Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kyoto See: Arashiyama - The Maple Leaves Capital

At Tenryuji Temple, Mount Arashiyama as backdrop

Our main purpose for the November 2009 trip was to see the famed maple leaves of Japan. Kyoto is one of the "hot" places in Japan for maple leaves viewing and Arashiyama, at the Western district on the outskirts of Kyoto city, is recognised as one of the TOP 3 maple leaves viewing spots in the whole country. So naturally we had to dedicate one full day to Arashiyama in light of its multiple sightseeing places.

Arashiyama was also the only place in Kyoto where we took the JR train instead of buses, which are a more common way of getting around to the major sights. From the main Kyoto JR station, we took a 15 minute ride directly to Saga-Arashiyama Station (one way: 230 yen), where we then proceeded on foot for the rest of the day.

Arashiyama is famous for several things besides its maple leaves and scenic views. Our first stop was Tenryuji, one of the biggest Zen temples built in 1339, and a maple leaves hotspot, with its hundreds of maple trees lining up the temple grounds. For once, we were more interested in the foilage than the temple history or architecture. Like the thousands of locals who cram into the grounds each day during autumn, we were not disappointed as we were greeted by a riot of colours. It was like being in the middle of a painting, and I just couldn't stop taking photos.

Riot of colours - I like!!!

One of Tenryuji's main buildings

After Tenryuji, we made our way to the Arashiyama town centre to get to the next landmark - the Togetsukyo (Moon Crossing Bridge) over the Hozu River with Mount Arashiyama as backdrop, supposedly offering spectacular views. We happened to be in Arashiyama during a public holiday on 22 November (coincidentally also Samurai's birthday) and the town was just PACKED with people. And Samurai T has never been very good with crowds.

People mountain, people sea at town centre

Not surprisingly Togetsukyo was crowded as well. But I was a little bit disappointed with the views as I was expecting more. The forested Mount Arashiyama was not as vibrantly coloured by koyo like I had seen in some photos, but maybe my mood was affected by the overcast sky and the thousands of people swarming around me. On a quiet day I suppose the setting would have been quite poetic as stated in guide books.

The sparkling Hozu River

Mount Arashiyama - not as colourful as expected.

After a quick lunch (I couldn't quite remember what we ate), we proceeded to the famed Bamboo Groves for a look. The bamboo is cultivated for the manufacture of traditional crafts like mats, cups, art etc at Arashiyama. Walking into the Bamboo Groves along a designated narrow path was fun, and would have been great if we were not with a billion other tourists. It was mysterious and atmospheric, and I felt like I was transported to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in the scene where the main characters fought on top of a bamboo forest. It was a Zen moment.

If I were a panda, I would have died of happiness.

Next, we decided to just walk around town to absorb the atmosphere and try to visit another temple (Jojakkoji) in the vicinity. Although we were very tired by then (we were on an overnight flight and we came here directly after dumping our bags at the ryokan), it was a lovely walk in the cool autumn weather, with the occasional sprinkling of rain. The town itself was quaint, with many traditional buildings housing tea houses, crafts and sweets shops. Combined with the marvellous autumn foliage it was really romantic.

A pretty sight along our route

According to my research, Jojakkoji Temple was the final home of an Empress-Dowager during Heike, and was initially built as a nunnery. The temple's principal treasure was the statue of the Jizo surrounded by Japanese maples. The temple is built halfway up the mountain, so be prepared for some huffing and puffing, and the grounds are incredibly large. But we were duly rewarded for our efforts because the maple leaves looked even MORE amazing than at Tenryuji Temple.

Such glorious maple trees at Jojakkoji Temple

Fallen leaves on moss covered ground - poetic!

Surprisingly, despite its immense beauty, there were significantly less crowds here than at Tenryuji, probably due to the fact that it was further away from the town centre (and entailed climbing), and it was also drizzling in late afternoon. We were able to enjoy the scenic beauty in peace and we did not even enter the temple itself for the Jizo. It was close to my idea of heaven (at least a part of it) and I was reluctant to leave except the sun was setting and it was time for us to make our way back to Kyoto for dinner.

A worthwhile trip indeed.

A dreamy landscape at Jojakkoji.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Re-colonisation of Singapore by Japan

This post may elicit howls of fury from patriotic Singaporeans (hmmm, do they even exist?) and peace-loving Japanese. Nevertheless these are my personal views and even Samurai T agrees with me.

So, we already know much about our dark history when the Japanese "colonised" us during World War II from 1942 - 1945 (if you don't know, time to go back to school, fellas, or Samurai T can give you a one-hour crash course). Obviously that created massive amounts of resentment among our grandparents, and to a lesser extent our parents, those who have lived through the war anyway. This feeling of resentment is not just localised in Singapore but around the region, particularly in countries which have been "victimised" by the Banzai Japanese during the war. Such anti-Japanese sentiments always explode during the time of the war anniversary and will hog headlines for a few days until the following year.

Happily, this "re-colonisation" that I am talking about is a much happier one. When I was a young kid in the 1980s (yeah, that was a long time ago), I remembered that J-POP was very hot then and a teenage neighbour was always blasting J-POP music from her room and singing at the top of her lungs (did she understand what she was singing? I wondered.) Then over the next couple of decades, the Japanese fervour died off and was replaced first by Cantopop and then the "Hallyu" Korean wave which swept me off my feet too. Bae Yong Jun and Winter Sonata, anyone!?

Prior to my first visit to Japan at the end of 2008, there was only a handful of Japanese food and retail establishments in Singapore which were unfortunately not very authentic and the food was not very good but Samurai and I were lapping them up anyway (cough, cough: Sakae), because we REALLY liked our sushi and sashimi and we did not have much choice. Compared to the number of Korean dramas I was watching week in-week out, there was also not many good Japanese dramas around to captivate me. Everyone was flying to Korea then to be physically closer to their Hallyu idols. Japan was here, but not really here.

Sometime in 2009, we had a slew of new mall openings, and re-openings (like Mandarin Gallery and Liang Court), and suddenly everyone was on the Japan bandwagon. A rush of Japanese retailers (most significant, Uniqlo) and restuarants were flooding our Singaporean consciousness. There was the fantastic Gindako Takoyaki (at Ion) and Ippudo Ramen (Mandarin Gallery) among others. We were suddenly spoilt for choice. 

Not that I wasn't delirious, you understand. After eating crappy Japanese food for so long, places like Saboten (Tonkatsu) and Santouka (Ramen) felt heavenly on my abused palate. I no longer have to slink to Japan to mass buy Uniqlo clothes, and the new Parco at Millenia Walk had fabulous Japanese fashion (albeit a bit expensive). But a comment from an acquiantance woke me up. He had just come back from Tokyo with his family and he said, "I did not really see anything new there that I cannot buy or eat in Singapore." Of course, true Japan lovers will know that is NOT TRUE, but he was right to a certain extent. Singapore had suddenly turned into a mini-Japan. There are Japanese supermarkets selling their confectionary and other products in popular malls, and so many new food establishments popping up that I am losing count. Isetan keeps holding numerous Japanese theme fairs - The Hokkaido Fair, The Kyushu Fair every other week, which is always packed with people to the brim.

Am I complaining? Not really. But this wave of re-colonisation may in time to come make me a little bored with all things Japanese. Too much of a good thing may become a bad thing, especially if we are going to have second string Japanese outlets setting up shop here to take advantage of the mass hysteria. Let's hope it doesn't all go pear-shape.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Osaka Eat: The Takoyaki of Osaka

When we confirmed we were going to Osaka back in 2009, Samurai T was very excited since it was well-known as the home town of the "takoyaki", or grilled octupus balls, which he loves - almost as much as he loves me, I suspect. On my end, I never really like octopuses, but for some strange reason I enjoy eating takoyaki very much. Hence we promised to eat to our stomachs' satisfaction, and we did - every single day we were in Osaka.

And Osaka did their part in reminding us constantly that it was "Takoyaki Central". Everywhere we turned, there was a takoyaki street stall or restaurant advertising its famous delicacy in colourful banners and out-of-this-world signboards that is signature to Dotonbori Street.

Giant Tako Balls!

Even the blind can see the giant squid

The first stall we tried on arrival was also the most famous of them all - Japan's Number 1 Takoyaki Stall, tucked away at a side street along Dotonbori main street, leading to a canal bridge (you cannot miss it if you are walking down Dotonbori). Perenially crowded, we were lucky we only needed to queue about 10 minutes before we got our hands on the yummies. We had to stand on the roadside to eat, but we did not care and it tasted fabulous! The batter was excellent and the fillings were generous. It was lovely eating the toasty hot balls (ahem) in cold weather. My only regret was that we only ate from this stall once, since we were both "itchy backside" and wanted to try takoyakis from different places.

Japan's Number 1 Takoyaki Stall: Lives up to its boast

Our second serving of takoyaki came from a street stall outside the entrance of Osaka Castle which was our breakfast. I did not have high expectations as it was outside a tourist spot, but I guess the Japanese love to prove me wrong. They were large and delicious, although the batter tasted different from the other stall - obviously every shop have their own secret ingredients and different recipes, and what ultimately rocks your boat depends on your palate.

After all the fabulous takoyaki we had eaten, we were disappointed by the third stall we patronised, The Red Devil (don't think it is related to Manchester United though) which is also located along Dotonbori. The tako balls were soggy and a little mis-shappened, and the batter tasted strange. Oh well, we couldn't have a 100% hit rate. We could have sampled more takoyakis, but bear in mind we were eating them ON TOP of other oiishi Osaka delicacies like crabs and okonomiyaki, etc. It was a good thing we were walking a lot, otherwise I would probably come back looking LIKE a takoyaki. :PPP

All Red Devils Suck! (But you cannot miss their shop.)

Soggy and out of shape - so sad.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Horrors of Counting in Japanese

As my dear readers may (or may not) know, I, Fat Geisha, have been taking lessons in Japanese, because I figured I could not really call myself "Fat Geisha" unless I can speak some Japanese. Of course, I have picked up some choice words from my excessive watching of Japanese dramas (many featuring Takuya) and Japan Hour, such as "Oiishi!" (delicious), "Itadakimasu" (Thank you for the meal) and of course famous Japanese words which have entered into our general lexicon like "Sayonara" (goodbye), "Arigato" (Thank you), "Sumimasen" (Excuse me), "Chotomate" (Please wait awhile), etc. But still, such limited vocabulary can only get me so far.

In view of my intention to visit Japan several more times during my lifetime, it would certainly be useful to read and speak some basic conversational Japanese (although we did not suffer unduly on our previous visits due to lack of knowledge. Gesturing like a mad person works too.). So with this in mind, I started my once-a-week lessons at Ikoma Language School about one and a half months ago.

Other than the fact that I am one of the oldest students in the class, and may be even older than the teacher herself (HORRIFYING thought), I have so far really enjoyed myself learning the Hiragana alphabets and new vocabulary. Imagine my delight when I recently learned the word for shopping which is "kaimono" (かいもの)!! The following week, my new vocabulary included "kaban" (かばん)- BAGS! And I got even more excited when our Sensei (teacher) taught us how to ask for prices in shops: "Ikura desu ka?" (いくらですか?) (How much does it cost?) The stars have aligned and I was all ready to fly to Japan immediately and start shopping armed with these 3 phrases.

Spoiling my party, Samurai T wisely pointed out "So what if you ask in Japanese but you do not understand their answers?" To clarify, I have already learnt my Japanese numbers up to MILLIONS, but putting them together is a veritable nightmare. One to ten is not an issue of course (ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku, nana, hachi, kyu, ju...) but the brain comes to a halt when we reach the 10,000 mark. In English, the "thousand" unit is used from 1,000 - 999,999, before "million" becomes the next unit. The Japanese, like the Chinese, has a new unit for 10,000 known as "man" (まん)and everything after that is counted in units of "man". For example, 100,000 = ju man (or 10 "man") and 1,000,000 = hyaku man (or 100 "man"). So something like 43,689 would translate into "yon man san zen ro-pyaku hachi ju kyu". Spoken very fast, or, at the speed of a local Japanese would likely send me into asylum.

"How to shop like that?" I moan, very distressed. Samurai T, the smart ass, replies, "Just whip out the calculator and start pressing, like everybody else."


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nara - Splendour of an Ancient Capital

Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and famous for its deer park, is another one of Japan's "must-visit" attractions should you be travelling to the Kansai region. Whether you are based in Kyoto or Osaka (or even Kobe), Nara is only about an hour's (or two) train ride away, and makes for an interesting and informative day trip, particularly for history buffs like me. 

For us, we made the trip from our Osaka base in Namba. From Namba Station, we took the Kintetsu Rail, with its colourfully decorated train carriages, directly to the Nara station in under an hour. A one way ticket cost about 1,040 yen (SGD16).

The Historical Bit

The beautiful sewage cover of Nara, with a prominent deer motif

Nara served as the capital of Japan from 710-784, when it was moved again before Kyoto remained the capital for nearly a millennia till 1868. The imperial palace at Nara was modelled after the capital of Tang China, Chang 'an. It was during the Nara period that Japan began to adopt Chinese culture, such as the introduction of Chinese characters (kanji). Frequent missions were dispatched to China and Buddhism also became increasingly entrenched. It was also during this period that the first national histories of Japan, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were written.

Dear galore!!!

Simultaneously cleaning their asses in front of a row of souvenir shops

Any visitor to Nara would have to experience the 'welcome' extended by the deer at Nara Park. Once considered to be divine creatures, these animals have become a veritable attraction in their own right. Vendors selling deer biscuits (Shika-senbei) are found at strategic spots along the footpath and visitors can rarely resist the temptation of buying these biscuits for a hands-on experience at feeding the deer. Come on, how many times do you get up close with a deer and feed it from your hand? However, be forewarned that you may suffer some collateral damage during the feeding process. The deer are so acclimatised to the sight of tourists that they will make a beeline for you even before you can buy the biscuits. They jostle with each other and nudge you to get a treat. My pullover was mistaken for a biscuit and was chewed on by an overly enthusiastic stag. Buying a serving of deer biscuits is grossly insufficient, so be prepared to part with more yen to satisfy their insatiable appetites. Coming into close contact with the deer at Nara Park was indeed a unique experience, save for some saliva-stained shirts and pullovers.

The over eager deer biting my pullover in a bid to get to the food

The Todai-ji ( 東大寺)

Its name literally means the Eastern Great Temple, and building began in the eighth century AD. Its Great Buddha Hall is the world's largest wooden building and in it resides the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like most religious precincts in Nara, Sika deer roam freely on its grounds. While Todaiji may not look very impressive in pictures, it is in fact enormous up close. Just look at how tiny the humans are in relation to the building, and you will get an idea how big the structure really is. It is also amazing how the wooden building has been rebuilt many times, the last time in 1709 and was 30% smaller than the original, after  Japan's numerous earthquakes and fires throughout the centuries.

The largest bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) in the world

The Kōfuku-ji (興福寺)
Begun in the seventh century AD by the Fujiwara family, the temple was moved to its current location in 710 AD and enjoyed a period of prosperity as long as the Fujiwara clan stayed in power. Over the centuries, the temple was destroyed in wars and natural disasters and subsequently rebuilt. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most spectacular structures in the temple complex is the five-storied pagoda, designated a national treasure, and one of the tallest in the whole of Japan.

Besides the numerous historical sights in Nara (we did not go to all due to time constraints), you can also walk around the town centre of Naramachi, which is lovely and quaint. You may also chance upon traditional craft shops for a wee bit of shopping for local products or sweets. All in all, it would be a day well-spent.

Note: This year, Nara is celebrating its 1,300 years of founding, and there will be events held in commemoration of this historic occasion. Do check out the Nara Prefecture website below for more details:

A street in Naramachi

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hakone: A Pure Lake and a Smelly Valley (Part 2)

The great thing about the whole 1-Day Hakone Panorama Course is that we got to experience different modes of transport within Hakone, from the regular ones like trains and buses to more uncommon ones like boats, ropeways and trams in order to reach the various Hakone sights. This was so much more interesting than if we were to take a "real package tour" where we would only get off and on coaches.

Directly after lunch, our next leg of the course was to take a 20 or 30 minute cruise across Lake Ashi to Togendai, where we would then take a ropeway up the mountain to visit Owakudani Valley. Because we had such a full lunch, I was initially worried that I would get motion sickness during the cruise (which I sometimes do on boats) but I needn't worry because the lake was as calm as it could be.

The cruise boat was hilarious. It was the pinnacle of cheesiness and had fake puppet pirates dangling form the sails, and the colours were utterly gaudy. Although the Japanese are into "Kawaii" (cute) things, I thought the boats were totally un-Japanese and decorated in bad taste. You can judge for yourselves here:

Chinese colours, old European decor....strange

On the deck, Pirates of the Caribbean

The journey across the lake was a respite after all the walking and the lunch. The one thing that we did not expect was how bitterly cold it was on the deck. We were rapidly pulling on our hats, mittens and scarves in a hurry as the wind bit into our skin. It certainly wasn't THAT cold on shore! But the lake was glitteringly beautiful, against a backdrop of mountain ranges and of course the ever present Fuji-San.

Soon we reached Togendai and proceeded to take the ropeway to ascend to Owakudani Valley. Owakudani is a crater left behind by the eruption of Mount Hakone 3,000 years ago, and is now home to sulphuric springs and the famous Owakudani eggs (eggs cooked in the sulphur springs which would prolong your life for 7 years for each egg eaten.)

The Hakone Ropeway - Up we go!

We arrived - 1,044 metres above sea level

The ropeway ride was exciting, and the views were spectacular. Too soon we arrived at Owakudani, and the landscape was rocky and bare, a discernable tinge of smelly sulphur in the air. I think the lack of plants in the area is a direct result of the presence of sulphur.  Outside the Owakudani Ropeway Station, we were immediately greeted by a Hallo Kitty in Owakudani Egg disguise.

Eat Me!!!

We had to climb up a long trail to where the sulphur springs are, but already from the station we could see tendrils of smoke coming out from the rock crevices indicating active volcanic activity. For a moment I morbidly wondered what would happen if the volcano chose to erupt there and then, then decided there was no point in wondering because I would be dead instantly. As we went up the trail, the sulphur smell became stronger and stronger, and in the end, due to Samurai T's asthma which could appear any moment as a result of the overwhelming smell and thin mountain air, we decided to retreat back to the station and do some shopping at the souvenir shops instead. Naturally we had to buy the "long-life" Owakudani eggs.

Hell's Gates

After our shopping, it was already 4pm and the sun was starting to set (it was winter). Hence we made our way back to the station to take the ropeway down to Souzan, where we would take a cablecar (!) to Gora, and from Gora, take a local train back to Hakone-Yumoto for our return ride to Shinjuku. Our ropeway ride down to Souzan was visually amazing as we gazed at the setting sun amidst the mountainous landscape.

One last look at Mount Fuji in the evening, looking very different from morning

Our fantastic ropeway ride down the valley

The cable car ride from Souzan to Gora

We reached Shinjuku, Tokyo, just a little before 7pm, totally exhausted by our wonderful day trip to Hakone. Oh, and the Owakudani eggs? I think we bought about 5 in all, and had them for supper in the comfort of our hotel room. Since I told Samurai T that men usually have a shorter life span, he should eat more, so in the end he added 21 years to his life, and I added 14.

In one word - Fabulous.

The amazing life extension eggs

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hakone: Fuji-San and More (Part 1)

This is going to be a bloody long post. Just trying to select the choice photos from our day trip to Hakone took me half an hour. :P So rather than kill myself writing, I shall be splitting my Hakone adventures into 2 posts.

Now, what is the ABSOLUTE must see, must visit thing in Japan? No, no, no, NOT Disneyland!! Mount Fuji, dear readers. It is one of those "1,000 places to see before you die" kind of attraction. Besides being Japan's tallest mountain/dormant volcano at 3776 metres, it is also perfectly cone-shaped and gorgeous, hence its images adorn a thousand guide books. There are many ways to see the sacred Fuji-San. On a clear day, you can see it from Tokyo, like I did from my hotel room at Shinagawa Prince (see earlier post). If you want to get up close and personal, and you are the adventurous sort, you can of course climb the mountain directly. Otherwise, if you are unadventurous and unwieldly, like yours truly, then you can make a day trip to Fuji Five Lakes at Yamanashi Prefecture (2 hours away from Tokyo) OR like us, go to Hakone, which is a part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and only 1 and a half hours train ride from Tokyo.

Besides Mount Fuji, there are a lot of things to be enjoyed around Hakone. In fact, if you have the time, it is recommended that you stay overnight at Hakone at one of its famous hot spring (onsen) resorts. To my eternal regret, we did not do that due to time constraints. There is also the beautiful and sparkling Lake Ashinoko (or Ashi) where Fuji-San looms over like a benign guardian; the Hakone Checkpoint Museum harking back to the Edo Period; Owakudani Valley where sulpheric hot springs bubble, among many others.

To ensure we get to see the maximum number of things within a day, I decided to sign up for the 1-Day Hakone Panorama Course offered by Odakyu's Q Tours. Costing 9,000 yen (SGD150) per person on a self guided tour (we were given an instruction-cum-guide book in English) to complete a set course around Hakone, covering train rides to-and-from Hakone (from Shinjuku) and all types of transportation within Hakone, entrance fee to Hakone Checkpoint Museum, set lunches, and a boat ride on Lake Ashi. This is basically what we did:
I booked the tour online prior to our departure to Tokyo, and we were instructed to be at the Odakyu office at Shinjuku at least half an hour before for briefing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we got lost and barely made it on the train, which leaves at 9.00 am, with minutes to spare. Thankfully, the guide books given to us were very clear, and we could still navigate ourselves through all the sights on the course. Whew!

Odakyu calls the Hakone train a "RomanceCar". Up till today, I am still not too sure what is so romantic about it, but the train was fairly comfortable (more so than our longer ride to Nikko!). And we made it Hakone safely and in good time. The "Romance-Car" arriving at the Hakone-Yumoto train station below:

 Did you see anything romantic about it??

Upon arrival at the train station, our adventure began. Our first transportation mode was the good old bus, which brought us to Motohakone-ko, the start of Lake Ashi, and of course, Mount Fuji. The vista was astonishing. Tourists were snapping photos like there was no tomorrow. It was a spectacular way to start our day.

Lake Ashi, Mount Fuij and a little red Tori (gate).

Almost everywhere we went for the rest of the day, Fuji-San was never far from our sight. In winter, the morning was so wonderfully clear and crisp, making it great for picture-taking. As the day went by, you could see a little cloud forming over the peak of Mount Fuji, like he was wearing a cap, which progressed into a "hat" later in the afternoon. But the famed mountain never lost its majesty nor its ability to awe us into silence. Besides Mount Fuji, the surrounding sights were also marvellous. It was almost like heaven on earth, God the creator of all these natural wonders.

If I could paint this, I would...

Although this was a major tourist site, it was strangely peaceful, for which I was grateful. Finally, after a long while, we made our way on foot to the next stop, the "Cedar Avenue", a long path lined by the largest, tallest and most awesome cedar trees. I felt like I had dropped into a romantic scene of "Winter Sonata" and told Samurai T as such, who, boar that he was, laughed hysterically and thus destroyed my fantasy. :( But with sunlight trickling in through these enormous trees, this place undoubtedly ranks in my list of Top 10 Most Romantic Places in the World.

Not romantic meh?

Our next stop was Samurai T's favourite place - the Hakone Checkpoint (stupid historian). This was an important checkpoint along the famed Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) during the Tokugawa period. (See I also know my history!) What it is now is a reconstruction of the old checkpoint with some historical relics from the old days. Whether you are into history or not, this place makes for an interesting visit.

A top down view of the Hakone Checkpoint from the fort

A display at Hakone Checkpoint

After an interesting learning trip, we broke for lunch at a place called Noah's Ark!! It is located at Hakone-machi, a small town with a number of interesting shops, and naturally, I went mad shopping before Samurai T pulled me into the restaurant to eat. (P.S There is also a large souvenir shop next to the restaurant.) Since we were on a "package tour", I wasn't expecting much for lunch but it turned out to be absolutely fabulous. We were given a choice of a Tonkatsu or Teriyaki Beef set, and we got one of each. And they were delicious!! Since we were starving after all that walking, everything was deposited into our stomachs in record time. ;)

Noah's Ark - fab architecture

My yummy Tonkatsu set

His most fragrant and tender teriyaki beef

After lunch we would proceed on an interesting boat ride on Lake Ashi. Onto the next post!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Japanese Desserts: Meiji Soft Yoghurt - My Favourite Anytime Dessert

I have decided that blogging non-stop about my Japan travel experiences can become a little too mundane and tedious, not just for me, but also for readers who are NOT going to Japan in the immediate future. Since I had so much fun blogging about Takuya, I figured if seized by inspiration, I shall blog about non travel related stuff but try to keep to my Nihon theme. Which brings me to this......

The above currently ranks as my favourite "anytime" dessert.  Recommended a couple of months ago to me by, who would have thought of it, Mr "Junk Food" Samurai T, who came across Meiji's latest range of soft yoghurt in school (they were having a promotion or something). Since I had my first taste, I was instantly hooked, and now I have like 8 cups of these things in my fridge at all times, and I can eat them morning, afternoon, night, sometimes even using them as lunch replacements. Yes, this perennial diet that I am on....whether it is successful is altogether another matter.

There is apparently 4 to 6 flavours (Mix Fruits, Mix Berries, Strawberry, etc.) but I am only addicted to one, the "NataDeCoco", which is weird because I was never particularly fond of coconuts. But this flavour of yoghurt (I have tried them all) is so supremely delicious that I buy this and nothing else. So yes, there are now EIGHT "NataDeCoco" Meiji soft yoghurts in my fridge.

But unlike ice cream, I do not feel any guilt binging on them. For goodness sake, there is even a "Healthier Choice" stamp on the product by the Singapore Health Promotion Board. According to its Nutrition Factsheet, there is only 0.9g of fat per serving, some dietary fibre, lots of calcium and of course live cultures which are good for the intestines and balancing my sometimes whacked out pH levels. AND not forgetting it is cheap. About SGD1.50 for 2 cups, which translates to 75cents per cup!

Cheap and good, just my kind of thing. Alright time to reward myself with another dose.

P.S. I am not paid to endorse the product, but hey if Meiji ever by some miracle chance upon this blog, I will be happy to accept a lifetime worth of free "NataDeCoco" yoghurt. :D

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tokyo Eat: Sushizanmai - The Sushi That Melts in Your Mouth

The bewildered head chef caught off guard by my camera flash. Sumimasen!

Sushizanmai Roppongi Haiyuzamae-ten

Sankei28 bldg, 10-9 Roppongi 3 Minato-ku Tokyo 106-0032
5 minutes on foot from Roppongi Station Exit 5 on the Hibiya or Oedo Lines (Tokyo Metro)

Even though it has been almost 2 years, I can still vividly remember the taste of the melting sushi and sashimi in my mouth. And this is all thanks to my good friend and ex-colleague, T.H., who is currently staying and working in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, and is almost a Japanese himself. T.H. treated Samurai T and I to the most wonderful meal at Sushizanmai's Roppongi branch during our first trip to Tokyo in 2008. And we will forever be grateful.

According to T.H., he patronises Sushizanmai up to 3 or 4 times a week! Part of the reason is because his house is only a 10-minute walk away (lucky ass), and the other is that the restaurant serves REALLY great sushi at reasonable prices, with the freshest seafood direct from Tsukiji Market. T.H. who has spent half his life (or more) in Japan, is one of the restaurant's VIP customers and hence he gets a good discount as well. All the staff know both him and his wife and they chat like old friends. Although it is quite a big restaurant, it has a cosy and homey atmosphere.

During that particular dinner, all 4 of us sat at the counter, and like the pro he was, T.H. was ordering the best foods left, right, centre, and we were served directly by the head chef. Unfortunately, I was digging in with too much relish to take a lot of pictures for this particular gastronomical journey. In fact, I am ashamed to admit I did not even take note of the name of the restaurant and had to find out from my fellow contributor Bee Furn (also a friend of T.H. and was treated at the same restaurant!!!) to write this blog post.

I cannot remember exactly what we ate, but there were at least a gazillion permutations of the Toro (tuna) sushi. Looking at them will probably give you a heart attack with their layers of fat, but they tasted out of this world. We had both the freshwater and saltwater Unagi (eel), and T.H. the connoisseur was explaining the difference in taste although I did not really care and just gobbled them down - both were GREAT. Then there was the crab sushi that we had (below), and it was so fresh, chewy and totally yums! Also not forgetting the lovely and humongous oysters sprinkled with cut spring onions, roe and some magic miso sauce. Alamak! My mouth is watering.

Crab sushi, I believe. Drool....

Fresh oysters!!! Died and gone to heaven.

The highlight of the dinner though was a live horse mackerel being sliced skillfully by the chef while leaving its heart intact and pumping. So as the fish was being served (as it was below), the fish was still alive, heart pumping, mouth gasping and eyes bulging. While this seemed really cruel (for awhile, I did not think I could eat), it is apparently a testament of  a chef's skill that the fish lives even as customers are feasting on its flesh. According to T.H., there used to be a practice of chefs throwing the sliced fish back into the tank, and they could still swim even with their body cut out!!!(Of course they will still die after awhile.) But as a result of an uproar over the freak show, mostly from Westerners protesting intentional cruelty, this practice died out.

The horse mackerel that wouldn't die. Its heart was still beating while we ate its succulent flesh.

Yes, I did eventually eat that poor horse mackerel. Only after T.H. assured me that fish do not have nerves and they could feel no pain. I was like, are you sure??? T.H., an avid fisherman himself, said that there are university degrees in Japan on fishing and fish and the Japanese have conducted the most in-depth studies on these sea creatures. But as I looked at his Japanese wife who had declined to join in the feasting, she had a pained look on her face. Even if the horse mackerel did not feel any pain, I think she did, a most unusual thing, since the Japanese cannot live without their sushi and sashimi.

The horse mackerel tasted good, but next time, I would forgo the privilege of watching it die in front of my eyes since that took some pleasure away from my dinner, pain nerves or no pain nerves.