Tokyo Eats

I’ve been to Japan dozens of times and friends always ask for restaurant recommendations. While I have some favorites, my usual answer is I usually pick restaurants based on where I end up at the end of the night, rather than reserving places before arriving to Japan. This way, it wouldn’t restrict me from having to rush to the reservation if I was at the other side of town. I was told, at least in Tokyo, that there would be a charge for any cancelations regardless of reason. I know some desirable places really need reservations, so I have since limited myself to making 1 restaurant reservation on each trip so that I can try those more desirable restaurants. I do also sometimes make same day reservations for places I know may need a booking.  Also, I don’t tend to go to too fancy places, or Michelin starred restaurants. I find there’s a lot of good choices everywhere I go.

Instead of sending restaurant info emails to friends or me keeping track of business cards (which I’ve lost a lot of already), I’ve decided to list out my favorite places here. This list will be updated when necessary. Most of these places didn’t have English menus nor did their staff spoke any English, but it was still easy to communicate as their menus usually had pictures.

SUSHI PLACES

Sushi Midori 寿司の美登利

http://www.sushinomidori.co.jp/shop.php?name=shibuya

They have various locations in Tokyo but the one I usually go to is in Shibuya. They don’t take reservations and the wait can be long. During my last visit (Jan. 2017) we waited for 3 hours, but the average wait is around 1.5 – 2 hours. They now have have a ticket system, so you can walk around while you wait for the table instead of lining up (which we have done many times). Although there is a long wait, I still frequent this place at least once every time because I find the sushi to not only be of quality, but the cuts  of the fish are generous. They also have cooked items and sides. The average check per person is around HK$250 (US$31). It’s definitely value for money!

img_3194

Shibuya Shop

Uogaashi-Ichi Standing Sushi Bar 魚がし日本一 

http://www.uogashi-nihonichi.com/english/

Like sushi Midori, there are a number of outlets within Tokyo. The one I go to is in Shinjuku. This was a recent random find. As it states, it’s a standing sushi bar, so the shop (at least the one in Shinjuku) is quite small, with around 15 spots. This place usually isn’t that busy, but during peak times, there is a short line. The average check is about HK$250 (US$31).

Dreaming of Lobsters

This summer, my family and I went on a tour of the US, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. Looking back at the hundreds of photos I took, there was one consistent food type we had – it was seafood, specifically lobster, crab, and shrimp. Living in Hong Kong, seafood is readily available (all of which are imported), but the different varieties and having it in the US seems to be much tastier. It could all be in the mind, but I think the distance it needs to travel plays a factor as well.

In the three cities I visited, we had a combination of cooking methods – Chinese, Western and even fusion. I want to take this platform to document the restaurants that’s worth going back to, for myself and to whomever that comes across this blog post. In this post, I’m going to share what has now become my favorite lobster roll joint.

My first encounter of Luke’s Lobster was not in the US, but in Osaka, Japan about a year ago. It is the only outlet in Osaka, in Shinsaibashi, a popular shopping area. I wasn’t too impressed with their lobster roll when I had it. I remember it was the bun that stole the show, and not the meat. The meat was a bit soggy and there wasn’t much lobster taste. I left thinking why I had to wait in line for it.

Luke’s Lobster, Osaka – 大阪府大阪市中央区心斎橋筋1-3-21 

When I was in New York, on a number of different occasions, friends suggested that I give the Manhattan outlets a try, but I was hesitant after my experience in Osaka. I was walking around Manhattan and before I knew it, I passed by a Luke’s Lobster. I had no reason but not to give it a try – I was so happy I did! It is the best lobster roll I’ve had…ever!!

Luke’s Lobster – 5 West 25th Street (the one I went to, check their website for more shop locations in the US)

Besides lobster, they also have crab and shrimp rolls and also clam chowder. I had the chowder and it’s definitely worth a try! It was so good I had it for lunch AND dinner! At the 25th Street shop where I went, they also shared where the seafood came from. Mine was from Portland, Maine. I’m glad I ended up checking it out. It was meant to be!

 

 

A trip to Universal Studios Osaka

2016 marks the 10th anniversary of my relocation back home to Hong Kong. Since my return, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been to Osaka, Japan. Whenever I tell my friends I’m going away on vacation, they don’t need to ask where, because they all know it’s to Osaka – or if I tell them, their reaction is “AGAIN??!!” Yes, I must admit, I do go there pretty often and am still enjoying it. It’s become a second home to me and I enjoy the familiarity – going to my usual shabu shabu, sushi and ramen joints, for one. Going to the same shops and being welcomed back to the same hotel. However, this past Christmas, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere I haven’t been before – and I chose Universal Studios Osaka! This time, my sister was with me, so we thought it would be good bonding time to experience it together for the first time.

Universal Studios Osaka is just a short 30 minute train ride from where we stayed in Namba. I was told to get tickets beforehand as the lines at ticket counters at the park can be quite long. Lawson, Japan’s equivalent of 7-11 offers advance ticket sales. I was directed to a red machine, called Loppi to buy the tickets. This machine services many purposes, from buying everyday items to books, to amusement park tickets. Although Loppi had a number of language options, including English, it only provided instructions in language, in my case, English, but the actual purchasing of tickets was in Japanese, so it took me a while to figure it out. A receipt was printed upon my confirmation, which I then needed to go to the counter and pay, after which I received the admission tickets. During the process, it was a bit overwhelming and I didn’t realise until we reached the park entrance that we bought the wrong date! The Japanese calendar starts their week on Monday, instead of Sunday, which we were used to seeing. We ended up buying tickets for Tuesday, instead of Monday. It took us another 45 minutes before we were able exchange our tickets (at 400yen fee each) to get inside the park. People told me about Fast Passes, but we weren’t able to buy any in the Loppi machine nor at the park. Maybe because they only issue very few per day? We were actually glad we didn’t buy any Fast Passes because for some of the rides we wanted to go on, the Pass didn’t give much advantage – the wait time was nearly the same.

After entering the park, we didn’t expect to see so many people lining up for food, rides, and everything in between. We thought going on a Monday would beat the weekend rush. We were so wrong! Because it was close to the New Year holiday (recognized as a major holiday in Japan), it looked like a lot of locals took time off work and school’s probably out. Nevertheless, it didn’t deter us from slowing down. Our first stop, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! We were directed to a machine were we need to prebook a time slot to enter – most of the popular attractions are the same.  The park isn’t very big, and we didn’t want to focus all of our time on rides, the only other ride we prebooked was Jurassic Park.

We wanted to maximise our time, so we looked for attractions with shortest line, we came across Terminator 2 – 3D, but we still had to wait for over 30 minutes. Being in Japan, we expected everything would be in Japanese. In the attraction, there was role playing and video presentation, which had a very 90s feel – it brought me back to my first time watching the movie. Although we didn’t know what they were saying, we tried to keep up. Overall, this attraction was well executed as it blended video, and live performance. Moreover, the performance was actually more than a 3D experience, it was 4D, I felt water spraying on me and at one point, our seats moved!

By the time we were done, it was lunchtime. We came across a really cute Snoopy and Friends area and decided to dine at Snoopy’s Backlot Cafe. We ended up with a pasta set and burger set. The food was actually pretty decent.

After lunch, we walked around to find attractions/rides we wanted to go, but the lines were simply too long, so we ended up doing some retail therapy and lined up for more food to kill to before going to Harry Potter.

Japan is popular to have limited edition “Japan only” products, it is the same at the park. Moppy is the park’s “Japan only” character. Moppy is Elmo’s best friend in Japan! My sister went a little crazy over Moppy and bought a ton of merchandise. I had to drag her out of the shop in order to meet our Harry Potter reservation!

IMG_1124

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was just like the Hogsmeade. It was extremely well executed. All of the major touch points were there – the castle, the themed shops, I was so mesmerized that I forgot to take pictures! Here are some highlights.

There’s two major attractions – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (3D movie), and Flight of Hippogriff (roller coaster) – we wanted to go to both! We passed by the 3D movie line and the wait time was 1.5 hours. We thought we would explore the area first hoping for the line to die down. We were wrong. We went back several times, the line kept on growing! Luckily, we were able to go on the roller coaster. It was a mild one, but we felt it was still worth it.

We wanted to try the famous Butterbeer, but the line was super long. It was almost dinner, so we went to 3 Broomsticks, Hogsmeade’s tavern – the best thing, the line was short! The food was just ok, but it was the atmosphere that nailed it.

Our last ride was Jurassic Park – The Ride. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t experienced it. All I can say is, it’s a great ride and a must go!

For those who plan on going to Osaka, I do recommend going to Universal Studios Osaka. Depending on the time of year, you can probably finish park in a day (if you don’t plan on going to all of the rides), but they do have 2 day passes, so plan accordingly. I’m glad I went, especially with my sister – there was definitely a lot of sister bonding time!

 

 

 

 

Nagoya During Cherry Blossom – Simply Stunning

I’m going to save the last of my Travel Essential series to a later post. Instead, I’m going to share a trip I took several months ago.  I was organising some pictures of my travels and came across my trip to Nagoya, Japan. I went during Cherry Blossom season. The weather has been quite unstable here in Hong Kong and looking at those really cheered me up.

The city of Nagoya (名古屋市) is the capital of Aichi Prefecture and is located in eastern part of Japan. It is Japan’s third largest metropolitan city, after Tokyo and Osaka. Now one of the major Japanese ports, Nagoya was a target city for US raids during World War II.

It was my second time to the city, but I considered it to be my first because my initial visit was a quick overnight visit for business, so I didn’t see much of the city. All I did that gave me a taste of the city was the food. I did a post about it earlier. This time, I went for holiday and spent a week there and can really explore.

I’ve always heard amazing things about Cherry Blossom season – how beautiful and romantic it is, particularly in Japan. There are many destinations that have Cherry Blossoms, but Japan is the most famous to view. It so happened my Nagoya trip matched. It wasn’t intentional because even though the annual Cherry Blossom forecast by Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) is usually pretty accurate, one never knows. This year (2015), the forecast was from March 21 to March 30 and I was there from April 3 to April 9. I didn’t set any expectations.

Nagoya Castle is one of the ‘must see’ attractions. Knowing that it’s an outdoor attraction, I checked the weather. The forecast during my visit only showed the Saturday being sunny, so Nagoya Castle it is! There was a shuttle bus from Nagoya station and my hotel was right above it – how convenient! I thought the shuttle would be full of international tourists, but in fact, it was packed with Japanese tourists!

The view I saw when I got off the shuttle near Nagoya Castle

My view when I got off the shuttle near Nagoya Castle

I’m not going to bore you with the history of Nagoya Castle. For those who are interested, here’s the official website of the attraction. Every major Japanese city has its own symbolic castle.  Each castle usually sits atop a walled barricade so that Shoguns or leaders of the area is protected.

Entrance to Nagoya Castle

Entrance to Nagoya Castle

Path leading to the doors of Nagoya Castle

Path leading to the doors of Nagoya Castle

I must say, I’m so glad I was able to visit the castle during Cherry Blossom season. It’s hard to describe the beauty of it – it was simply stunning. When the wind blows, the Cherry Blossom leaves fall like snow. It’s quite surreal.

Locals enjoying their Saturday under Cherry Blossom tress

Locals enjoying their Saturday under Cherry Blossom tress

View of the Castle

View of the Castle

Local drummers perform traditional tunes

Local drummers perform traditional tunes

Cherry Blossoms everywhere

Cherry Blossoms everywhere

There were a lot of future bride and grooms taking advantage of the beautiful scenery. I captured this future bride posing under one of the Cherry Blossom trees

There were a lot of future bride and grooms taking pre-wedding photos. I captured this future bride posing advantage of the beautiful scenery under one of the Cherry Blossom tree

I could stay under the Cherry Blossom all day, but I wanted to explore the castle especially inside. The castle has four stories, each level showcasing the castle’s history. It was really fascinating.

Nagoya Castle and its surroundings, back in the day

Nagoya Castle and its surroundings, back in the day

Once I reached to the top of the castle, the weather changed and was overcast. I was so lucky to have experienced Cherry Blossom on a clear sunny day, although overcast also has its charm.

View from the highest point in Nagoya Castle

View from the highest point in Nagoya Castle

I highly recommend visiting during Cherry Blossom season. It was indeed spectacular and romantic. That’s one checked off my bucket list!

Follow me on my travels and food exploration on Instagram at: instagram.com/travelandmunches

Japan – random and cute

During my recent trip to Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo in Japan, I was able to walk around the city (well, mostly Tokyo) and I came across some interesting yet random but sometimes cute things.

It was a hot summers day in Shibuya, (west part of Tokyo) a crowd formed outside Parco, a multi-story shopping mall housing trendy fashion and accessories. The set up looked like a mini carnival. As I walked closer, people were crowded to take pictures with him:

Garb

Gari Gari Kun

Gari Gari-Kun apparently is a transformer-like robot – unlike American Transformers where a truck, for example, is transformed to a massive looking robot, or even something more dramatic. The transformation of Gari Gari Kun Transformers is from an ice popsicle to the stubby looking boy/robot like the one above. I don’t know what the story behind this character is, but the locals love him. Locals were rushing to take pictures with him.

As I was walking around, I was getting hungry and was looking for a quick snack – something sweet and petite. Only in Japan, you can find such cute donuts – I couldn’t resist and had to get one of these!

Donuts

Cute Donuts

Some more random things that I saw while walking around…

Although not random…Tokyo has been shortlisted as the candidate city to the 2020 Summer Olympics. I was told the reason the why they lost to Rio for 2016 was because the city wasn’t spirited/supportive enough. So this time around, everywhere in Tokyo had signage to support the Olympic candidacy. I saw this all around town.

Support tokyo as candidate city

Support tokyo as candidate city

Kyoto Tokyu Hotels – the food

Whenever I frequent hotels, often I neglect to try out in-house restaurants because there’s an abundance of culinary choices waiting for me outside of the hotel that served authentic cuisine.  Most of the time, it’s only breakfast that I would enter a hotel restaurant and it’s usually generic food items found in most buffet breakfasts. The hotel I stayed at, there was a special area at the breakfast buffet that showcased local food items. Apparently, the Tokyu Hotel chain has a dedicated area in all of their hotels in Japan to feature some homegrown food items – makes me want to visit all of them!

Check out these amazingly red cherry tomatoes!!!

Bright red tomatoes

Bright red cherry tomatoes

For lunch, I was able to check out the hotel’s Chinese restaurant. Coming from Hong Kong, where Chinese food is a staple, I was quite hesitant to enter, but when my order came, Spicy Dan Dan Noodles (擔擔麵), it was pretty spot on! In fact, the combination of noodles, minced meat, and spice blended so well together. They even had a special tool, a spoon-like device with holes like a sift, to scoop up the ‘stuff’ (minced meat, spring onions, preserved vegetables) from the soup base after noodles are eaten. They also had a side of white Japanese rice to mix the leftover soup base with in case one was still hungry. I can’t get enough of Japanese rice, it glistens, and has the right amount of gluten that it sticks perfectly together. Even though I was full from the bowl of noodles, I couldn’t resist and finished the rice! It was amazing!

A size of dim sum was also served, finished off with dessert – it was delectable  and authentic!!  A great meal!

Kyoto Tokyu Hotel – a short but inspiring visit

Besides the premium water at Kyoto Tokyu Hotel I featured in my first post, artwork displayed throughout the hotel showcases pieces of Kyoto history. The hotel is situated adjacent to Nishi-Honganji Temple, a world heritage site, which enriches the cultural experience transcending to the hotel.

As I stepped into the hotel, a carriage is displayed, Gissha, that was once used to transport Japanese Emperors and high ranking courtiers. The carriage is pulled by an ox.

Gissha

Gissha display

As I took the escalator down to the lobby – the hotel has a height restriction so public space is located below ground, I came across this very eye catching display of lanterns. It turns out that Kyoto was celebrating Gion Festival, one of Japan’s three largest festivals. The origin of the festival began about 1,000 years back when a plague infected the city (then the capital). Paper lanterns were lit with holy fire that was dedicated to a God for locals to use and was considered a sign of good luck. The month-long highlight of the festival is the Yama Hoko Junko grand procession, where 33 floats parade the city. Floats were decorated with fabrics and tapestries.

Gion Festival Lantern Display

Gion Festival lantern display at the hotel

As I walk around the hotel, art is methodically displayed unveiling Japanese culture.

There’s also a sense of calmness at the hotel. Perhaps it’s because of the abundance of greenery throughout and simplistic decor. Although I was there for work, and only stayed for one night, the environment made me slow down and appreciate the surroundings.

Kyoto, Japan – a place of history and quality water?

Japan is one of my favorite destinations I can, and want to visit time after time, year after year. As my first official blog post, I have chosen a city that has significant cultural relevance but has been overshadowed by cosmopolitan lifestyles when one thinks about Japan – Kyoto – the original capital of Japan.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years, a city where the Japanese Emperor called home, and where the Imperial Palace once stood (the structure has been now moved to Tokyo). You’ll find many articles and information about Kyoto, past, present and future on the Internet. What I am most interested in sharing came from my recent visit – the water!

Over 1,000 years ago, it was said that Kyoto residents and visitors alike knew there was something special about the water but couldn’t figure out what it was. Skin would feel softer after a bath, food  tasted milder. As time went on, Kyoto’s main water source Kamogawa (Kamo River), running in the center of Kyoto was found to contain high amounts of minerals and is Nansui, or soft water. Water plays an important part in food creation as well.  It was rumored that tofu from China and was hard, but when it ran through natural soft waters in Kyoto, it was reborn as soft tofu!

The hotel that I stayed at, Kyoto Tokyu Hotel, boasts itself to having one of the highest quality water in the city of Kyoto.  In fact, they claim their water quality is in the top three! The hotel’s water source is drawn from 80 meter’s below ground and is mixed with a small amount of tap water and is used throughout the hotel, from guest rooms to restaurants. They even had special signage in the guest room highlighting this!

The lobby of the hotel had a dedicated area to invite guests to try the water, including a short description.