Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hakata Ippudo

Having developed a taste for ramen in milky pork bone broth when I lived in Bangkok, I'm always on the lookout for good Japanese restaurants that serve this comfort food. An American friend introduced me to Hakata Ippudo in Causeway Bay(2F, 8 Russell Street, Causeway Bay). She had eaten at the Ippudo in New York City and was pleased to find Ippudo in Hong Kong. This Japanese chain which can now be found globally does not disappoint and remains one of my favourites ramen restaurants in Hong Kong. They have restaurants in Central (3F, Century Square, 1-13, D'Aquilar Street) and Tsim Sha Tsui (2F, SilverCord, 30 Canton Road).

For the mother of all ramen dishes, try the Akamaru Shinaji ramen, its latest signature dish which has a really flavorful pork bone broth and comes with soft-boiled egg, char siu, seaweed, black fungus, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts.

On a recent trip to Tokyo earlier this year, I was determined to check out the Ippudo in its home country. After getting lost for a while and asking for directions from numerous people, I finally managed to find the Ippudo in Ginza. Unlike the spacious, up-market branches in HK, the Ippudo in Ginza is a typical Japanese ramen shop. Located in a small basement, there are a handful of counter seating and a few tables. I love it as this is what I remember of the other ramen shops we ate in our previous trip to Japan. In Japan, the Ippudo provides complimentary appetizers such as the spicy bean sprout, which is chargable in the Hong Kong branches. However, I am pleased to say that the quality of the food in Hong Kong is on par with the Japanese locations. I think it's time for a visit to Ippudo soon!


Monday, October 8, 2012

The Japanese Ryokan Experience - Shiraume Ryokan

A visit to Japan is not complete without a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. A stay at a ryokan will set you back quite a lot of ¥ en, so we could only afford one night of indulgence. We picked the Shiraume Ryokan. Located in the Gion district in Kyoto, this lovely ryokan which traces its history to the 17th century used to be an ochaya teahouse. The ryokan is built by the Shirakawa stream, a serene location which is home to the birds and an inspiration artists. No wonder it's one of the best preserved traditional areas in Japan.

Typical in Japan, we took our shoes off at the entrance and were given house slippers to use. We stayed at the Umeichirin room which consists of a living room and a bedroom, separated by a sliding doors.  It also comes with an attached bathroom with a wooden bathtub. Typical of a Japanese style room, there is very little furniture. The living room has a low dining table with chairs, with traditional paintings on the wall, whilst the bedroom has a dressing mirror and small table in the corner. The mirror is covered with a lovely piece of cloth (to be folded over when you're grooming). The futon beds are rolled out just before bedtime. Simple and practical.

The ryokan experience is not complete without a taste of the Japanese Kaiseki dinner (think French fine dining with many, many exquisite small dishes). . We opted for a kobe beef set and a seafood set. I don't remember the names of what we ate but I can tell you every single dish was fresh, tasty and beautifully presented  an absolute gastronomic feast for the stomach and the eyes!

The next morning, we "feasted" again on a Japanese breakfast.  The cosy breakfast room looked out to a small Japanese garden.  After such a hearty breakfast, we skipped lunch!

So, was it worth the 30,000+Yen per person? Absolutely! The welcome was gracious, the rooms were elegant, the food was amazing and the experience was authentic!
Note: The room rate at Shiraume includes dinner and breakfast. 


Friday, March 16, 2012

Kyoto Markets & Food

As a foodie, one of my favourite spots to visit whenever I travel are the markets, be it indoor or street markets.

Nishiki market, also known as "Kyoto's Kitchen" in downtown Kyoto is a fascinating place to spend a few hours.

You can find all kinds of food here in this long narrow indoor market - from fresh seafood to black bean tea...

...traditional snacks to cute cafes.

Enterprising shopkeepers call out for you to try samples of their offerings with the hope of making a sale. Let's just say it's a very successful tactic. We could not resist the yummy goodies once we've had a taste. It's a great place to buy gifts for family and friends back home.

The other place I highly recommend is the street market at Chawan-zaka or Teapot Lane in Southern Higashimaya for more shopping and eating.

Walk along the charming cobbled pathway and pop into any shop that catches your fancy. Fancy a hand-painted T-shirt from a sidewalk artist?
Or maybe some Japanese green tea Kit Kat for folks at home?

If you're lucky (which we were), you might even catch a glimpse of a Geisha at work.

When your feet aches, pop by a cafe for a green tea soft serve ice cream or a cup of Japanese coffee, or if you prefer, Yebisu beer.

At the top of Chawan-zaka, you can visit one of the oldest temples in Kyoto, the Kiyomuzi-dera. So, you get food, shopping and heritage at one convenient location!

If you fancy some street-style food, try the Kyoto style Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) called Issen-Yoshoku. We stumbled upon this restaurant at Gion and was first attracted by this cute figurine of a young man whose pants was being bitten by a dog.

Then we were hooked by the tantalizing smells as the chef cooked at the front of the shop. How could we resist?

What goes into Issen-Yosho? Thankfully, the restaurant had it written down in the menu.

This is what the Kyoto-style Okonomiyaki looks like...Delicious!

I think the restaurant is at Yamatooji-dori (Nawate-dori)...but if it helps, here is a picture of the restaurant. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Kyoto's Gion - The Fine Arts of Japan

Kyoto is more than just temples and shrines. For a taste of Japan's fine arts, we visited Gion. Here, we walked the old part of Gion, Shijo-dori in the early evening, hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha on the way to work.

At Hanami-koji we saw three ladies in kimonos but soon realized that they were "tourist geishas", tourists who have paid to be made up as a geisha, or in this case, just dressed in a kimono.

However, we later spotted a real geisha hurrying to work. Notice how beautiful and intricate her kimono is compared to the tourist geishas' kimonos. We could not resist taking a photograph of the geisha, from a respectful distance. After all, who would want to be mobbed by tourist paparazis on the way to work? So, if you do go to Gion, please respect the geishas and do not hound them for photographs. Just observe and photograph from a distance.

We even saw a male geisha...Actually, we saw a poster advertising a performance (we think...the words were all in Japanese...). Next to the picture of the geisha was a head-shot of a dashing young man. So we figured it must be a male impersonating a geisha performance???

Later that night, we went to Gion Corner Theatre at Yasaka Hall in Shijo Sagaru to catch a one-hour performance of seven traditional arts of Kyoto. These include:
1)Japanese harp (Koto)

2) Tea ceremony

3) Floral arrangement

4) Gagaku Imperial Court music

5) Kyogen classical comedy

6) Kyomai dance

7)Bunraku puppet show

Whilst we may not have understood the finer nuances of all the performances, we definitely appreciated the glimpse to a tradition that is not our own.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Kyoto - The Best of Japan's Cultural Heritage

Kyoto is undoubtedly the place to go to experience the best of Japan's rich cultural heritage With 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, hundreds of Shinto shrines and thousands of Buddhist temples, you'll never be able to see them all in one trip. Here are the highlights that we picked.

1)Kingaku-ji (Northwest Kyoto)
The Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion is really golden in colour - it's covered by gold foil. The current temple built in 1955 is a reconstruction of the original temple after it was burnt down by a monk. The original temple was built in the 13th century by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.

2)Gingaku-ji (Unesco World Heritage) (Nothern Higashiyama)
The Gingaku, or the Silver Pavillion was built in the 14th century by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Originally, the Shogun had intended to coat the building with silver but that never happened. The temple grounds has beautifully sculptured white sand gardens.

Despite the light drizzle when we visited, it's still very pleasant to meander and enjoy the beautiful garden. In this peaceful environment, you'll find that your worries will melt away...

After the walk, we worked up an appetite and indulged in a delicious green tea cream puff in a sidewalk store just outside the temple. The creamy puff tasted as good as it looks!

3)Heian-Jingu Shrine (Northern Higashiyama)
The Shrine was built in the late 18th century to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. It's not difficult to spot the Shrine as it is painted bright orange.

Before entering the Shrine, visitors should wash their hands first.

4) Sanjunsangen-do (Southern Higashiyama)
The original Sanjunsangen-do was built in the 11th century. The temple was rebuilt in the 12th century after it was burnt down. The temple hall is long and narrow. At 120 metres, it is Japan's longest wooden structure. In the temple (photography not allowed), there are 1001 statues of the 1000-armed Kannon (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy).

5) Kiyomizu-dera(Southern Higashiyama)
Kiyomizu-dera is located at the top of Teapot Lane(Chawan-zaka), so be prepared for an uphill walk! One of the oldest temples in Kyoto, the orignal temple was built in 798. The existing temple itself was built in the first century. There are lovely views of Kyoto from the temple.