My Ekiben Adventure

Ever since I read Ekiben Hitoritabi, the food manga about a train enthusiast who went travelling around Japan to eat the various bentos sold at Japanese train stations, I have been wanting to do an ekiben trip myself someday.  

Like Oishinbo, Ekiben Hitoritabi is an interesting food (and also train) manga where an English translated version should be in print.  But sadly, this  is not currently available in either print or digital format.  I bought the English digital format on JManga, an online manga website, some years ago and enjoyed reading it so much. Pity that JManga has shut down and all the digital mangas distributed by them also bit the dust with the business closure.  I am just glad that I had the chance to read this manga once, in English. I am hoping that someone will license it for distribution again some day.

 photo c728c61a-f328-4e24-8a1c-f6539d01da1b_zps2cd74462.jpgMy recent trip to Japan involved quite a bit of travelling around on the Shinkansen and other JR trains, and I looked forward to eating ekibens during my train rides.   Choosing an ekiben from the display sets at the ekiben shop was a lengthy exercise, albeit a very pleasant one.  I felt like an excited child standing in a candy store with too many choices and limited resources.  There were so many ekiben options to choose from!  I would decide on one because I liked the food, then change my mind because I liked the shape of the box in another set, then change my mind again because the food in another box looked more delicious.  The indecisiveness lasted all the way till it is time to dash to the platform to catch the train.

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Fukuoka: Tenmangu Shrine In Dazaifu

 photo DSC_0536-140318-v2__zps8a27086e.jpgDazaifu is accessible from Fukuoka by train.  Since I had the JR Pass, I took the JR train instead of the more convenient route via the Nishitetsu line.  Using the JR route required me to take a train to the JR Futsukaichi Station (about 15-25 minutes) and from there, hop onto a bus to go to  the Nishitetsu Futsukaichi Station, where I connect to the Dazifu Station via the Nishitetsu Dazaifu Line.  It was quite a bit of a bother.    

 photo DSC_0540-140318-v2__zps8ebccf22.jpgImmediately after I exited the train station, I stepped onto this shopping street, flanked on both sides by vendors selling traditional sweets such as umegaemochi, souvenirs and knick-knacks, clothes, cafes, soft serve  ice-cream in old shops.  This street leads to the Tenmangu Shrine.

 photo DSC_0547-140318-v2__zps5dfed09f.jpg photo Dazaifu4-140411-v2__zpse99fb188.jpgIt is a lovely street to take a morning stroll, with an umegaemochi or ice-cream cone in your hand, popping into the shops to browse their wares.  It was a good thing that I arrived early ‘cos groups of tourists started to turn up somewhere between 10.30am and 11am, making strolling leisurely along the street impossible. 

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Fukuoka: Oshiruko At Nakashu Zenzai

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I love red bean soup.  When I was a kid, red bean soup made a regular appearance at home during the weekends.  My mom liked to serve this dessert because it is easy to prepare, tasty and the ingredients are inexpensive.  She would add a little dried orange peel to the dessert just to give the flavour some zing.  

I found this little shop called Nakashu Zenzai in the next alley from Karo No Udon that serves an excellent oshiruko, a sweet adzuki bean soup with mochi.  I would hop over for dessert after getting my fill of udon.  I have tried oshiruko in several places in Japan, and found them too sweet for my liking.  However, the version served in Nakashu Zenzai is perfect for me, and comes with shiratama dango.  My eyes instantly light up whenever I see or hear the word ‘shiratama‘. 

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Ciel Patissierie

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Yesterday, I had coffee and cake with my cousin at a Ciel Patissierie, a bakery tucked in a housing estate at Lor Ah Soo which offers pastries that are very good value for money. We ordered the lemon meringue tart and choux puff filled with pastry cream. Both were excellent, and at very affordable prices.

I want to go back soon to sample some of their other cakes.

Fukuoka: A Gorgeous Starbucks At Dazaifu

Starbucks at Dazaifu photo DSC_0550-140318-v2__zpsa70cf89a.jpgThis Starbucks in Dazaifu has the most visually arresting architecture in a Starbucks store that I have ever come across.    Nestled between shops selling traditional sweets and handicrafts, you cannot miss it on your way from the train station to the Tenmangu Shrine.  

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I Googled this store on the Internet and learnt that this iconic store, with 2000 wooden strips criss-crossing one another, was designed by famous Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, to reflect the area’s traditional artistic roots and the modern energy of this world-famous tourist destination.   

The service staff in this outlet were friendly and personable.  They greeted customers with a huge smile, chatted with me and wrote a simple ‘Welcome to Fukuoka’ note on my cup when they found out that I was there on vacation.  It was a really nice touch.  

Also, I swear the Japanese Starbucks add more coffee to their drinks as compared to the Starbucks here.  The hot cafe mocha tastes waaaay better than the ones back at home.

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After I visited the Tenmangu Shrine, I came back to this Starbucks to indulge in another cup of hot cafe mocha and people-watch.  I could hang out in this place ALL DAY LONG.

Siti’s Beef Soto With Tripe

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No matter how much I love Japanese food, I start craving for spicy food after a while.  I cannot go without my regular chili fix.  The sort that burns my mouth and stomach, and makes me perspire so much that beads of sweat form above my brow, lips and start trickling down my cheeks.  Like this bowl of beef soto with tripe made by C’s Indonesian helper.  I ate the soto with a generous helping of her homemade green chili paste, and started making hissing noises ‘cos it was sooooo spicy.  

As we Singaporeans always like to say when we feel good about something – SHIOK ah!

Fukuoka: Canal Punting In Yanagawa

 photo DSC_0827-140320-v2__zps83000c56.jpgVisiting Yanagawa, a former castle town approximately 45 minutes away from Fukuoka city by the limited express train, was not originally on my itinerary.  As the lady-owner of the o-zenzai shop recommended that I visit Yanagawa to experience the canal boat tours, I decided not to go to Yufuin, the popular onsen town in Kyushu, and spend my last day in Fukuoka at Yanagawa.  

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Fukuoka: Karo no Udon / The Frog Udon

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Although Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu ramen, the most memorable noodles that I ate during my stay in Fukuoka was this delicious udon from a shop called Karo no Udon, located on Kokutai Road. A chef-friend recommended this udon shop to me and impressed upon me that I must try it. He said that their udon is so good that he dropped by the shop every day to eat their zaru udon during his stay in Fukuoka.

Udon over tonkotsu ramen? This udon shop must be quite something.  I rarely eat udon in Singapore. From time to time, I eat zaru udon because cold noodles dipped in tsuyu are refreshing in our hot and humid weather. I usually eat hot udon only when I am in Japan during cold weather ‘cos a piping hot bowl of broth is what my body craves when feeling cold.

Back to Karo no Udon. I dithered over what to order – zaru udon or hot udon.  In the end, I ordered the gobo ten udon, which is hot udon topped with battered burdock chips and spring onions, because the staff assured me that it is their bestseller.   

Karo no Udon’s handmade noodles are thick, flat and chewy, not really the same as Sanuki udon or Inaniwa udon that I am used to eating back home. The dashi broth is flavorful and more complex than the other places that I have tried. Their battered burdock chips are super good and goes very well with the noodles.  I ate all the noodles, held the bowl to my mouth and downed every drop of the broth. And wanted another bowl immediately.  But it was only my first night and I held myself back from overeating.  I ended up coming back every evening for the rest of my stay in Fukuoka.

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In Fukuoka

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I have just spent five lovely days in Fukuoka, eating piles of yummy food, pounding the streets in perfect weather (neither cold nor windy), and making day trips to Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Dazaifu and Yanagawa.

I like Fukuoka.

It is a city that is not too big and intimidating, one which you can easily get around on foot, bus or subway, without feeling that that you are lost in a sea of moving bodies. It does not have the glamour and excitement of Tokyo, or the Zen beauty of Kyoto but it is very comfortable to be in, with warm and friendly people and a slower pace.

The city has plenty of physical space and I don’t feel boxed in by human beings, vehicles, skyscrapers and shopping malls, or feel overwhelmed by its history and sheer number of temples, castles and attractions to explore.

I have moved on to Kyoto, and will post more about Fukuoka later.

Korea: Suncheon Bay In South Jeolla

Suncheon Bay photo DSC_0895-1-101120-v2__zps376a87f1.jpgSuncheon Bay is an ecological wetland comprising a long stream, a wide tideland and wide fields of reeds.  It is the habitat of migratory birds, plants and animals.  I knew I wanted to visit this place when I first read about it.

I stayed 3D2N in downtown Suncheon, just enough time for me to visit the Songgwangsa Temple, Suncheon Bay, the Seonamsa Temple, and the Suncheon Open Film Set before taking the bus back to Seoul.  Most of the city buses heading to the attractions in Suncheon leave from the city centre, in front or close to the train station.  Suncheon Bay is about 20 minutes away by the city bus which stops just across the road from the entrance of the park, and entry to the park is free.

Suncheon Bay photo DSC_0764-1-101120-v2__zpsf12eecb9.jpg photo DSC_0770-1-101120-v2__zps9aed66fe.jpgI fell in love with this park the minute I stepped foot into the sprawling park. It was late autumn and the park was bathed in a sea of golden reeds.

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Reading With Overdrive

I just discovered Overdrive Media Console, a cool app which lets me find, check-out and read ebooks from the local library on my iPad.  The app is free on the iTunes store and you do not have to pay anything to reserve and/or borrow digital books online.  Overdrive, the company which developed this app is based in the US with an office in Australia, is a digital distributor of ebooks, audiobooks, music and video worldwide.  

I have been using this console for a couple of days and I love it.  The search, check-out and return functions are intuitive.  The interface is clean, simple, and has functions that are similar to those in iBooks.  The console allows you to create bookmarks, look up the meaning of a word, or change the look (such as margins, number of columns, line spacing, text alignment and fonts) of your reading screen just by tapping an icon.  It looks like Overdrive has been around for quite a while, so why has it taken me so long to learn about it…?!

The entire process of using Overdrive is straightforward.  All you have to do is to download the app from iTunes (I am fairly sure it is compatible with the Androids), add your local library to the database, find a digital title or audio-title, check-out or place a hold on it (if the available digital copies have been loaned out), download the title and you can start reading!  Once you are done with the title, you can easily return it just by tapping an icon.  If you prefer not to download the digital title, the console allows you to read the ebook through the built-in browser, or a browser of choice.

I added the Singapore National Library to the console.  Out of curiosity, I performed a search on the library database and learnt that there are many libraries around the world which are part of the OverDrive database.  I have no access to these overseas libraries as I do not have a membership account with them.

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Zheng Yi Hainanese Beef Noodles At Tai Thong Crescent

 photo DSC_0351-140312-v2__zps820f480e.jpgIt took me four visits before I managed to eat a bowl of beef noodles from this stall run by a middle-aged Hainanese lady (not the one in the photograph above) at a corner coffeeshop at Tai Thong Crescent.  I always relish the opportunity to order my food in Hainanese ‘cos besides my maternal grandmother and mother, there is hardly anyone else whom I can converse with in that dialect.

I love eating dry beef noodles.  The beef noodle stall at the now-defunct Scotts Picnic foodcourt was the one that I used to frequent as a teenager.  Then I started going to the popular Purvis Street and Hwa Heng shops.  But I have never really found a stall that serves beef noodles having the flavour of of the ones that my maternal grandparents used to bring me to eat as a child.  My grandparents had distant relatives (that is, people who came from the same village as them in China, and not necessarily part of the same family) who made a living here selling beef noodles.  Sadly, these relatives are no longer around.

Zheng Yi Hainanese Beef Noodles photo DSC_0356-140312-v2__zps632572d3.jpg photo DSC_0359-140312-v2__zps1d114cb4.jpgI ordered a bowl of dry mixed beef noodles (containing beef slices, beef tripe, beef tendons and yes, beef balls) topped with spring onions, peanuts and fried shallots.  It costs me $7. 

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Korea: Songgwangsa Temple In South Jeolla

Every photo decluttering exercise is an opportunity to reminisce about my trips. This time, I am cleaning up the folders containing photographs of my 5-week trip to Korea in late autumn of 2010.  I dugged out some photos of my favourite places to put up here.  I have no idea why it has taken me several years to do so, but as they always say, better late than never.

I love visiting Korea, and I have gone back every year since 2007.  With the exception of the 5-week trip, the rest of my visits were short trips lasting between 4 days to 10 days.  I have been there in all four seasons and autumn is my favorite time of the year to visit because the fall colours are beautiful.  Despite having been there so many times, there are still so many parts of the country that I have not seen.  I haven’t been to the DMZ, for example; or gone to Andong, or seen the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

I cannot exactly explain what about the country that I am besotted with. I like the scenery.  Both the urban and countryside landscope. I like the culture. I like the food.  I have no problems eating Korean food three times a day, or kimchi everyday.  I suppose it is also largely due the fact that it is a place that I feel comfortable travelling around on my own even though I cannot speak the language.

People have asked how I manage to get around the country, especially in the countryside, when I don’t speak the language.  I bring along Korean versions of maps of the city or town that I am in, circle the places that I want to go to on the maps, so that I can show them to cab-drivers or to anyone whom I may be seeking directions from.  I also copy down names and addresses of the hotels or motels that I would be staying at, in Hangeul, to reduce the difficulty of getting understood (or misunderstood) by the locals.

My preferred mode of traveling between cities or towns is by coach, and by cab within the area.  Getting around Korea by bus is very easy, convenient and affordable even if you don’t speak the language.  All I have to do is to take a cab to the city or town bus terminal, buy a coach ticket, stick my suitcase in the luggage compartment, board the bus, go to sleep and wake up at my destination several hours later.  I have taken the KTX and comparing the train and coach, I find the coach a much easier way to travel between cities or towns because coach travel rarely requires me to change coaches, or lug my luggage up and down platforms.  I never have to worry about missing the connecting train, or getting off at the wrong station.

During the 5 week trip, I started out in Seoul, then travelled to Gangneung, Jeju, Jeonju, Gwangju, Suncheon and Gyeongju.  I liked Suncheon alot, especially Suncheon Bay and the Songgwangsa Temple.
 photo SonggwangsaTemple_zps5ba23cf7.jpgPrior to Suncheon, I was in Gwangju.  I took an early morning coach from Gwangju to Suncheon, arrived just before noon, checked into the motel, dropped my bags and went out to Songgwangsa Temple.

Songgwangsa is about an hour-half away by bus from the city center of Suncheon. I boarded the bus outside the Suncheon Station, and the scenic bus ride took me along the streets of Suncheon, into the outskirts, then the countryside before climbing up winding roads of a mountain to reach its final destination at Songgwangsa Temple.  It is a short walk to the entrance of the temple from the bus stop.  I recall paying a small fee – nothing more than 5,000 Won – to enter the temple.  

 photo DSC_0502-1-101119-v2__zps33040b2b.jpgDotted with tall, beautiful trees, and some of these crowned in fall colors, the grounds of Songgwangsa were beautiful, tranquil and peaceful.  The whole place is as pretty as a picture.  I imagine how green and lush the place will be during spring and summer.

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