Saturday, 26 August 2017

Tokyo: Odaiba Island

Random Transformer on Odaiba
The previous day (unblogged) we'd travelled up from Kyoto to Tokyo on the bullet train and checked into our Air BnB apartment in Shibuya. The only tourist thing we'd done of note was to visit the Tokyo local government offices which has a free observation floor at the top of their building.

As much as we were loving Japan, we were both beginning to feel a bit oppressed by the large cities that we'd been living in for the last ten days. Heading out into the countryside felt like a bit of a slog, so we decided instead to head for the man made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay in search of some greenery. It would be completely over selling it to say that we found the lungs of Tokyo, but there was enough open space and leisure activities to keep us interested.
Becks checking out a Toyota GT86
We took the monorail (?) out to the island and started by aimlessly drifting round the green edge of the island. I vaguely suggested popping into a couple of places, but Becks was quite firm that she wanted to spend some time outside. I was therefore shocked, and absolutely delighted, when Becks suggested going into a building that contained a huge Toyota showroom.

The showroom had every production car they make in Japan, some of their vehicles from the American market, a mobility section, some race cars and also future concepts type area. I've always fancied a GT86 so made a beeline for those first. Sadly it was a bit uncomfortable to sit in. It's a bit annoying when boring practicalities get in the way of your dreams.
Trying out an oculus rift
Next up was the future zone where I had a go in a safety simulator wearing a virtually reality headset. The virtually world I entered wasn't that cool, but I'd never tried an Oculus Rift headset before so that was a definite win. In the future zone I really wanted a go in one of their one person electric concept vehicles but there was a very prominent sign up saying that you had to be able to understand safety messages in Japanese so I wasn't allowed to give them a try.
Inside Bills Odaiba
As well as wanting to escape the big city for the day I had a hankering for the familiar so was looking forward to lunch at Bills, one of my favourite cafés from Sydney. It didn't have exactly the same vibe as Sydney, but the interior of the café was definitely more Australian than Japanese.
The Aussie breakfast
The menu was broadly familiar to anyone who has been to one of the Sydney restaurants. I had the 'Aussie breakfast' which isn't on the menu back home, but their famous scrambled eggs definitely are. Rebecca had the ricotta hotcakes which definitely are one of signature dishes.
Ricotta hotcakes
After lunch we headed to the western side of the island to promenade up and down and to enjoy being beside the water. The pavement was absolutely packed with people who were glued their phones playing Pokemon. It was near the peak of the global craze, but I was still shocked at how many people there were playing.
Volleyball competition on the beach
I'm not quite sure what put the idea in our heads, but rather than catching the light rail back into the city we decided to walk over the Rainbow Bridge back into the city as the sun was setting. It was worth it for the sunset views of Tokyo Bay though.
Walking back over the rainbow bridge

Fuji TV building as the sun began to set
Before heading back to our apartment for the night we decided to swing by Akihabara. This was one of the first suburbs I visited on my previous visit to Japan with work some ten years ago and I remember it being a really intriguing place. Maybe we didn't quite chance upon the right streets this time, perhaps it was because we arrived late in the day and some places we already closing down, but I wasn't particularly impressed by Aki this time round.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Sourdough in a Day at Brickhouse Bread

Back in May I went on the 'Sourdough in a Day' baking class at the Brickhouse Bakery in East Dulwich. It was a course that I enjoyed a lot more than expected and in a year that has been so busy, it was great to take some time out for myself and do something that I enjoy. Even though I spent the whole day on my feet I came away feeling recharged which was nice!

Everyone on the course had been enrolled as a birthday present and for most people it was their first sourdough experience. I haven't baked in a while but did go through a pretty serious sourdough phase back in Australia so was the most experienced person on the course.
The course was run by bakery owner Fergus and we discovered pretty early in the day that we both had a connection with Sydney and we had visited some of the same bakeries there. For someone that is periodically tempted by a career change it was also pretty inspiring to hear that Fergus quit his corporate job a few years to learn to bake and then set up his own bakery in a garage. Do they do apprenticeships???
Despite it being a bit of a beginners course I definitely learnt a lot during the day (plus it was good fun to play with some dough after a while out of the kitchen). The method we were taught isn't one that I've tried before and I liked the simplicity of it. There are quite a few stages, but none take more than a couple of minutes and it felt like a method that you could fit into a routine at home.

I liked that I got to bake a loaf in a deck oven for the first time too as well as having the chance to discuss how to get the best results from a home oven. Although the loaf that I baked in the below photo (mine is back left) came out a little under-baked, showing that the professionals can mistakes too.
We cooked three different loaves, plus a pizza for lunch, over the course of the day. My only criticism of the day was that it felt a bit flat during the 40 minutes while our loaves were in the oven. Fergus was happy to answer any questions that we had, but I think most people were quite tired from a day on their feet and tea or coffee and the chance to sit down would have good. However, overall it was a great day!
My haul of goodies for the day.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Nara, Osaka and our only duff meal in Japan

Tōdai-ji in Nara
We took a regional train to Nara from Kyoto, which was a bit of a crushing disappointment having solely zipped about on bullet trains up to that point.

Nara was the capital of Japan and in the 8th century and contains some pretty amazing gates and concentrated in Nara Park just a short walk from the train station. There are some reasonably tame deer wondering around the park too and I can't forget the modern park offices, the toilets of which I was very pleased to avail myself of not finding any other loos in the park!
Todai-ji close up
There is no doubt that there were some incredible sights in Nara, and if you were looking for a 'best of Japan's temples and shrines' day trip you'd struggle to do much better. I know it will make me sound incredibly uncultured, but I didn't feel as awed by Nara as I feel I should have been. It was probably a bit of fatigue of having already seen so many temples already and spending quite a few days on our feet.
15m high seated Buddha
Nara was also the location of our only duff meal in Japan. There seems to be nowhere to eat inside Nara Park. We walked to the nearest exit we could find, hoping to find a line of restaurants catering to all the tourists. Sadly there was nothing around and when we did find a café it was the only duff thing I ate during our entire holiday. Not bad considering.
Crazy statues inside the temple

Bells? Laterns? at Todaiji Nigatsudo
Rather than get the train back to Kyoto, we headed to Osaka for dinner, because with the Japan rail pass you can go a bit crazy.
When we arrived in Osaka we took the metro from the main station to the Donburi district to have a look at all of the lights. Needing some dinner we fell into our now customary routine of walking past perfectly good looking places and finding some reason to dismiss them, until we found ourselves in an izakaya, a Japanese pub.
Donburi II

We pulled up some seats at the bar, ordered a beer and selected some random bar snacks. All of which were absolutely excellent. I think the bar staff quite enjoyed having two gaijin in their bar too. I was really pleased that we'd had a good izakaya experience during our holiday.
Full we headed back to the main station in Osaka to catch the bullet train back to Kyoto. A train ride which ONLY TOOK SIXTEEN MINUTES. I know that the cities are practically one continuous conurbation, but which other country in the world could you travel 55km from city centre to city centre in sixteen minutes?
Back in Kyoto we had a quick explore of the amazing station building and then caught a bus back to our hotel. We jumped on the same number bus that we'd used the previous day and new went close to our ryokan, only for it to start heading in completely the opposite direction. Once we were sure it was just a minor detour we hoped off at a random stop, with another couple of westerners who had made the same mistake.

We walked through the darkened Kyoto fish markets, which in any country other than Japan would have felt mildly threatening, up to a main road where we were able to catch another bus back to our ryokan.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hanging out in Gion and eating buckwheat noodles Arashiyama Yoshimura, Kyoto

Gion back streets
A quick photo blog of our day slowly drifting around the traditional houses in streets of Gion, along with a lot of other tourists. It was a pleasant and relaxing drift not really caring where we went (which led us to go down at least one dead end street).

For dinner we went to a recommendation from our ryokan, Arashiyama Yoshimura. It is a restaurant which specialising in making their own buckwheat noodles and was probably the smartest restaurant we went to while we were away. It was a bit of a tourist trap with a sprinkling of Japanese businessmen as well.
Five tiered pagoda in Gion

A garden in Gion


Cold soba noodles and tempura

Warm soba noodles

Ice cream dessert

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Fowl Mouths at Noak

Asparagus with hollandaise and wild garlic bombs
I was really pleased to be able to try the recent Fowl Mouths residency at Noak in Brockley, going twice while they were open. The first visit was on my birthday with Ed and the second trip was with Becks on the last night of their extended run.
Togarashi Crispy Squid 
There was a lot to like, with the kitchen working quietly and efficiently to produce some beautifully plated food.  From my first visit the chargrilled asparagus with hollandaise sauce and wild garlic bombs was definitely one of the standouts with the wild garlic pods provided a real hit. I also remember the chargrilled broccoli with ponzu from my second visit being almost as good.
Miso aubergine

The Togarashi crispy squid was an exciting roulette with the some pieces of squid more well coated in the seven spice blend than others. Ed and I also both enjoyed the side of kara-age chicken, which brought back memories of eating the same thing in Hiroshima station after jumping off the Shinkansen from Miyajima.
Side of kara-age chicken
Both dinners could have been elevated to one of my highlights of the year, but were sadly held back by a couple of dishes that didn't quite work so well. On each occasion the pork from the slow cooked pork belly was a little dry. The miso aubergine was beautifully cooked, but there was so much miso paste on top that it stuck to the roof of your mouth as you ate it. On the second visit when I ordered the vegetarian miso garlic mushrooms, the yolk of the crispy panko egg was over-cooked too.
Gojuchang beef ribs 
It may sound like I'm quibbling, but the disappointment when something potentially brilliant falls short, is somehow worse than just having an average meal. I will just whisper that the pricing felt a touch too high for the portion sizes as saying it out loud would make me sound like I'm being unnecessarily mean.
Slow cooked ginger and sake pork belly

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Palma Pintxos, Mallorca

Pintxos at Tast Union
We checked out a few restaurant options for the Saturday night of our trip to Palma, but with none of them appealing, we decided to do some bar hopping instead.

The first place that we visited was Tast Union. Grabbing some seats at the counter we were a little unsure of the etiquette, but the form seemed to be that you helped yourself to plates from the pintxos counter (that either came in single or double servings). We also ordered a couple of dishes from the tapas menu.
Prawn, whitebait and salmon
The pintxos at Tast Union were really, really, good. Not only did every plate look amazingly appealing but there were also so many tasty combinations of flavour in every single bite. I particularly remember the courgette, jamon and garlic mayo pintxos (photo below) and an anchovy and jamon number with basil oil.
Chorizo in cider and cured sheep's cheese
Slightly less successful than the pintxos, for me, were the tapas that we also ordered. The chorizo in cider wasn't a patch on the version from L'Oculto. I'm usually a big fan of manchego style cheeses, but here it was easy to be eclipsed by the pintxos.
Courgette, ham and garlic mayonaise
Realising that we were somewhere very good we had a couple of extra pintxos rather than moving in case we ended up somewhere disappointing.

Tast Union
Calle Unio, 2, 
07001 Palma, 
Illes Balears,

When we did finally tear ourselves away we crossed the road and headed up a small side street and straight into La 5a Puñeta, which was equally great but in a completely different way. Where Tast Union on the main drag was polished, this place felt a lot more like an authentic local bar that hadn't changed a bit in the last ten years,

The small restaurant was filled with families and young locals looking to get their pintxos hit. Plates of food were brought out from the kitchen and placed on the bar. The crowds then descended to help themselves and if you didn't get in quick you were likely to miss out!
I remember trying the tortilla from the photo above which was really salty, but it worked very well.

Payment seemed to almost be on a honesty system where you went up to the counter on your way out of the bar and showed them the number of cocktail sticks that you had and told them how many glasses of wine that you'd drunk. Proving that honesty system do work when I realised I couldn't have paid enough, in my faltering Spanish I asked them if they'd charged us for the carrot cake (which they hadn't).
Carrot cake
I was pretty surprised both places charged the same for their pintxos at 1.75 EUR a pop. They are absolutely both worth a try. Tast Union won on presentation and just edged the flavour combinations for me. La 5a Puñeta wins on atmosphere and the fun factor.

La 5a Puñeta
Carrer de les Caputxines, 3
07003 Palma
Illes Balears

Monday, 29 May 2017

Hopping round Kyoto with a bus pass

Rock garden at the Daitoku-ji temple 
On our first full day in Tokyo we decided to purchase a one day bus pass, and coupled with our Japan rail pass, try and tick off as many of the major tourists sites as we could in a day.

Our first stop was the walled Daitoku-ji temple complex in the north of the city. There are twenty two temples inside the walls, with several open to the public to visit. All of the ones we saw had an entrance fee so we only went inside the Daisen-In zen garden. No photos are allowed inside the temple. It was a very tranquil and relaxing place and I have never seen such manicured gravel in all my life.  Surely they can't have placed all of those pieces of gravel individually. Surely?
The golden temple
It was then a second hop on the bus to get across to the far more popular golden temple, Kinkaku-ji. The ancient looking temple was actually rebuilt in 1955 having been burnt down by a novice monk five years earlier. The temple and lake were beautiful but it wasn't particularly tranquil with the crowds of tourists filing round with us.

In stark contrast to all of the other temples we visited there were hoards of stalls positioned so that you had to walk past them on the way into / out of the temple. They all felt quite out of place.

I'd been suffering with a streaming nose for a couple of days (pleasant image for you I'm sure) and as we walked past a pharmacy Becks convinced me that I should go in to buy a decongestant. Unfortunately the pharmacist didn't speak any English, and with Google translate letting me down, I attempted to act as having a cold with very little success. I was sold a nasal spray (Japanese pharmacies are expensive!) which I later discovered was a hay fever medicine. However, it had some positive effects even if it was a placebo.
Inside the bamboo garden
Our third stop of the day was one of the sites I was most looking forward to in Kyoto, the bamboo forest at Arashiyama having seen so many stunning photos of the place over the years. Sadly it was one of the most disappointing places we visited during our time in Japan. There was definitely a lot of bamboo but I saw none of the vistas that inspired me to visit in the first place.

Fushimi Inari-taisha
Our final stop of the day was Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main shrine was built in 1499, but the site is probably best known for the thousands of torii gates which line the paths on the mountain behind the main shrine.

I was already beginning to approach dusk as we arrived at the shrine so we didn't have long enough to explore the whole mountain and discover the inner shrine. However, we still managed to drift along quite a few of the walkways and up part of the hill.

Foxes (to can be seen in the photo above) are regarded as messengers and there were quite a few of them in and around the temple. Becks bought herself a small ceramic fox as we descended from the hill in the fading evening light. Sadly it got crushed in her bag on the flight home.
Torii gates

Dinner at Ootoya
For dinner we went to Ootoya, which is a chain of restaurants that we saw from time to time on our trip round Japan. It was a teishoku style restaurant meaning the food is served as set meals. I really liked the place as it was one of the view set meal places we visited during our stay and I think we picked a pretty good one to try. It was simple, clean and efficient and I was a happy boy with my katsu, rice, cabbage, pickles and mustard after a long day sightseeing without a lunch stop!