Takayama: Shirakawago

If I had to recommend one place in Japan that one should visit, it will be Shirakawago.  A UNESCO heritage site, the scenery here is stunning, with architecture that is quite unlike anything else that I have seen in Japan.  Shirakawago is a village containing traditional wooden houses with sloping thatched roofs known as gassho-zukuri.  The houses are surrounded by rice fields and a river runs through it.  The picturesque view of these traditional farmhouses against the backdrop of these Japanese mountains is something that I couldn’t get enough of. I have been wanting to visit this place for ages, and am so glad that I finally did.

It is fairly easy to get to Shirakawago from Hida-Takayama, where we stayed for 3 nights in a ryokan called Oyado Koto No Yume.  We took a bus from the Takayama bus station (right next to the train station) and arrived in Shirakawago in slightly less than an hour.  

 photo DSC_0519-140327-v2__zps9da8f4ed.jpgWe alighted from the bus and saw this breathtaking scenery in front of us (okay, ignore the orange cone).  The place was a little misty and foggy, which added to the magical feel of the surroundings.  It was good to breathe good, crisp, clean air.

 photo DSC_0534-140327-v2__zpsd15b739d.jpgWe crossed this long bridge to get to the village, stopping frequently to take photos of the mountains in the background.

 photo DSC_0539-140327-v2__zpsfa7af471.jpg photo DSC_0554-140327-v2__zps6aa104ae.jpgWet and gloomy skies.  Empty roads.  Loved it.  

 photo DSC_0556-140327-v2__zps34be28d6.jpg photo DSC_0557-140327-v2__zpsb8bebc0b.jpgI can read the words – “Hida Beef Croquettes”.  Oooh, I love Japanese croquettes.  

 photo DSC_0644-140327-v2__zps2aa29db2.jpg photo DSC_0558-140327-v2__zps2d3e2d32.jpgEven though I was still stuffed from the huge breakfast that I ate at the ryokan, I could not resist buying a Hida pork bun in addition to the beef croquette.  I was curious to see how different it was from our local pork buns.  I know that Hida-Takayama is famous for Hida beef (which is damn good, a close second to Kobe beef), but I have not heard of Hida pork.

 photo DSC_0641-140327-v2__zps1234e557.jpg photo DSC_0643-140327-v2__zps00390fb8.jpg photo DSC_0642-140327-v2__zpsa6e54bff.jpgI thought the Hida pork bun was good, but it was fairly similar to our local pork buns. The beef croquettes were insanely good (forgive me for the hyperbole). Crispy on the outside, and the filling was moist and packed with so much flavor.  We finished eating the croquette that I bought, and immediately dashed off to buy another.  It was too good to share!  If I hadn’t eaten the pork bun, I would have ordered a third croquette.  I was tempted to stuff my mouth with as many as possible, but I did not want to run the risk of throwing up at some point in time.  

 photo DSC_0570-140327-v2__zps8a0dcbd6.jpgBeautiful Japanese Alps in the background.  If we had arrived in Shirakawago one week earlier, it would still be snowing and the entire place would have been blanketed in a a sheet of white snow.  As it is, all we saw were dirty blocks of snow on the ground.

 photo DSC_0569-140327-v2__zpsac1b5548.jpgCouldn’t resist processing the photo and turn it into a black-and-white piece.

 photo DSC_0566-140327-v2__zps881fc23e.jpgThis is my favorite photograph of Shirakawago.  After snapping what could possibly be a hundred photos on the camera, in and around this spot.  I am surprised at how clear this photo turned out given the foggy weather when it was taken.

 photo DSC_0560-140327-v2__zps2a6daaa8.jpgI think this is the main street in Shirakawago, with a number of shops lining the road.

 photo DSC_0572-140327-v2__zps162cfa6e.jpg photo DSC_0613-140327-v2__zps3bef72fa.jpgTook a little hike up a windy road to get a panoramic view of the village.  Beautiful, beautiful view from the top. 

 photo DSC_0602-140327-v2__zps30c9bb93.jpg photo DSC_0594-140327-v2__zps2f06215e.jpg photo DSC_0587-140327-v2__zps8f5f0aec.jpgI would like to see this view during winter, when the rooftops are enveloped in a fleet of snow.  But I doubt I can brave the cold.

 photo DSC_0593-140327-v2__zps446cb4d9.jpg photo DSC_0678-140327-v2__zpse9301fb3.jpg photo DSC_0662-140327-v2__zps30e8382d.jpgAs we hiked back down to the village, the sun appeared and the skies cleared.  We got to see what the village and farmhouses would look like in spring, against a clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Just as picturesque.  

 photo DSC_0653-140327-v2__zpsbfd71953.jpg photo DSC_0650-140327-v2__zpsabe71bc7.jpgWhat an adorable dog owned by the people behind this cafe.  We did not linger on for a drink, as we wanted to catch the next bus back to Takayama.  I needed a good, long soak in the onsen.  

Good & Cheap Yong Tau Fu At Hui Ji In Tiong Bahru Market

One thing that I miss very much after going back to work is eating the Yong Tau Foo noodles at this stall in Tiong Bahru Market.

 photo IMG_0954-141228-v2__zpsac056e50.jpgFor S$3 a bowl, it is great value for money. Generous portions of Yong Tau Foo heaped on top of noodles tossed in a yummy concoction of chili, sesame oil, crunchy fried lard, soy sauce and sweet sauce, it is my favorite thing to eat at Tiong Bahru Market. Run by an elderly couple, the queue during weekends is crazy-long.

I used to eat it only during weekday mornings to avoid having to wait.  Now, I just have to queue…with an iPad in my hand. 

Hui Ji Fishball Noodles and Yong Tau Foo
#02-44  Tiong Bahru Market & Food Centre

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Tokyo: Hanami At Nakameguro

Cherry blossoms at Nakameguro-kawa. It is an excellent place to view the beautiful cherry blossoms.  We walked along both sides of the river, filled with quaint and charming boutiques and cafes.

 photo DSC_0995-140331-v2__zps26229628.jpg photo DSC_1008-140331-v2__zpsa29a1fa1.jpg photo DSC_0989-140331-v2__zps9116766f.jpg photo DSC_1022-140331-v2__zpsc058da4f.jpgWhat lucky residents to be living in those apartments overlooking the Nakameguro Kawa.

 photo DSC_0967-140331-v2__zpse07d8742.jpg
 photo DSC_1016-140331-v2__zpsa6e51c04.jpgLike many cherry blossom viewing spots throughout Tokyo, Nakameguro-kawa was jam-packed with groups of merry-making locals and tourists soaking in the atmosphere of early spring.  I was quite tipsy in broad daylight, having indulged in rose champagne purchased from the little pushcarts, as I slowly made my way through the crowds.

 photo DSC_1028-140331-v2__zps6d360e2b.jpg photo DSC_1021-140331-v2__zpsa33a6b50.jpg photo DSC_1035-140331-v2__zps3a660360.jpg photo DSC_0977-140331-v2__zpsa02817ac.jpgWe just bought air-tickets to Tokyo over the Chinese New Year period next year.  Even thought it would be too early to catch the cherry blossoms, but we would like to make another visit to Nakameguro-kawa, just to enjoy the place without endless throng of human beings. 

Making Jewelry With Woon Hung

I like Woon Hung’s jewelry.  They are handmade, using mostly natural materials sourced from various places in Asia, such as Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. Her pieces are unique, and go quite easily with most of my work clothes.  

When I heard that she was conducting classes at Soon Lee over a weekend, I signed up for it.  Not that I have any serious interest in making jewelry, but I was quite happy to spend a couple of hours learning something new, and having fun while doing so.  Also, I get to bring home the two pairs of earrings that I make during class!

 photo IMG_0455-141123-v2__zps8ff7e97b.jpgThe first thing that she taught us was wire work.  Using two pairs of pliers, we practised measuring, snipping, twisting and turning the stainless steel wire into small, symmetrical hoops that connect the beads.  It was very challenging trying to shape the wire to give you tiny hoops that were of the same size and shape – I get oval hoops instead of perfectly round-shaped ones.  Making jewelry is not so easy.   

 photo IMG_0461-141123-v2__zps6696fb20.jpgAfter an hour of practice, we were ready to make our first pair of earrings.  A simple pair of one-strand dangling earrings.  Woon Hung provided us with quite a wide selection of beads, in various colors, sizes, shapes and materials.  It took me ages before I could decide on the teal-and-coral combination shown above.  

For the earrings, we used gold-plated wires which were not as strong as the stainless steel ones, so more care was required not to “over-twist’ the wires, as this will cause them to break easily.  I was quite proud of how my hoops turned out.  Got some help from Woon Hung along the way.

 photo IMG_0469-141204-v2__zps36e11bbc.jpgThe second piece was a more complicated chandelier-style earrings.  I decided on green and light purple colored beads.  By then, I was quite comfortable with shaping the hoops, and Iless obsessed with getting perfectly round-shaped circles.  So I finished making this pair in a shorter time than the first pair.  I was really pleased with the results – not too shoddy for a first attempt.  Quite pretty, I must say.  Have I worn these earrings?  Nope, my mom wanted both pairs, so I gave them to her.  I had fun and that is what’s most important!  

I follow Woon Hung on Instagram, where she shares photos of new designs, her home and travels.  Besides her jewelry, we both share a love for Korea, and can yak non-stop about that country. 🙂

Making Scented Candles At Bloesem

We are always tempted to veg out at home on weekends. But still, we try to do one or two light activities such as going for brunch, grabbing a coffee or ice cream somewhere, visiting the nursery to get fresh flowers, and aim to head home after lunch.

A couple of weekends ago, I signed up for two classes over Saturday and Sunday. One class was to learn how to make scented candles, and this was held at Bloesem, a charming and cosy studio in Tiong Bahru. The other was to learn how to make jewelry at a class taught by Woon Hung at Soon Lee in Haji Lane.  I love Woon Hung’s handmade jewelry, and I have purchased a number of pieces made by her.  

It was clearly not great planning to schedule two classes in one weekend, because this meant that I spent most of that weekend out.  

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The scented candle making class, held on a Saturday, was a 3-hour session.  I really liked the vibe and look of Bloesem studio – it is basically an old Tiong Bahru apartment with a kitchenette, a bedroom and a living room, that has been converted into a bright, airy, modern space.  The living room became a work space for conducting classes, the kitchenette is a functioning one that is used to make coffee, warm up snacks and prepare lunch for the participants of the class.  

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The class was conducted by the folks behind Deckle & Hide, who supply Bloesem with their homemade scented candles out of their home studio in Brisbane.  They talked us through the theory of making scented candles – their philosophy when sourcing for ingredients, the type of aromatherapy oil that is best for making candles, what to consider when selecting a combination of scents, how to mix and match them using cotton bud sticks, and the ratio of oil versus wax (we used soy wax in the class), points to think about when selecting the shape of containers for the scented candles.

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Trial and error!  My favorite combination – orange, lavender, cedar and lime. After a while, you can get quite overwhelmed by the aromatherapy oils that you have to keep sniffing at.  Olfactory overload. Good thing is that good quality organic botanical oils were used during the class; otherwise, I may have felt quite nauseous.

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I like how they serve you little tea cakes, cookies and coffee at the start of class.  Tasty treats.

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My scented candles – using a little peanut butter jar and a milk bottle.  I was advised not to use a cylindrical type container as the flame gets too close to the mouth of the bottle which may cause an explosion.

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We ended off the class with a light and tasty lunch – pomelo salad tossed with shallots, peanuts and prawns.  Loved it!  I have to learn how to re-create this.  

Bloesem has pretty interesting classes, if you look at their past workshops.  I am already thinking about signing up for the next one.

Tokyo: Tamahide Oyakodon in Ningyocho

If you are a big fan of oyakodon and you happen to be in Tokyo, you should give Tamahide a try. I read that this famous restaurant in Ningyocho, founded in 1760 (or thereabouts), is the birthplace of oyakodon. What makes them special is the chicken that they use – a type of chicken that is unique to Japan, With such a reputation, one should not be surprised to hear that this Ningyocho eatery attracts a snaking queue every day.

I love eating oyakodon, the simple combination of rice, simmered chicken buried under runny eggs and onions, is comfort food to me. So Tamahide is a place that was at the top of my Tokyo food list during this trip. Tamahide opens at 11.30am and I made sure that we arrived at 10.30am, one full hour before the eatery open for lunch, so that we would be right at the front of the queue.

We were so early and had nothing much to do, so we popped into a cafe just next door for coffee. Wow – this cafe is another place that came straight out of a Murakami book. It has a 1960s setting, with red vinyl chairs, a record player and filled with old Japanese men smoking pipes. I couldn’t resist ordering a plate of toast to go with my coffee – not a wise move because I should be saving stomach space for oyakodon. I am so glad that I ordered  the best toast that I have eaten. I finished one plate and ordered another. It was utterly delicious. I should rave about this in another post, since this post is about oyakodon.

 photo DSC_1070-140401-v2__zps4c39dddf.jpgBack to oyakodon. Tamahide is a traditional Japanese eatery, exuding an old world charm. You remove your shoes when you enter the restaurant. You are served by gentle ladies wearing kimonos. You place your orders on the first floor and are led to a tatami room on the second floor. You sit at the table Japanese-style, i.e., on the floor and try to fold your legs as comfortably as you possibly can.

 photo DSC_1071-140401-v2__zpsdcc1706c.jpgWe ordered the most basic oyakodon set. They serve you a cup of tea and a cup of clear chicken (essence) soup. The chicken soup as delicious.

 photo DSC_1072-140401-v2__zpsfee3ae34.jpg Next comes the oyakodon, served in a beautiful lacquer bowl.

 photo DSC_1075-140401-v2__zps355828e8.jpg Remove the lid from the bowl, and this is what you get. I am not sure if the crazy-good toast did something to my appetite, but I didn’t enjoy the oyakodon as much as I expected to. I am not sure what it is about the taste of the dish that didn’t whet my appetite, but I just felt let down by it. Disappointed with the taste (or lack thereof), or disappointed with the fact that I didn’t enjoy it? I don’t know. It just didn’t give me the ‘warm and wonderful comfort food’ feeling that I would usually get, eating a piping hot bowl of oyakodon.

 photo DSC_1077-140401-v2__zps8b260105.jpgWe left the eatery, and saw this queue outside Tamahide.

Tamahide 玉ひで
1-17-10 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo-ku Tokyo, Japan
(Exit A2 Ningyocho Station)
Tel: +81 3 3668 7651
Lunch 11.30am-1pm 
Dinner 5pm-10pm (4pm-9pm on weekends & PH)

Vintage Coin Purse In Christmas Colours

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I love these little coin purses.  They are useful for keeping not just coins, but for storing jewelry  in your handbag, or when you are travelling.  I decided to try making one myself using bright green cotton yarn.  The shade of green makes me think of Christmas trees, and thought about added a red flower just to give the purse a pop of color.  It would be even better if I had sewn on a little pearl button in the middle of the flower.  Will have to hunt out some pretty pearl buttons for my next piece.  I had so much fun making this!

Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters At Upper Thomson Road

Some weeks back, while on my way to my favorite childhood Hainanese chicken rice shop at Upper Thomson Road, I walked past this new cafe, Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters. The cafe now occupies the corner unit along the row of shophouses where Liquid Kitchen used to be.  Pacamara caught my attention with its bright, clean and spacious layout, and I made a mental note to drop by one weekend.

 photo Pacamara-141116-v2__zpsb18e1344.jpgCafes are sprouting up like weeds in Singapore.  Not a bad thing, but I can count with five fingers the cafes that are worth a repeat visit because I like the coffee or the ambience of the place.   Assembly Coffee – great coffee, excellent salted caramel buttermilk waffles and pretty good Shibuya Toast; only negative bit is the decibel level when the cafe gets crowded.  Loysel’s Toy – decent coffee in a relaxing outdoor-sy  environment.  Coast & Company – good coffee and I like that it is tucked deep inside the Siglap neighborhood which means I can usually find a seat most weekend mornings when I pop by.  Flock Cafe – I almost always pop by for a Cortado when I am in Tiong Bahru.

This weekend, we made a trip to Far East Flora to get some freshly cut flowers and decided to have brunch at Pacamara.  
 photo IMG_0329-141115-v2__zps4e6438e8.jpgThat’s about $20.   Like most cafes here, the food is over-priced, mediocre fare.  

 photo IMG_0330-141115-v2__zps6383db22.jpgRed velvet pancakes with mascarpone sauce, granola and berries.  This was poorly executed.  The pancakes were dry and tasteless, and I stopped eating it after a few bites.  Why would anyone combine granola with pancakes…?  Our coffees were quite decent though.  

If I happen to be in the Thomson Road neighborhood, I wouldn’t mind popping by Pacamara for a cup of coffee.  Just not for the food.  I would rather eat chicken rice at Nam Kee Chicken Rice several units away from Pacamara!

Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters
185 Upper Thomson Road
Singapore 574333

Tokyo: Teppanyaki At Hakushu (白秋) In Shibuya

One of the main drivers for us ending our Japan trip in Tokyo was to eat teppanyaki at Hakushu and tempura at Tenmasa.  We enjoyed ourselves so much at both places on our last trip several years ago, and a repeat visit has been greatly anticipated for quite a while.  

So we dropped by Hakushu on a Monday night for dinner.  We got terribly lost making our way there because we exited at the Shibuya subway station instead of the JR Shibuya station.  We must have walked one round in Shibuya, climbing up and down the bridges, in order to identify the correct area where Hakushu is located at.  All that walking and climbing gave us a good appetite.  

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Monday night was a quiet night for the restaurant. When we arrived we were the second group of customers and the final group customers for the rest of the evening.  Which meant that we had the whole restaurant to ourselves, and the chefs had plenty of time to to chat with us. Casual, friendly owners and great food.

It was good to see that since our last visit in 2011, both mother and son are hale-and-hearty, and still running the family business together.  They have also hired an assistant  – this chap was such good fun to talk to.  It is quite amazing how they could understand my pathetic Japanese sufficiently for us to carry on a conversation for nearly 3 hours.  Not bad indeed.

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 Dips for our food – salt with pepper and some kind of ponzu sauce.  I could never understand what it is when the chefs announce the dips to me.  I can only catch the word ‘shio‘ which is salt.  I love eating the grated daikon that is served in Japanese restaurants.  Unlike our local radishes that have a slight bitter edge to it, the Japanese daikon is so sweet, I eat piles of it whenever I am in Japan.  Low in calories and full of vitamins, not a bad thing to be stuffing your face with.

If you love beef, especially the melt-in-your-mouth, beautifully marbled sort, then you must order their Kobe beef.  We tried the Kobe beef during our last visit to Hakushu and was blown away by how good the beef was.  Kobe beef is so sinfully rich and absolutely delicious; it is akin to drinking melted butter.   On this trip, we decided to skip the beef (since we ate way too much Hida beef in Takayama) and headed for the seafood, which was lighter on the palate.

 photo photo3-141022-v2__zpsc488fd3b.jpgWe always start off with grilled vegetables.  Nasu, tamanegi, kabocha.  Good, I still remember some Japanese vocabulary.

 photo photo2-141022-v2__zpsbcbe006e.jpgUp next is GYU-TAN!  Pan-fried in some butter. Awfully good.

 photo photo1-141022-v2__zps0055248e.jpgPrawns.  And more butter.  

 photo photo4-141022-v2__zps449297cf.jpgThis is our absolute favorite.  We could not resist ordering a second helping.

 photo photo4-141022-v2__zps98f8f412.jpgScallops.  Doused in butter.  Seriously, with the amount of butter the went into cooking seafood, it may have been no different from eating a slice of fatty Kobe beef.

 photo photo3-141022-v2__zps11f63d31.jpgThis is how Hakushu serves their food – on a slice of white sandwich bread which soaks up all the tasty juices of the food.  At the end of the meal, your slice of bread is cut into smaller pieces, tossed back onto the teppanyaki pan, pan-fried with a dollop of butter and served as a finishing course.  Just like how the Japanese usually finish up a meal with rice, pickles and miso soup. The pan-fried bread was utterly delicious.

 photo photo1-141022-v2__zps16822956.jpgWashed everything down with mugs of draft Japanese beef.  Asahi, I think.

We had a great time eating and chatting with the owners, exchanging notes about our respective cultures and countries.  They are impressed by the Singapore story – how a small island state became prosperous and economically strong.  Looking forward to our next visit to Hakushu, hopefully in March next year.

Directions to Hakushu can be found here.  The easiest way to the restaurant is to take the Yamanote Line and alight at the JR Shibuya station.  Best not to take the subway line to Shibuya, unless you do not mind getting lost and wandering around very crowded Shibuya.

Hakushu has a Facebook page too, but in Japanese.

Seoul: ChansBros Coffee & Street Churros In Itaewon

 photo DSC_0414-140722-v2__zpsf2bcfccf.jpg My usual coffee-hunting trail led me to Itaewon this time. I have not been to this part of the city before, brimming with restaurants serving foreign food. If you crave for Turkish food like kebabs, or Mexican food like nachos, or Indian tandoori chicken, you just have to walk down Itaewon and you will be sure to find something to your liking.

On my way to the War Memorial Museum in the vicinity at Yongsan, I dropped by ChansBros for coffee. The cafe has been on my radar for a while. It is a simple, no-frills place that serves very good coffee.

 photo DSC_0417-140722-v2__zpsddc9f0c4.jpg photo DSC_0428-140722-v2__zps601fde1b.jpgAs I was sipping my coffee and watching the world go by, I saw a queue slowly gather at this shop selling churros, through the window of ChansBros.  I love churros but would not have time to visit my favorite churros shop on this trip.    After I was done with my coffee, I joined the queue at Street Churros.  They had limited options – plain churros, churros with a chocolate dip, or churros with a dip (chocolate, I imagine) and a drink. I went for the plain option.

 photo DSC_0427-140722-v2__zpsa360b4c3.jpgI thought that is a very generous portion for KRW2,000.  And very delicious too.  Crispy on the outside and moist-doughy on the inside.  Just the way I like my churros. If I were to buy this and a takeaway coffee, it would be akin to eating our local fried dough fritters dipped in coffee.

ChansBros Coffee + Street Churros

Address:  561 Itaewon-dong Yongsan-gu
Directions: Exit #2 from Noksapyeong Station, go straight and cross under the street, exit to the right side. You’ll see the cafe next to a motorcycle shop. Street Churros is across a little alley from ChansBros. You cannot miss it.

Tokyo: Omotesando Koffee

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Update: Omotesando Koffee has closed its doors and is now operating as Toranomon Koffee at Toranomon Hills.

We checked out Omotesando Koffee – reputed to be one of the best coffee shops in Tokyo – on our first evening in the city.  We were quite desperate for a good cup of expresso after going without one for a number of days.  The last good expresso we had was at Omotesando Koffee’s sister outlet in Kyoto, and had to live on drip coffee throughout our subsequent 3-day stay in Takayama.

 photo DSC_0818-140329-v2__zps3267117f.jpgOmotesando Koffee is situated in one of the streets behind Omotesando Hills.  We made our way quite easily to the cafe from Aoyama using Google Maps. It was a very pleasant stroll along the charming back streets of the Omotesando neighborhood that is away from the main Omotesando boulevard.  I don’t think we would have thought of exploring the back streets if not for us having to follow the directions of Google Maps.

The cafe is not how I expected it to look like.  I thought it would be a shop like how most cafes are; instead, Omotesando Koffee is in a tiny traditional Japanese wooden house in a modern neighborhood.  It is so quaint and very pretty!

 photo DSC_0830-140329-v2__zps02954d6f.jpg photo DSC_0829-140329-v2__zps5320c2e5.jpg photo DSC_0823-140329-v2__zpsea218330.jpg photo DSC_0831-140329-v2__zps3e1dacdc.jpgThe coffee-making station occupied most of the living room space in the house.  The only seating space available is a couple of benches in the little garden at the front of the house.  Most people buy takeaway coffee, or stand around in the garden if there is standing room.

 photo DSC_0821-140329-v2__zps48830f8f.jpgEasily the best cappuccino that I have ever had. I was amazed at how the latte art doesn’t disappear or get distorted as I drank the cappuccino – it was still intact when I finished drinking my coffee.  A definite stop for anyone who loves coffee.

#simplyamazing

 photo DSC_0819-140329-v2__zps1954d838.jpgOmotesando Koffee
Address:               4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours:   10am to 7pm daily
How to get there: Omotesando Station (Ginza, Hanzomon, Chiyoda lines), exit A2

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