper cafe in the sense that you don't actually eat cake or drink tea, although tea is served for everyone. But nothing fancy. 

You're there for a first-hand encounter with hedgehogs, those spiny nocturnal mammals that curve into a ball when intimidated or asleep. They differ from the porcupines in the sense that the latter are more rodents; hedgehogs are closer to shrews.

General Information

Hedgehog's spines (quills) are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin, thus aren't barbed or poisonous. Unlike the quills of the porcupines, they don't easily detach from their bodies. But they can shed when they're under stress. When they roll into a ball, the quills on the back protect the tucked face, feet, and belly. They are also vocal animals so you get to hear them "grunt, snuffle or squeal". They are omnivorous, feeding on insects, snails, frogs, mushrooms, berries, roots and melons. Without predators and a controlled diet, they can live as long as 8 to 10 years in captivity. As trivia, a group of hedgehogs is called an "array".

I was supposed to go to Roponggi for my "Hedgehog Cafe Harry" visit. I had been reading about it, but was anxious about its location. Many reviewers had difficulty locating it. Moreover, Roponggi's subways and tunnels always tire and confuse me. When I visited the H.I.S. Tourist Information Center in Harajuku, I was told that they could book me a slot now. What's better, this was not in far, far Roponggi. This cafe is located right in the heart of Harajuku. I only had to cross the street, walk a block, then I was there. Between the two, Harajuku seems the better choice: bigger space, not too strict with the time allotted.

The cafe is accessible through a tight elevator. At the second floor, doors opened to a bright room with white walls, glass cages on tables, clean space, and framed photos of hedgehogs. I handed my appointment voucher then I was lead to a table with a couple of hedgehogs moving slowly. I expected them to be asleep as it was around 4 PM. 

The cafe staff then gently scooped one of the hedgehogs to show me how it's done. I was wary not because I was scared of them, but I was unsure how to hold them without stressing them. The more active one was handed over to me and it curved into a ball. I picked a worm with a pair of tweezers and offered it in front of its mouth. It opened up and gobbled the worm. That's how it perked up and started moving around my arms. It was a joy. I didn't even feel the spine. I enjoyed this play for about 10 minutes, then placed it back to its cage, feeding both of them before I proceeded taking photos. I even forgot there was juice, soda, tea or coffee from the vending machine and some cookies as well.

I looked around and found the whole room almost fully occupied; each tourist is assigned to his table. Everyone seemed to enjoy their 30 minutes, which was more than enough. Otherwise, the other option is 1 hour, which is excessive. Despite online criticism about patronage for these petting zoos, I didn't find anything wrong with it. 

Goats, Owls, Cats, and Snakes

It's almost silly to pay for the experience, but it was surreal. The controlled environment guides you how to handle them properly. I never thought much about hedgehogs before, but now I've learned to appreciate them. Other pet cafes in Tokyo offer goats (and you can walk your goat around the streets of Tokyo), owls, cats, and even snakes - no, thank you. 

The cafe has hedgehogs up for sale. Before I forget, their names were "Harry" - all of them, males and females. 

A tarpaulin is on display outside the elevator.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Searching for Umeboshi - Chinriu Honten's Pickled Plum (Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture)

Umeboshis are pickled and dried Ume fruits, usually referred to as green plums, and very popular in Japan. Some are aged in salt-filled barrels for 1 to 3 years before consumption. More like apricots than plums, Umes are Japan's sourest fruits so one needs to get used to it to appreciate it. In the olden times, samurais used ume as energy boosters. 

Meanwhile, umeboshis are usually served as side dishes for rice (for added flavor) and rice balls (onigiri). They are extremely sour and salty that when I was offered a platter of Umes, I couldn't stop distorting my face when Umeboshi touched my tongue. I didn't mean to offend. I just wasn't ready for the acidic taste in it.

But I am getting ahead of myself, am I not?

First, I had to look for Chinriu Honten, a specialty shop selling Umes and Umeboshis in Odawara. The shop specializes in three product varieties with Ume, red Shiso or Sakura cherry blossoms as main ingredients. 

It was established in 1871 by the last chief cook of Odawara Castle - Monya Komine. Today, the company is managed by Takako Komine, a fifth generation Komine who married Nicolas Soergel, a French-German national whos helping out to manage and market the specialty shop, taking the business to a contemporary clientele. 

Finding it wasn't as easy. I sought the help of Odawara Tourist Information Center at the train station for the direction. Even with that, 'her English translation was limited. The old lady from the center eventually wrote the shop's name in Japanese characters, making the search a lot faster. Still, this took awhile. 

From the eastern exit of the station, facing the main street towards Sagami Bay, I took the stairs to the right, and down to ground level (not the underground shopping mall). I crossed the street and asked further. A beautiful black lady saw the struggle I had and offered to help translate my predicament. Chinriu Honten was just 3 shops from where I was asking. "You mean, you came all the way from Tokyo to find ume?" Her eyes lit up with a smile. 

There were no English signs outside. There should be if it wants to entertain foreign customers. I stuck my head inside and asked if this indeed was Chinriu Honten. I looked around first, then I was offered a platter containing different types of Ume preparations (green plums) prepared differently. 

Acquired Taste

Umeboshi was extremely sour and salty. I could savor a fruity flavor though mostly, it's hard to describe. It is an acquired taste. I had to beg off from buying a whole set. I realized it was what I came for, but hey, I've tasted a piece. I was happy with it. Most 150 gram Umeboshi costs 1,500 yen. My sweetened Ume (dried with honey) cost only about 700 yen. It looked like one of those dried mangoes from Davao (see photo). 

I was grateful that despite my inquisitiveness, the staff were accommodating and hospitable. I felt honored to be in the presence of a 147 year old establishment with a lot of history to their trade.

After visiting a castle and a Japanese beach, tasting the Ume completed my Odawara experience. The visit was spur of the moment. Sometimes, the best adventures are those not overly planned because you're bound to get pleasant surprises. 

This was a sour and salty surprise. 

My ume was honey-dried. This isn't the popular umeboshi but a variety of the delicacy. Not sure how it is exactly called.

They remind me of those dried mangoes from Davao.

If you pass by this shop, could you tell it's an Ume shop?

Chinriu Honten is in this building, just across the train station.

Pickled, salted Ume fruits are wrinkly and very salty/sour. This photo from

Ume fruits are more like apricots than plums. This photo from

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Odawara Castle and I (Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture)

The 400-year Old Pine Tree

Odawara is one of my favorite finds in my travels all over Japan. It wasn't in my Lonely Planet. I got the idea from some sponsored blog that came out in Facebook a few days before one of my trips. It takes 35 minutes by Tokaido shinkansen from Tokyo, and a short walk from the JR station. 

Odawara (population roughly 195,000) is situated along Sagami Bay. Its highway was the busy main artery linking medieval Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto, covering a distance of 79.5 kilometers. For this visit, I had 3 items on my list: an apricot sweets, Miyukinohama Beach and Odawara Castle.

Hojo Ujimasa, daimyo of Odawara Castle
At the time of the warring states (Sengoku Period) in the 15th century, the Hojo clan ruling the Kanto region built a castle as their residence. 

The daimyo of Odawara, Hojo Ujimasa, while not a particularly great warrior, was a much better administrator. 

In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan's second greatest unifier (and the one who ordered the invasion of Korea) was to attack the Hojos. There were a lot of negotiations that eventually fell through. Hideyoshi demanded surrender. In the end, Ujimasa and brother Ujiteru were made to commit suicide (seppuku).

Through the years, the castle burned down due to an earthquake in 1633, was dismantled, and then reconstructed again in the 1960's. Nevertheless, the sleepy town flourished around this castle. 

From JR Odawara, I walked through a seemingly deserted city until I reached a lush garden filled with blossoming Wisteria. I crossed a red bridge that led to a square, the Honmaru Hiroba. which provided the good vantage spot for that picture-perfect photo. There's a shop that sells souvenir items. They also rent out samurai costumes and kimonos if you want to level up your Instagram-worthy photos. 

I was pleased that there were very few tourists, thus few distractions. The castle was left for me to discover. If Himeji Castle is my absolute favorite castle in all of Japan, Odawara Castle is second in the line. I have seen about a dozen. Japan has more than a hundred existing castles. In the glory days of Imperial Japan, there were 5,000.


The castle's park grounds has several other sites you can visit including a local museum (Rekishi Kenbun Musuem), a children's amusement park, a Wisteria trellis, Iris and Hydrangea gardens, stone walls, 2 beautiful gates (Tokiwagi-mon and Kurogane-mon Gates), and a moat, among others.  

And if you haven't noticed that photo-bomber tree, showing off beside me on the first photo, it is a 400 year old fixture of the castle ground. You don't wonder about its graceful bow towards the castle tower. It was witness to the colorful history that eventually rebuilt the castle.

I was just there to pay my respects.

Entrance to the castle tower is 500 yen for adults and 200 yen for students.

This short bridge and stairs lead to the Honmaru Square.

This was my walk through the Hydrangea garden. I felt like red carpet was rolled for me.

The garden is a blanket of pink and purple Hydrangeas.

This is one of the bridges near the eastern gate, the Akagane-mon Gate. Miyukinohama Beach is 470 meters from here.

It is 79.5 kilometers from Tokyo to Odawara. By shinkansen, this only takes 35 minutes.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Discovering Miyukinohama Beach in Odawara City (Kanagawa Prefecture)

Miyukinohama Beach. Tongue twisting name. Situated along the coastline of Sagami Bay in the slumbering city of Odawara (Kanagawa prefecture), the not-so-popular city is 35 minutes by shinkansen and roughly an hour by car from Tokyo. It's a 79.7 kilometer ride that's easy to do when you have the extra time to spare. My Lonely Planet didn't have anything about Odawara. But the castle is worth the short trip from the capital, and deserves a page in my Lonely Planet.

Emperor Meiji. This photo from Wikipedia.
Its name was derived in reference to Emperor Meiji who, in 1873, visited the then-fishing village along with his wife. He saw fishermen hauling a lot of fish off their nets and called the place, "beach of bounty". 

These days though, there's not a trace of royalty in its surroundings. With a pebbly earth and grayish sand badly needing green space, this beach has nothing much to offer but the view of the sea. Not even a cabana, a bench or a waiting shed. I didn't even see any shop nearby. People fish here sometimes. An elevated highway runs parallel beside it. Under the rampway, you'll find some interesting street art with very few people to appreciate them.

The beach is 470 meters from Odawara Castle; an easy 15-minute walk through a residential zone. The way to the beachfront is under the elevated highway. I saw some guys throwing frisbee. Others were just staring out into the sea. If there was a vibe somewhere, I totally missed it. Too bad, because with a little sprucing up - maybe plant some ornamental palm, a little landscaping and gardening, this could turn out into a popular attraction. 

For now though, there's nothing much to do but take a stroll, throw the hook of your fishing rod, fly a kite. Or just gather your thoughts. 

That's what I did.  

In the mind of some artists, Miyukinohama Beach has lush gardens with green shrubs and pink trees.