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Tokyo Getaway: Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine In Kamakura

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^ Founded in 1061, this is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. The temple grounds are big and beautiful.   You have to pass through three Torii gates and climb 62 steps before you arrive at the main hall of the shrine. I skipped climbing the 62 steps this time.

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^ Took a photo of this little girl at the Taikobashi Bridge, a stone bridge that arches over two ponds, which leads to the main shrine.

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On the day that we visited, it looked like there was a festival going on, because we saw young children dressed in beautiful kimonos accompanied by their parents at the shrine.  It might have been the shichi-go-san Festival (seven-five-three Festival) where 3-year-old boys and girls, 5-year-old boys, and 7-year-old girls visit the shrine to pray for good health and good luck.

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^ Omikuji (おみくじ). You see these kids tying strips of white paper with printed characters to the stand? These are ‘paper fortunes’ drawn from an omikuji vending machine. Yeah, the famous Japanese vending machines sell you delicious hot/cold canned drinks and coffee, and can also tell your fortunes…! Cool, right? If she had drawn a bad fortune lot, she must tie the paper at the stand “to leave the bad luck at the shrine”. If it was a good fortune lot, she would bring the strip of paper home.

Another thing that I must do when I next visit Japan! The only problem I can foresee is whether I can understand what has been written on the piece of paper. This is important because I don’t want to make a big boo-boo by leaving good fortune behind and bringing bad fortune home…!

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^ The stone bridge leading to another shrine sitting on an island in the pond.

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^ I think this is the Heike Pond in the grounds of the shrine.  The lotus plants growing in this pond produce red flowers while the ones in the other side of the pond  have white blooms.

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^ Ema (絵馬). You see hundreds of these wooden plaques hung on a stand in most Japanese shrines. Worshippers buy a plaque at the temple, write their wishes on it and then hang it on the stand, known as an ema stand.

I have always wanted to write a wish on one of these plaques, and I shall do it the next time I visit a Japanese shrine. Hopefully, I can string together a wish in Japanese by that time.

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^ Such pretty and colourful food stalls.

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Tokyo Getaway: Teppanyaki At Hakushu

Apart from Hakata Tenshin, C recommended that we visit Hakushu, a teppanyaki place, located close to the Shibuya subway station. It was an excellent recommendation, because the food was so good and affordable.

TBH and I are not fond of teppanyaki, having tried a number of teppanyaki places in Singapore. We find that food cooked over a teppanyaki loses its natural flavours, and everything tastes the same after a while, with no distinctive tastes. Garlicky. Or salty. Or garlicky and salty. I also dislike having to smell like teppanyaki after the meal.

C convinced me that Hakushu isn’t your typical Singapore teppanyaki restaurant. At Hakushu, very fresh and good quality food is cooked simply over a teppanyaki with only a hint of seasoning. You get to taste the natural and subtle flavours of the food.

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We managed to find our way to Hakushu from the Shibuya Station. Hakushu is no fancy restaurant. Just a humble eatery run by an elderly lady and her son.

On the day of our visit, we were the first customers and were given a seat at the teppanyaki counter.  The teppanyaki chef and I struggled to make ourselves understood to each other.  I struggled to understand his native Japanese – he speaks so fast!  While he struggled to understand my barely adequate and mostly incomprehensible Japanese. Zenzen wakarimasen.

We ordered the Kobe beef set each. We were so excited. Because that was the first time that the two of us were going to be eating Kobe beef. We have heard so much about how good it is and we were finally going to get a taste of it.

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We started our meal with nasu, tamanegi, kabocha. The lightly grilled vegetables were very sweet and delicious.

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Followed by grilled Kobe beef. Look at the marbling of the beef! My mouth was watering while watching the old lady cook the beef over the teppanyaki. Each set contained one piece of Kobe beef, and she cooked one piece first, sliced it, and distributed the meat between the both of us.

And we ate two slices of the beef!

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I took a bite.  Like they say – one has to experience before they can understand. I never understood the meaning of “meat melting in your mouth”.  Now I do. I fully comprehend what it means to have meat so well-marbled, it literally melts in my mouth.

The cooked meat was placed on a slice of bread which soaked up the juices of the beef.  At the end of the meal, the chef sliced the bread into small squares, grilled them lightly with butter and served them to us.  You can imagine just how delicious the bread tasted.

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By the time we consumed two fatty and high-caloric slices of Kobe beef, we were stuffed full of food up to our noses. But the husband decided that he could not leave the place until he has tried the squid.

So we ordered the squid as well.

I am sorry, Kobe Beef-san, but the squid beat you hands down. No matter how famous you are, and cost an arm and a leg to eat, the humble sotong trimphed over you. We loved the squid. Okay, I am not food blogger, and cannot find ten food adjectives to describe how wonderful the flavour of the squid was. Just take it from me that it was mind-blowing good.

My memory isn’t very dependable these days, so I am going to write down the directions for getting to Hakushu.  We are definitely going back there (plus Hakata Tenshin, plus Tenmasa) again the next time we visit Tokyo.

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Exit from the West or South Exit of the Shibuya JR Station. Walk along the overhead bridge outside the station exit, keeping to the left fork of the bridge. At the end of the bridge, there are several staircases (three, I think) leading down the bridge. Take the centre staircase – once you are down the bridge, you should see a bookshop right in front of you. Walk past the bookshop, up the road and turn right at the first turning. Walk towards Shibuya Granbell Hotel and Hakushu is located in an alley opposite the hotel. Look for the signage showing the Chinese name of Hakushu, 白秋, in the alleyway.

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This is the main entrance of Hakushu.

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Tokyo Getaway: Komachi-dori in Kamakura

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We spent one day hiking around Kamakura during our last autumn trip to Tokyo. Kamakura is a very pretty city that is easily accessible from Tokyo by train. It has lots of temples and shrines, old shopping streets lined with souvenir shops and food stalls, and is great for a day-trip.

I love going to Kamakura, especially during the sakura season, as the city is exceptionally beautiful during that time. It is a wonderful feeling to be walking along Wakamiya-Oji, underneath gorgeous sakura trees lining the street, during springtime.

On the day that we were in Kamakura, the shopping streets and popular temples were crowded with school-going children on school excusions. From the Kamakura train station, we walked along the main shopping street, Komachi-dori, to get to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine.

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I don’t usually take photos of people but I couldn’t resist snapping photos of these bubbly, fresh-faced kids strolling along Komachi-dori, looking so kawaii in their blue and yellow caps. The weather was really good that day for taking photos. Blue skies. Soft sunlight. Clear air.

How is it that even kids that young look so fashionable and chic in their casual clothes…?

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^ Matcha crepe with mochi, azuki and vanilla ice-cream. I am not a fan of matcha-food, but this crepe was delicious.

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Tokyo Getaway: Ramen At Hakata Tenshin

A five-day trip that will take me months to complete blogging! One thing for sure, I could not be a “professional blogger”. ‘Cos I won’t ever survive in this cut-throat business of having to constantly generate fresh material, in a timely fashion, to sustain the interest of readers. 🙂

Back to Tokyo.

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Thanks to a friend, we had the opportunity to eat a very delicious and affordable Hakata ramen from this ramen joint called Hakata Tenshin. It has a number of outlets in Tokyo, and we went to the Kabukicho outlet in Shinjuku. The eatery is a simple place where the locals drop by for a meal. We like to sit at the counter so that we could watch the ramen chefs cook the ramen, with clockwork precision.

Hakata Tenshin’s thin noodles were cooked perfectly (rhetorical point since we are talking about the Japanese…?), the way I love my Hakata noodles which means they have to be slightly hard on the bite. The piping-hot pork broth is gloriously rich, milky and tasty. A standard bowl also comes with a large piece of nori which I love.

Before I forget, I need to note the location of this Kabukicho outlet here ‘cos I am definitely going back to this ramen joint when I next visit Tokyo.

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^ The outlet is located approximately 50m from the entrance of Kabukicho, the red-light district in Shinjuku, on the left row of shops. Watch out for the eatery’s huge pig mascot standing outside the shop.

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Source of photo: Pingmag

^ The entrance of Kabukicho.

Ah, looking at these photos make me crave for a bowl of Hakata Tenshin.

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Tokyo Getaway: Luv Those Japanese Ink Stamps

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This is something I do every time I visit Japan – collect souvenir stamps of the places that I have visited in my travel guidebook. Or in a little cute notebook. Ink stamps can be found at certain places of interest, such as temples, museums and Japan Rail train stations, in Japan. Each stamp is individually designed for a particular place of interest, and is typically a sketch of the temple, museum or building that it represents.

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Not every place of interest has an ink-stamp. So looking for the ink stamp has become like a little treasure hunt that I play (with myself) everytime I go to somewhere new in Japan. Japan never fails to bring out the inner-child in me. I will be running around trying to catch sight of a table holding an ink-stamp and ink-pad. If I don’t spot any, I will usually ask someone working in the place of interest using barely passable Japanese: “Stampu doko desu ka? And when I find an ink-stamp, I pray that there is ink in the ink-pad!

It makes me so happy whenever I manage to add a new ink stamp to my collection. Apart from the fun factor, these ink stamps make a really nice souvenir of the various places that one has visited in Japan.

I was very proud of my last collection of ink stamps which were kept in a copy of the Lonely Planet, collected painstakingly during a number of trips to various parts of Japan.  We lent the guidebook to someone and it has not been returned to us.  And we cannot remember to whom we lent the guidebook to! Argh.

Now, I have to re-build my collection of ink stamps. During my last trip in October, I collected ink stamps from a couple of temples in Kamakura, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and certain train stations in Tokyo in cute Rilakkuma and Jiji notebooks.

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^ Harajuku JR Station

I read on the Internet that the JR East railway line has stamps in 77 stations, and thought that it would be super fun and cool to do a stamp rally in Tokyo. Travel around Tokyo on the subway to all the 77 stations and collect the ink stamps.

I wish we had something similar in Singapore. For example, we could organise a stamp rally which revolves around the tourist attractions in Singapore, and people who have collected a certain number of stamps would be entitled to a commemorative gift. I am pretty sure it will be a hit with children (and adults like me)!

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Tokyo Getaway: Tempura At Tenmasa

Before we left for Tokyo, a friend recommended a tempura restaurant called Tenmasa to us. The restaurant was featured on an ANA inflight programme and he said that the tempura looked very good.

I did some online research on the restaurant, and read that Tenmasa has been around for over 70 years. The restaurant has been run by three generations, from grandfather to father to son. It is now located in the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station, so it quite easy for us to find the restaurant.

We visited Tenmasa twice in the one week that we were in Tokyo. We really liked the food. It was very good. In terms of cost, I feel that the restaurant charges reasonably for the level of quality in the food that it serves. I have eaten tempura in Singapore that costs alot more than Tenmasa but is not half as good.

Tenmasa’s menu has set meals and ala-carte orders. The set meals come in three differently-priced options, but customers can add ala-carte orders to their set meals anytime. We tried the lowest-priced and mid-priced options during our two visits and a couple of ala-carte orders mid-way through the meal.

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Tenmasa uses a very light batter in making its tempura. I could hardly taste any flour when I bit into a succulent piece of scallop, prawn or crab. Also, the oil that is used to cook the tempura is frequently changed by the chefs.

How it works at Tenmasa is this: the restaurant has three small dining rooms. Each room has a horseshoe-shaped table which sits between 8 to 10 guests, and is manned by one tempura chef, who cooks the tempura in the presence of the guests. Trays of fresh food waiting to be dipped into batter and then hot oil are laid out on the table-tops, and the chef will describe to you the food that he is preparing for you next.

I like this sort of cosy setting where one can chat with the chef, and listen to the conversations that are taking place around the table.

Now, for the food porn…! We ate alot more than that what is shown in the photos below. (Photos are a little orangy-yellow because of the lighting).

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^ Ebi, prawns.

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^ Kani (蟹), Hokkaido crab tempura. TBH’s favourite.

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^ Hotate, scallops wrapped in nori.

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^ Shirako tempura, cod-fish milt. This was fab, fab, FABULOUS! I was very fortunate that this was in season when I visited. It was piping hot and creamy. Tasted soooo good, especially with a pinch of salt.

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^ The grated daikon was so sweet and delicious, so unlike our local radish which has a slight bitter taste. I ate most of the daikon that was served in a separate bowl, even though it was intended to be a condiment to put in the sauce, and not eaten on its own.

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^ Mouth-watering good. Every item on the ala-carte trays looked so delicious, I wanted to eat all of them, but at the risk of having my cholesterol levels shoot above acceptable limits.

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^ Sea-perch

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^ Yuzu sorbet – my favourite Japanese dessert.

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^ Asari, clams.

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^ Like most Japanese meals, this ended with plain rice, pickles and miso soup, or ochazuke, or tendon, depending on which set meal one chooses. Dessert and coffee/tea are served after the rice course.

Tenmasa is definitely a restaurant that we will visit the next time we visit Tokyo. For those who are interested, this restaurant is located on the 35th Fl, Marunouchi Building. Except for New Year’s Day, Tenmasa is open from everyday: 11am – 2pm for lunch and 5pm – 10pm for dinner.

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Figurines From Japan

I like collecting these clay figurines from Japan, and bought a few more during our last trip to add to (or replace) our current collection.

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^ Kuro-Shiro Maneki Neko (黒白招き猫), the ubiquitous Japanese Beckoning cat figurines that one sees in most Japanese shops and restaurants. I bought this to replace the set which was misplaced some time ago.

Oh well, I am sure the missing cats are at home somewhere and will eventually turn up one day. Then, I will have two sets of lucky charms, instead of just one.

(Oh dear, from the photo, I can see a layer of dust on my TV console.)

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^ Usagi(兔). This year is the Year of the Rabbit. I already have one rabbit figurine (the rose-pink one with standing ears) but when I spotted this cute white rabbit figurine, I couldn’t resist getting it.

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^ Tatsu (龍). To welcome the Year of the Dragon! We bought one in a nice shade of green and placed it right next to the figurine of the Rat.

We also have a pair of orange-and-white monkey (猿) figurines which we bought from Nikko years ago.

Besides Japanese snacks, these figurines are lovely and inexpensive gifts to buy for friends and family. They are also available online at several Japanese websites – which I should absolutely avoid.

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Tokyo Getaway: Asakusa Temple

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Every time I am in Tokyo, I make it a point to visit the Sensoji temple at Asakusa. I don’t exactly know what is it about this place that draws me to it but a trip to Tokyo doesn’t seem complete without me going there.

For some folks, it could be a compulsory visit to Tsukiji market to eat a plate of sashimi or sushi for them to feel that their trip to Tokyo is complete. For others, it might be a visit to the Tokyo Tower.

Me, it is Asakusa. Specifically, the Sensoji temple.

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Every time I visit the temple, I tell myself that THIS WILL DEFINITELY BE MY LAST VISIT! I am never going back again!

Because the place is so touristy, the crowds make me dizzy, and the incense smoke annoys me.

But I still go back time and again.

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^ I can think of one reason why I like to visit the Sensoji temple.  The Nakamise-dori shopping street. It is a stretch of small shops leading to the temple which sells souvenirs like the Maneki Neko, touristy knick-knacks and Japanese snacks.

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I am always on the look-out for cute Japanese clay figurines of animals in the Zodiac signs and traditional wooden Japanese dolls. And these things can be found at Nakamise-dori.

I love browsing in these shops, looking through the piles of wares on display and wondering if I might find something interesting or silly to bring home or as gifts for friends and family.

Fridge magnets, the odd postcard, floral-printed pouches, Japanese clay figurines, dolls, etc. You never know.

Notwithstanding the touristy-ness of the place, I enjoy soaking myself in the atmosphere of street shopping and people watching. I like the bustling vibe of the place which is a different sort from the other places such as Shinjuku, Shibuya or Harujuku.

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However, the shop-owners in this shopping street are some of the most unfriendly Japanese whom I have encountered in Japan. Glares, curt remarks, bad attitude, etc. I don’t even understand why I patronise some of these shops when the people running them are so un-welcoming.

But I still have to go back to Sensoji temple during my next visit to Tokyo because I have not tried agemanju, the famous fried azuki bun sold at a stall near the temple.

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Me And My Tokyo Banana

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^ 東京ばななをたべるのが大好きです! とても美味しい。東京へ行った時に、東京が一つの箱をかったんです。友達も東京へ行く時に、私に一つの箱を買ってくれます。

Tokyo Banana! It is very delicious. (Well, only if you like sponge cake and banana custard…)

They have quite a few variations of the Tokyo Banana but my favourite is the original version, which is just sponge cake filled with banana custard.

During my recent trip, I bought a box of 8 pieces and am still slowing savouring them. They come individually wrapped in the box and make great souvenirs especially when they are easily available at the train stations and airports.

During my first trip to Tokyo a decade ago, a friend had asked me to get her a box of Tokyo Banana without explaining that it was a Japanese snack. It is very famous in Japan but clearly, its fame had not yet reached me.

I thought it was a fruit. Bananas specially grown in Japan. I went on a wild goose chase hunting for bananas in the Japanese supermarkets until I discovered my folly while browsing in a Japanese snack shop in one of the main Tokyo train stations.

Tokyo Banana tastes especially good with hot coffee.

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Tokyo Getaway: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

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I have always wanted to visit the observatories in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to enjoy the paranomic city views from the observation decks located in the north and south towers but never got around to doing so.

Since we were staying in a hotel just across the road from the building this time, there was hardly any reason not to to so. Best of all, entry to the observation decks is free.

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^ The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Building and the ubiquitous Japanese salaryman in his black suit. Something about the look of this building reminds me of Star Wars.

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^ View from the North tower. One can see Mt Fuji from this spot on a clear day. It was too bad we couldn’t catch a glimpse of the mountain on the day that we were up there.

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^ View from the South tower. They say that the view at the south tower is better than the one at the north tower. Looks pretty much the same to me!

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Both observation decks have shops selling souvenirs and cafes to fill one’s tummy and quench one’s thirst. I was pretty much distracted by the ongoing children’s activities at the observation deck in the South tower – some kids were making origami while others were sketching. There was an activity booth where they gave out blank postcards for one to apply ‘stamps’ of a plethora of leaves in various autumn colours. Even the adults (including me!) were happily ‘stamping’ away on their postcards.

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Tokyo Getaway: In Shinjuku

The skies were overcast and gloomy when we arrived in Tokyo on Monday. The morning air was slightly chilly, a wonderful change from the muggy Singapore heat that we left behind. Wearing a cardigan and a thin scarf sufficed.

It has been nearly 4 years since we last set foot in Japan. We were looking forward to some good eats and lots of walking in this trip. I felt the impact of the rising Japanese Yen when buying tickets for the 100-minute airport limousine ride to our hotel in Shinjuku. The cost of two tickets, each costing ¥3,000, was approximately the equivalent of S$100…!!

This time, we chose to stay in the Keio Plaza Hotel, a business hotel located in Shinjuku. I selected the hotel based on three criteria.

One, the hotel has to be a scheduled stop on the airport limousine’s route to and from the airport. Our previous experiences of dragging luggage up and down long flights of stairways and/or across busy crossroads in search of the hotel were not ones which we cared to repeat.

Two, the hotel must be conveniently located within walking distance from a JR station on the Yamanote Line to minimise having to change trains to go to the places that we wanted to visit, especially during peak hours!

Three, the hotel should have rooms which are of a decent size and has bathrooms that have more than just elbow-to-elbow standing space.

We were very pleased with our choice of Keio Plaza Hotel (well, the room could have been bigger…). We managed to get reasonable rates for a double-room on Agoda. While the Agoda rates did not include breakfast, the room came with a Nespresso machine, four complimentary coffee capsules per day and in-room wifi. Good enough for us. I choose Nespresso over breakfast anytime!

Keio Plaza, a huge hotel complex split into several towers, is located in a “skyscraper forest” in Nishi-Shinjuku (west of Shinjuku station) where the business district is. Surrounded by office buildings and skyscrapers, the hotel is a skip-and-a-hop away from the train station, eateries, restaurants and cafes. Service was impeccable too.

We love the hotel’s location – quiet, away from the crowds, neon-lights, billboards, shops, pimps, and madness that make up most of Shinjuku. Convenience without the noise and congestion (except when we were battling with the human traffic into and out of the Shinjuku train station). Perfect!

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^ View from our hotel room on the 25th floor. The futuristic-looking Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (shot through the window in the hotel room).

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^ Just round the corner from our hotel is this super cool and “curvaceous-looking” Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower.

I love the look and architecture of the building. I was a little surprised to learn that the Cocoon Tower is an educational facility, housing three schools – a fashion vocational school, a design and technology college and a medical college. It looked like it housed hip companies in the creative fields.

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