Thursday, March 29, 2007


PACKING for our trip home was a sad affair. There were so many places I wanted to go to, like Nara, Himeiji, Osaka, Nagoya, Hokkaido and Okinawa; so many restaurants I wanted to try; so many experiences, like an onsen (40-degree hot spring public bath where you are fully naked while soaking with strangers) I wanted to relish. 8 days is not enough especially if you're a food and adventure junkie like myself.

LITTLE boy was going to miss his tita, who acted as babysitter, playmate and friend the entire trip. Good thing she was due in HK the next day for a much-needed respite from the Japanese language. We will always be grateful to SIL, for being patient enough to take us to the same old places she'd been to countless times, for planning each day so we could take in as many sights and sounds as possible, for tirelessly researching bus routes to Gotemba, for waking up so early every day and walking from her dorm to our hotel in the biting cold just to pick us up, for putting up with our moods and demands. I was the adventure-food-walking-museum type, hubby the coffee shop-shopping mall-food-very little walking please type, and Little boy was, well, wonderful. He only spent a half day at Thomasland but went around with us to all the temples (of both culture and retail) quietly and without complaint. We normally don't buy toys for him unless it's his birthday or Christmas, but we made an exception for this trip and he happily lugged home 5 new toys back to HK. It was his reward for being so well-behaved during the mostly boring (for him) trip. It's good to know we can take him around the world easily.

AFTER checking out we decided to spend our last day walking leisurely around Shinjuku. Lunch -yes, delicious and memorable, was at a mall restaurant serving tempura.

4 kinds of salt for sprinkling on the tempura: pinkish salt, light yellow lemon salt, ordinary salt, herbs with salt

steamed tofu

Japanese ceramic pot for soy sauce

the tempura was brought to our table in small batches as they were being fried. how fresh is that? no soggy, cold ones in this resto.

READERS of this blog, I know this took way long to finish. Arigato gozaimasu for your patience!


FRIDAY in Japan was darn depressing- I hadn't eaten at any resto on my list (although I did eat at some fine restos and was happy with the food) because of logistics, and I only had 1 1/2 days to go. SIL and I had planned to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 am to catch the action at the Tsukiji Fish Market and eat some freshy-caught seafood for breakfast, then jog around the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The plan sounded good on paper, but we were bone-tired and didn't meet up until 9am. Too late for the fish market, which is why I am going back to Japan in 2 years time when SIL graduates from fashion school for good. Too late for the Imperial Palace too, because apart from buying last minute "pasalubongs" at the Y100 shop (yes, I am a cheapskate),I had to buy books at the bookstore I visited on my first day, then meet up with my sleepyhead hubby and son for lunch. I know there are bookstores in HK too, probably carrying the same titles at a cheaper price, but irrational me had to have some books to bring home. I already had one in my luggage from our visit to Kyoto- Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights". How ironic is that- buying an English classic at an obscure Kyoto bookshop! What can I say? It was on sale.

WE VISITED the Takashimaya basement food shop, after waiting patiently for the doors to open and the perpetually bowing attendants to usher us in, and I bought some pickled ginger and cooked gyoza. THe Japanese waste too much paper in wrapping their food products, and I hated the layers of paper and plastic I had to grapple with before reaching my food. I was hungry, darn it, and not in the mood to open presents like it was Christmas. Their landfills must be choking. I don't mind the wrappers when they're for presents, though, because it's a nice, elegant touch, but when I'm buying food to assuage hunger pangs...

AT THE bookstore with the tiny English books section on the top floor I bought:

Mark Kurlansky's CHOICE CUTS (A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History) with essays by MFK Fisher, Waverly Root, Alexandre Dumas, Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and other literary and foodie heavyweights.

Taras Grescoe's THE DEVIL"S PICNIC (Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink) which is "an investigation of what thrills us, what terrifies us, and what inspires us to travel ten thousand miles and evade local authorities..." Very intriguing.

Rudolph Chelminski's THE PERFECTIONIST (Life and Death in Haute Cuisine) which takes a look at the world of French haute cuisine, and how one of France's most celebrated chefs took his own life when his restaurant ratings dropped and rumor spread that he was about to lose a Michelin star. It is my dream to eat at (at least 5) Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris.

AT THE Y100 store I bought these popular, lightweight, clear plastic umbrellas to bring back to HK. I gave one away, and the other one was so lightweight I forgot it in China on a trip to Shenzen.

FOR LUNCH we went to Shibuya, took some pictures of the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (which reminded me of the SOGO Causeway Bay crossing on weekends and holidays) and took a snapshot of me standing by the Faithful Dog - the one who waited faithfully for its owner at the same spot for years after he died- who has a bronze memorial erected in his honor. Note: The bronze statue was stolen a few weeks after we left Japan in a daring heist, to be sold in the black market, probably.

I WANTED to search for a tonkatsu resto featured on my list, but we couldn't find it so we settled for this:

3 kinds of tonkatsu sauce: a tangy one, a sweetish one, and a spicy one

can't wait for the tonkatsu!

the food was ok


THE REST of the afternoon was spent shopping for hubby's office shirts. He likes the Japanese brands because they are so trendy and metrosexual-looking. Perfect for my queer-eyed better (dressed) half.

DINNER was a treat from one of SIL's Pinoy friends who has lived in Japan many years. He wanted us to try authentic Kyushu cuisine called Motsunabe and brought us to a well-known restaurant in the Asakasa area. SIL and I were delighted with everything we tried that night, especially the mango sake and lychee sake we sipped while munching, although hubby and little boy were wary of the dishes.

HERE IS Motsunabe's description, from Wikipedia: Motsunabe (Japanese: もつ鍋) is a type of nabemono in Japanese cuisine, which is made from beef or pork offal. A hot pot (nabe) is filled with soup, prepared beef or pork offal and boiled for a while; cabbage and garlic chives are added. The base soup is usually soy sauce with garlic and chili pepper, or miso. Champon noodles are often put into the pot and boiled to complete the dish.The offal used in motsunabe is mostly beef intestines, but various kinds of offal can be used.

this is liver steak, breaded, fried and served with a tangy sauce. you can only order one per person each time you go there. each liver is counted. this resto does not accept walk-ins. ever. the liver was so good, crunchy but not greasy, with no aftertaste.

the specialty of the house- motsunabe. here the pot is covered with cabbage, bamboo shoot and garlic chives with chilies on top. we set the pot over a high flame, and as the vegetables wilted into the soup, we scooped the fillings, composed of various innards, into our bowls. the broth was very garlicky and flavorful.

a stir-fried mixed vegetable and innard dish

crunchy "mustasa" salad with a piquant mustard dressing, tomatoes, steamed lotus root and crisp sugar snap

pickles on the side

this tamago had an extra special pinkish ingredient inside. i thought it was "bihod" (fish roe), because of the tiny dots that popped (very slightly) but saucily in my mouth. hubby ate it first before trying to find out what is was. lo and behold, it was a Fear Factor ingredient- bull's testicles. not bad tasting at all. i would eat it again.

we fnished it all off

sweet potato and purple yam ice cream to refresh our tongues and glide smoothly down our throats after that very interesting and full-bodied dinner

KNOWING it was our last night in Japan SIL and her friend brought us to Roponggi Hills for coffee. Little boy and I had wandered off to check out the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and grab a copy their spring food brochure. Hubby was so happy the girl behind the Starbucks counter could speak English, with an accent at that. We were finally able to order a latte with skimmed milk (not the best choice but we are not coffee lovers to begin with) after 6 days of full-fat milk. While sipping our coffee we saw several Caucasians in either business suits or trendy clubing attire walk by. One was a bald, handsome man in a pink button-down shirt and white jeans. He was HOT. SIL thought he was smiling at her so she smiled back, until we realized, after much debate, that he might have been smiling at hubby. HAHA. In any case, hubby was giving him the once-over too because he liked the guy's clothes. Hubby was in a pink sweater, by the way. It was a laughter-filled evening until little boy got tired of running around, coughed endlessly, and proceeded to vomit all over Starbuck's Roponggi Hills' shiny, clean floor. Good thing the Japanese are so polite. The staff did the polite thing and helped us clean the mess. We took that as a sign to take little boy home to rest.

HAPPY ME went to bed that night with thoughts of more exotic meals to come when I visit Japan again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


THURSDAY brought grey skies and freezing temperatures to Tokyo. It was Little Boy's turn to enjoy himself in Thomasland after the past two days of temple and garden hopping. He was quiet throughout the early bus trip to Hakone, by the slopes of Mt. Fuji, where Fuji-Q Highland Park was located.

ON THE WAY there we passed through industrial towns and valleys surrounded by pine-covered mountains. Although the trees were in a dull shade of brownish grey, one can imagine how verdant the countryside really is in the spring and summer. It seems that illegal logging is rare in these parts.

AS SOON AS we were finished admiring the many hills and grassy fields surrounding us we suddenly caught sight of that oft-depicted mountain with its perfect, gentle slopes capped by white- MT. FUJI. We were more in awe this time compared to that short sighting from the bullet train because the mountain (or should I say volcano, because it is, technically, that) was right in front of us, looming vast and large, its presence commanding.

UPON alighting from the bus we proceeded to cross the highway through an overpass, mistakenly thinking Thomasland was on the other side of the road. We realized too late that we were on the right side the entire time, but it was a lucky mistake since we were able to take pictures from the top of the overpass, where Mt. Fuji could be seen in all its glory behind us, the view unimpeded by trees and structures.

WE BOUGHT entrance tickets to FUJI-Q, instead of the more popular day pass which would have allowed us to ride everything on offer (including 4 kinds of roller coasters, a longish rolller-coaster ride clocking in at 3 minutes, a bicycle ride for the lazybones and scaredycats on wires high above the ground, a huge, horrific haunted house) because we needed to catch the bus to Gotemba after lunch, so all we had time for was Little boy's wonderland.

MANY locals, Pinoys in Japan and forums on the web cautioned us that Thomasland was a very tiny part of Fuji-Q and not really worth going to unless your kid is obsessed with the series, which Little boy was. We walked through the amusement part with low expectations but were plesantly surprised.

A BRICK archway with the words THOMASLAND greeted us and we knew we made the right choice in bringing Little boy here instead of Disneyland or Disney Sea. We took pictures by Knapford Station, and Little boy frolicked in the souvenir shop, where Thomas themed toilet paper, seaweed, furry slippers and toilet seats, among other things, were being sold at high prices to fans of the railway series. Being suckers, we bought 2 toys for Little boy, one of which he promptly lost the next night while I was eating my most memorable Japanese meal.

LITTLE BOY rode on a Duncan roller coaster, Harold the Helicopter, Lady the steam engine, the Sodor boats, Percy and Thomas bump cars which he controlled (steered, started and stopped) all by himself, Cranky simulating a ferris wheel on drugs (it was a jerky, fast ride), Mavis with the tambourine and singing attendant, and a Toby tunnel ride in a cave with life-size Gordon, Spencer, Harvey, snow-covered Percy, a real turntable, and a chocolate factory at the end of the ride! Even the adults had fun!

AFTER an exhausting morning, and I say exhausting not because the park was huge but because it was so darn cold (2-3 degrees C) and it took all our energy to keep our hands warm, we had a very average pasta lunch at the theme park then proceeded to the nearby bus stop where we were the only foreigners around. There was an old, tiny shelter where we took refuge until the bus to Gotemba came. A friend of SIL told us about the outlet shops in this place, 1 1/2 hours from Hakone, and since hubby is a shopaholic, off we went! The road to Gotemba was lined with pine trees, a view of Mt. Fuji's cone, a touristy fishing village (literally, a place where tourists went to fish by the banks of a river), a small beach, and rolling hills covered with something mustard-yellow- a bizzare sight. Gotemba itself is a quiet, sleepy town that offers hiking tours to Mt. Fuji, a smattering of Onsen (public baths using water from mineral springs heated to 40 degrees C), and other nature-oriented trails for the adventurous city-phobes. The outlet shops are located in a sprawling, modern complex put up by a US company. It seems small from the entrance, but in fact you have to cross a bridge spanning a deep ravine to get the to other side. There are 170 shops in all, with big names like Escada, Gucci, Miu Miu, Prada, Hugo Boss, Furla, Tod's, Kate Spade, Cole Haan, Celine, and A. Testoni, to name a few. Hubby was in shopping paradise! Little boy was asleep the entire time. We boarded the bus for Tokyo after 4 hours of window-shopping, hubby with a wide grin on his face after purchasing new shoes. It was so cold there was no point in trying on clothes; SIL and I just felt so lazy we gave up after one round of the place.

TOKYO was drizzling at 8pm, and we were famished and tired so it had to be fastfood for us, because we were ready to hit the sack. SIL brought us to a cheap place frequented by salarymen, where you choose from window displays of fake food, place some money in a vendo machine and press your choice. Afterwards you present a receipt to the counter and pick up your food. The noodles were not spectacular-tasting, but hot, filling and fast, just what we needed that rainy night.

sil choosing our dinner. fast food at its fastest. hubby even timed one customer, 5 minutes to finish his meal then in 2 minutes another one took his place.

the display

hubby's dinner: plain soba with broth and seaweed and a bowl of tonkatsudon

my dinner: thin soba noodles in a salty broth with various toppings - no meat or seafood


WAKE-UP CALL on Day 4 was at 5:30 am. We had to walk to the Shinjuku train station; a mere 15 minutes from the inn that felt more like 2 hours because we were frozen. From there it was a 30-minute train ride to Shinagawa station, where we would catch the Shinkansen or bullet train, Japan's high-speed train that zooms past its countryside and takes Tokyo-dwellers to places like Osaka, Kyoto, Nagano etc...

LITTLE BOY loved the ride, and so did we. It was smooth, comfortable and scenic. We gasped in awe when majestic Mt. Fuji, its upper slopes blindingly white with snow, suddenly appeared by the window opposite us. After a brief nap, we opened our eyes to a scene right out of a postcard: that of a small mountainside village whose rooftops, treetops and cars were bathed in snow. This was Nagano, and although we ignorantly thought it was snowing in Kyoto, after 30 minutes of this charming view it was back to flat and grassy fields awash with sunlight.

ARRIVING too early to check in we walked to Nishiki Market, a famous food market in Kyoto. The long street is lined with shops sellling pickled ginger in a myriad of colors and tastes. There was a knife shop I was interested in, but their extra sharp goods were too expensive for my budget, although I gazed longingly at the chef's knives on display. There was no lack of cooked savory and sweet food to be had: grilled fish, breaded pork and seafood, bento boxes, soy milk donuts (we ordered these hot and fresh, and the distinctive taste of soy milk was evident in every sugary bite), and more mochi than I've ever seen in my life! Kyoto in Spring in mochi territory!

entrance to Nishiki

tuna on sticks, waiting to be grilled

dashitamago-large omelets with various fillings using dashi (dried bonito fish and kelp or seaweed) as a flavor base.

making tamago using special rectangular tamago pans. i've tried making some with a regular round non-stick pan and it worked out fine, even if it differed in appearance from restaurant tamago.

i ate 2 of these beauties in one sitting. imagine the onslaugt on your senses: sticky, bland mochi balls encasing smooth and sweet red bean paste, then a squirt of sweetness and tang from a soft, ripe, juicy strawberry. i tried some from a convenience store in Tokyo but the berry was guilty of being too small, too bland and too squished. this handmade one from Nishiki was worth every cent.

triangular, paper-thin mochi with sweet fillings, a specialty in Kyoto only during spring. i also tasted plain white mochi balls that you dip in a black sesame paste. wonderful!

OUR STAY in Kyoto was devoted to visiting it's lush gardens, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and temples steeped in history. SIL and I were lucky enough to have our pictures taken with both maikos (apprentices) and geishas. The cab drivers who brought us around chatted with SIL about geisha history, showed us a geisha's mansion, and took us down memory lane by driving by a street depicting the Kyoto of old - more than 100 years old; the small houses once home to ancestors of Kyoto residents now used as quaint restaurants, izakayas and souvenir shops.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imeprial Palace

WHILE walking around the Maruyama Park SIL and I spotted an English-style manor serving Western food, and at first I thought how silly it was, this pretentious restaurant, until I was silenced by the plaque in front: it had been serving the general public at the exact spot since 1909.

STUNNED, I laughed my silliness off by walking farther away from the source of my shame, and came upon an English-style (again!) tearoom, complete with rose-painted china and other relics of genteel Victorian life scattered about the diding room. Here I ordered herring soup with buckwheat noodles (um, yes, they serve authentic Japanese food). The steaming hot broth cleared my nose and warmed my chilly insides. The herring was grilled and brushed with a sweet, teriyaki-like sauce. Its bones were so soft they melted in the mouth. SIL and I stayed for a bit and sipped their aromatic green tea before gathering enough energy to walk around again. We toured the Eastern part of Kyoto (Kodaiji Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Chionin Temple, GIon) for a good 3 1/2 hours, and was rewarded for our efforts by the sight of Kiyomizudera Temple at night, its cherry blossoms lit by garden lights.

Kodaiji Temple

Kiyomizudera at night

FOR DINNER we all trooped to the restaurant two doors down from our hotel - oh, did I mention our room here was 6 times bigger than our Tokyo one? It had a proper closet, dressing room, living room, a long cabinet housing fluffy robes and silky kimonos, and two TV'S! And it cost far less than our Tokyo box! Dinner was at a bright, happy place where the specialty was shabu-shabu, which we didn't order (don't ask why, it frustrates me to this day). I wasn't disappointed with my bento box and SIL's sushi platter though. Hubby's bento box contained tuna sashimi, which I happily ate, chicken teriyaki, a flavorful, quivering mass of chawan mushi (egg pudding) with generous bits of prawn hidden inside, pickles, salad and assorted tempura. Mine had assorted sushi and tempura, a mini beef hotpot cooked in a coffee filter- like paper bowl over a slow flame, chicken teriyaki, chawan mushi and a delightful vegetable and seafood ball broth. All this for HKD 120/bento box. My camera's battery had died down at this point, and the memory card was full, which explains the lack pf pictures for these 2 days and why I bought a camera upon arriving at Tokyo on the afternoon of DAY 5.

AFTER A leisurely breakfast at the hotel the next day - composed of convenience store bento boxes, we set out for Kinkakuji, an extremely beautiful and serene temple made out of gold leaf. It sits in a lagoon and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The surrounding hills, streams, mountains and gardens are forever embedded in my mind, and hopefully hubby will endeavor to surprise me with a Japanese garden replica in our future home, albeit a fraction of the size, and without the gold leaf pavillion, of course. It was a perfect morning marred only by the tourist shops, too many of them, noisily selling their wares a few meters before exiting temple grounds.


RYOANJI temple was next, a "masterpiece of Japanese culture", according to the guide books. The complex houses the Kyoyochi Pond, made in the late twelfth century, and a famous rock garden, composed of only 15 rocks and white gravel, and measuring 25 meters east to west and 10 meters south to north. Philisophers would sit by this garden and contemplate life and the meaning of the rocks. Whoever designed the simple garden at the end of the 15th century meant to inspire in the viewer zen-like meditation.

ON THE WAY back to Tokyo I overdosed on onigiri at a convenince store. What looked interesting was simple a circle of rice dipped in soy sauce with NO FILLING INSIDE! ARGGGGGH! I was sick of bland rice! Another ongiri using red rice and beans was average, and the salmon one had a strand of hair sticking out from it so I lost my appetite altgether and didn't buy a single onigiri for the rest of my stay.

GOOD THING we had dinner at the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Lumine EST Department Store, Shinjuku. Wolfgang has 3 eateries in this city, an express at Harajuku, tha cafe and a fine dining option. By this time I had my new camera, a Canon Powershot A640 (hey, it got good reviews on the net, with a professional photographer saying it's more than a beginner's camera, though not a professional one, and will work well for the camera enthusiast, like me!). I hadn't tinkered around with it or read the manual so in the box it stayed while we enjoyed our baby spinach salad with crisp bacon, goat's cheese and caramelized pecans tossed in sherry vinaigrette; Italian sausage pizza; tomato. basil and garlic spaghetti; fresh chittara with cream, bacon and basil paste; the house special burger with onion rings; and a truly indulgent appetizer of truffle potato chips with bleu cheese dip.

BEFORE we had dinner SIL took us to Harajuku, shopping havens for either the rich fashionistas or weird teenagers of Tokyo. I feasted my eyes on the shops selling gothic wear, lacy undergarments in the most "baduy" designs, and even sighted some Harajuku girls that looked like Gwen Stefani's back-up dancers.

ALL IN ALL, an eventful 2 days.