Sunday, July 29, 2007

Japan 4 Tokyo 4: Whale @ Asakusa

鯨 or whale, a cuisine that can only be found in very few parts of the world.

So for travellers who would wish to taste some very local food in Japan, whale cuisine could be one of the answer. Located in the small streets in the Asakusa 浅草 area, this restaurant may not be easy to locate. In front of the entrance of into the Asakusa temple, where there is a police post, turn left along the main streets, for 2 blocks, turn right, continue for 2 more blocks, the restaurant will be on the left.

Whale, the largest mammal featured in small cans.

Endangering this precious mammal? Controversial environmental issue?

Settle in the calm and relaxing ambience of this restaurant. There were words ensuring customers that the whale served here is safe for consumption. The menu features only whale cuisine, so customers who might be searching for the familiar chicken or beef, will only have to leave this restaurant.

After an anxious wait, the moment of truth finally arrives; the tasting part. The whale sashimi set. Whale sashimi has a deep red colour almost like raw game meat. The texture is soft and yet chewy, with the taste of good quality beef. There is no raw musty stench afterall, instead it taste almost like high quality beef, extinguishing all worries of this restaurant. At 1050円 a set, it is entirely worth it.

This was perhaps the best fried meat dish ever. The meat was perfectly fried, with the meat soft and tender while retaining its great flavour but not too oily. The technique of the chef in this restaurant was actually quite admirable. At price 1050円, real quality food in Tokyo does not have to cost a lot at all.

The grilled whale tasted like grilled tender beef. Quite a good choice, but perhaps not as good as the fried set. Cost is 1200円。

Whale cuisine in Japan, a wonderful, unforgettable experience.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Japan 3: Tokyo 3: Asakusa

17th May 2007: Asakusa, Tokyo.

Asakusa 浅草, the famous district of Tokyo. Walking along this busy street will bring travellers to the famous temple, Sensoji Temple 浅草寺. But before reaching the temple, travellers will be brought to the test. Temptation from the souvenir shops, selling numerous Japanese decorations and gifts, and shops selling rice crackers, Japanese snacks and sweets. It is not quite possible not to stop at any of these shops, all trying to earn the tourist dollar. It may be an area for temple visitors, but it has turned to more of a commercial area than a sacred one.

It might be a tourist attraction, but the amount of domestic tourists far exceed the number of foreign tourists. It is also very likely to see Japanese dressed in their traditional costume, the kimono, walking along the streets. A polite request is more than sufficient for a photo taking session; the Japanese are most likely to be very willing to for a photo shoot.

The old streets still surviving in this modern nation.

Summer is coming, and Asakusa is gearing for their sanja matsuri, one of the grandest festival in Tokyo.

The volunteers were mostly Japanese though a couple of foreigners can be seen participating. There were numerous group, probably representing different temples or clans, carrying the mikoshi or portable temple.

A tourist attraction? Maybe, but more likely a traditional festival that has been celebrated for many years, and despite Japan being a modern country, this tradition will probably continue. Japan, a country where the modern and the traditional blends together.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Japan 2: Tokyo 2: Soba @ Ueno

Tucked in the back alleys, away from the main streets, this restaurant, やぶそば, is indeed a hidden treasure of Ueno 上野。 It took quite a bit of effort, of reading the obscure map, from asking ordinary Japanese who pointed to a certain direction while mumbling something unknown, the search was almost called off. Luckily, this restaurant was finally found. From Ueno station, go across the road which is under a bridge, turn left and on the right, there will be a side walk. Go into the side walk and turn left till one reaches the side entrance of a shopping centre. Turn to the right for a couple more steps and the restaurant will be on the right.

Seated at the restaurant, a welcoming and elegant cup of tea was served promptly to customers once they arrived. No questions asked and no delay. Unlike many restaurants in Singapore, particularly Chinese, restaurants in Japan that serve tea or water to customers automatically does not have any hidden agenda, meaning these drinks served do not have a hidden additional cost; they are completely free. A very much respected social etiquette.

Most customers in this restaurants are middle aged salarymen or more elderly people. At first, the restaurant was quite empty, so there were doubts of the quality of this restaurant. But eventually, the restaurant gets filled up.

Comfortable setting and atmosphere can be experienced in this restaurant. The chef can be seen busy cooking through the translucent curtains.

This hearty warm bowl of noodles, filled with some unknown mushroom, seaweed and probably radish 大根 shoots. the broth light but wonderfully flavoured. It was a totally healthy dish, but the lack of any meat may not be entirely suitable for meat eaters. 878円。

The soba served in this restaurant was most likely kneaded by the chef of this restaurant, which means that customers can expect high standards from their dish. This set came with grated yam, seaweed and wasabi. The yam gives the noodles a sticky texture. Please note that the wasabi served, was the real wasabi from the real wasabi root, not just simply the paste. The difference is that the real wasabi has a much lighter taste than the paste, it is also inconsistent in texture due to the presence of fibre and juice from the roots, and the taste is definitely more delicate and refined. At 750円, it is definitely much better than Shimbashi Soba in Singapore, both in terms of price and quality.

This kitsumen, most probably handmade by the chefs of this restaurant, is probably the best noodle dish experienced. The wonderful texture of these noodles was accompanied by grated daikon, daikon shoots, dashi flakes, and some unknown items, probably only to be found in this part of the world. At 878円, it is totally worth it.

For the cold noodles, the waitress will serve a small pot of warm liquid which was the water that was used to cook the noodle. It is used to pour together with the sauce for the noodles, and to be drank. The precious sauce from the chef's hard work cannot be left wasted. For foreigners, this practice may only be experienced in Japan. This tip is being shared here so as to save some embarrassment from curious stares or frowns from the salarymen while the waitress trying hard to explain in Japanese.

Grade: 8.5/10


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Japan 1: Tokyo

From Narita 成田 airport, travellers can take the Narita Express for easy access to the city centre of Tokyo. For foreigners, they can buy the Suica and Narita Express package for a bargain price of 3500yen (S$45) to get a one way trip to the city and the Suica card worth of 2000yen to travel on the public transport within the Tokyo Metropolitan area.

The seats are pretty comfortable but talking on the handphone in the train carriage is discouraged as it will disturb other passengers. Passing through the Chiba 千葉 area, rows of houses among rice fields can be sighted. Houses resembling the animes like Doraemon sudden come to life.

It takes about 80 minutes to reach Tokyo station and about another 30 minutes to Shinjuku 新宿 station. This 30 minutes include navigating from the Narita line to the Yamanote line 山手線 through the rush hour crowd at around 7 pm on a Thursday and complex array of train lines. After reaching Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world, of an estimated 3.29 million people per day, several hundreds exits, 10 rail lines from 5 subway companies, and 16 platforms for just the JR company in Shinjuku, it must be an overwhelming experience dragging luggages through the complexes, and through the amazing crowd rush. Even for travellers who track the famous subways of Montreal, Mexico City, New York, will still find this train station more than just a simple culture shock.
Welcome to Japan.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Buffalo, New York

On 3rd May 2007:
Buffalo, the second largest city in New York, can be reached from Toronto by taking the CAN$5 bus to Niagara Falls, Ontario, take a walk over the Rainbow Bridge for CAN$0.50 while enjoying the beautiful Niagara Falls into the United States custom. After clearing the customs, take the NFTA bus to downtown Buffalo, either buying a day pass for US$3.50 on weekdays or USD$6 for the weekends or US$1.80 for a single trip. Total time took about 2 to 2.5 hours as opposed to 1.5 hours on a Greyhound bus which cost above CAN$30. It will be an exciting adventure for travelers to venture into taking local transport in unfamiliar grounds.

The bus drivers in the Niagara Falls-Buffalo region are mostly helpful and friendly, so encountering local transportation problems, is not exactly a problem. Maybe it is the accent, maybe it is in a foreign land, the bus drivers are patient, some of them greet and thank their customers, and they have to announce the bus stop's name before the bus arrives.

Some reasons to visit the Niagara Falls-Buffalo region, is mainly for the Niagara Falls National Park, maybe some historical sites in Buffalo, but it is also a good place for cheaper shopping away from Canada. One shopping centre is the Walden Galleria where a bus can be taken from downtown Buffalo. Walden Galleria is quite a modern shopping center although it may be considered to be relatively quiet.

Along the 30minute journey, from the city centre, the shabby sites of a town of United States can be seen. Other than the City Hall area, which has some skyscrapers and modern buildings and structures, most of Buffalo contains rundown houses and buildings with vandalism all over. Most houses do not have gates or fences around them and there will be some rubbish along the streets and land. From observations, 80% of the population are American Blacks, and probably 40% are overweight and 20% are at quite a dangerous level. Being a minority, one might experience some curious looks or a feeling of insecurity, perhaps due to stereotyping. However, such stereotyping or insecurity is not really quite justified, at least in Buffalo.

One real life experience:
A man board the bus but he did not have small change to pay for the bus ride. He had a five dollar bill and was looking for someone to exchange for one dollar bills. One old lady did not have enough small change for a five dollar bill, but she was kind enough to offer the man the small change that she had. It is true, offer, meaning that she gave for free. But someone else on the bus had enough small change to exchange with the man. So the man returned the money back to lady because he was now able to pay the bus ride himself. Kind and generous? Maybe it is part of their way of life in that part of the world.

Another real life encounter:
A blind lady was taking the bus but somehow lost her direction. So she was confused, but people sitting around her was asking where was she going. But this blind lady had just missed her stop. Not knowing what to do, the people around her were trying to tell her that she had to walk back to the bus stop and the bus driver stopped the bus. One lady was trying to sling the blind lady's handbag around her but did it clumsily and she said, "I am sorry, baby, I'm just trying to help." The blind lady, as she was getting up from her seat, dropped some coins, but the helpful lady took the change and returned to the blind lady by putting in her coat pocket. As the blind lady was heading towards the front of the bus to alight, she was helped by some of the other passengers while they wished her well on her journey. The bus driver came out of his seat and escorted the blind lady down the bus to orientate the correct directions for her. All these took quite sometime, but the passengers were mostly a patient lot. As the bus continued its journey, heads were turned; a sign of concern for the blind lady. Buffalo may not be the most beautiful of places, but the people probably are.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Dining in Toronto

Surprisingly good pork with rice in Chinatown, Toronto but at a cost of CAN$5.95.

Many restaurants offering Greek food in the distinct Greektown near Pape Station.

The squid used was fresh.

Some really good Greek food outside of Greece itself. Cost is around CAN$10 per person, very reasonably priced for quality food.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mexico 12: Mexico City 6

Ciudad Universitaria ("University City") is UNAM's main campus, located in the Coyoacan region borough in the southern part of Mexico City. It has more than 150 thousands students and is the most important university in the Spanish speaking world. Its main campus is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the picture shown is taken from the Wikipedia site. This university is just opposite of the football stadium where is host the World Cup.

Overlooking Mexico City, This city is one of the largest in the world, with a population of more than 22 million in its greater metropolitan area.

With an elevation of an average of more than 2200m, it can be considered to be a city within mountains. So travelers should be aware of the cooler climate even though it is near the tropics, and that the high elevation makes breathing more difficult. To make matters worse, its air is highly polluted due to the large population and high elevation, clean air is unavailable.

Mexico, a Catholic country, has many churches.

Many of which are old and magnificent.

Mexico City may sound like a dangerous place to travel around, especially with the rumours of drug dealings, gun smugglings, kidnappings and the numerous robberies and thefts. But like visiting any place in the world, common sense of keeping belongings properly and being alert can ensure that travelers have a smooth journey. It is probably not as dangerous as it sound and such rumours should not be an obstruction in seeing Mexico in its true self. The city might be polluted, and tap water unsafe to drink, but the city is filled with a complex of modern galleries, theaters, ancient ruins, monuments and churches. Mexico may not be the richest country, but their culture, history, heritage and arts scene is really rich.

Mexicans, although have difficulty in the English language, they can be very friendly and helpful. Waiters in restaurants provide good service, much better than the ones in the island of Singapore. True, the Mexican waiters are probably waiting for the customers' tips, but the store owners and shopkeepers of convenient stores thank their customers after their purchase. Although asking for directions along the roads is not advisable, travelers can ask the shopkeepers who are most willing to help with their limited English and sign languages. Mexico City is a truly wonderful place to visit, a place to experience Mexican culture and Mexican arts, a place with polite and friendly locals.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mexico 11: Mexico City 5

Displays in the metro station in Mexico City.

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Zocalo.

Beautiful music played by talented street musicians in Zocalo.

The Bella Artes near Pino Surez in Mexico City. It contains art galleries as well as a concert hall. Mexico City has 160 museums, 100 art galleries and 30 concert halls. It has the fourth highest number of theaters after New York, London and Toronto.

Frida Kahlo, wife of the famous painter Diego Rivera.

Beautiful buildings in downtown Mexico City.

One of the best sceneries in Mexico City is from the observation deck of Torre Latino Americana, the first Mexican skyscraper.

It is one the World Federation of Great Buildings.

Numerous skyscrapers can be seen in Mexico City, an earthquake-prone and probably a volcanic activity zone.

The skies can seen as being polluted. But on a clear, mountain ranges, including snow-capped mountains can be seen. Nature is just an hour's drive away from Mexico City.

This is real street food, which sadly has disappeared from the island of Singapore. Near Coyoacan.

Streets of Saville.

The beautiful park near Coyoacan
The Chapultepec Castle in Chapultepec Park, which is a massive park with museums, galleries, and even a zoo.

Grand monuments in Chapultepec Park.


Site Meter