Friday, 20 February 2015

Autumn in Japan #8

Day 8 + 9

Remember I said in the previous post about how I REALLY wanted to try the fried mackerel? Well, I was SO CLOSE to getting it. Only thing was... my Japanese wasn't good enough. :'(( The next day we had to return our rental car by 12 noon back in Fukuoka which would be about a 3-4 hour drive. So if we wanted to get our fried Aji we needed to wake up early. AND WAKE UP EARLY WE DID. I'm usually not an early bird at all but for food...

So we actually got up at 6am and were in the restaurant close to 7am. The waitress was obviously surprised because we were the only non-locals in at such an early hour. When the time came to take our order, I said something to the equivalent of "AJI! PLEASE!" in Japanese, grinning like an idiot, thinking that that was the ONLY WAY an Aji could be cooked. We waited a while... but then Donald noticed that the fryer wasn't switched on. In my naivety I was all like, ohh maybe they are grilling the fish first THEN deep frying it! Still thinking my crispy fried Aji was along the way... Until the old lady chef presented our dishes and staring up at me was not the glistening golden pieces of deep fried Aji that I had sacrificed sleep for, but a whole mackerel simply... grilled. :( I was so sad I wanted to cry! But the old lady was smiling away and asking, "so how is it?" What else could I say but "delicious!", my heart bleeding away deep inside. LOL. Pretty hilarious come to think of it right? It was still a really delicious piece of grilled mackerel, I'll give you that. BUT. STILL.

Donald said that perhaps they don't actually sell fried stuff so early in the morning so maybe even if I had asked for it correctly it might not have been served anyway. ;/ You think?? SOBBB. I'd like to think so. But we'll never know until we go back there again. That said, I highly recommend you trying out this restaurant and opting for fried Aji the way the old fogies do. It has to be sublime.

So in conclusion, if you REALLY want something in a foreign land, you should present it in three forms - written, pictorial (I could've screen captured a photo of fried Aji and showed it to her), spoken (in its proper form). The things we learn through travel.


Anyway, back to our trip. Along the way from Kagoshima back to Fukuoka, we stopped by a really beautiful temple called Kiyomizu Temple in Miyama City (in Fukuoka). The most famous Kiyomizu Temple would have to be the one in Kyoto and I'm sure few have heard of this same-named one but this was really quite beautiful too.

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Isn't the view amazing? This was the view from a special viewing room in the temple and apparently the entire garden had been specially manicured to allow the viewer the optimal view from the vantage point.

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It was pretty funny because when everyone made their way into the room, it was all a flurry of 'ahhhh!! ohhhh!', followed by the snapping of photos, from regular digital cameras to more professional ones held by older people. It's amazing how many older Japanese people are really into photography; complete with all the hard core gear (tripods etc) + floppy sun hat to boot.

After awhile, a nun came in and started giving us an explanation of the temple and its grounds. She begin with something akin to, 'Settle down please! Let your hearts be calm as you enjoy the beauty of the scenery...' and after a brief introduction, she just had to end it of with, 'and NOW you may all take your photos!' which was followed by a ripple of sheepish laughter through the crowd. Heh. All tourists are the same throughout the world, even Japanese tourists.

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After the next group of tourists entered, a venerable looking monk came in to give the introduction.

Kiyomizu 3

Then we made it back to Fukuoka in the nick of time!

I'll mix it up a bit and just go by general places that I would highly recommend checking out.


Tempura - Tempura Teishoku Senmon Daruma

We had been hoping for a nice tempura/soba place (ok, I had been craving for it and Donald was nice enough to go along for the headless search) so we decided to try our luck in searching for one. It had to be legit. Ideally, hole in the wall style with master chef quietly churning out his tempura and soba to ravenously slurping customers. I thought, shouldn't be too hard to find right? After all, in Tokyo, tempura/udon/soba shops are like a dime a dozen in any neighbourhood along with ramen shops. But NO. They aren't that common in Fukuoka. Or at least in Tenjin which was where we were at. But as luck would have it, when we almost reaching that delirious state from extreme hunger, we managed to spot the words Tempura on a sign across the street. So in we walked into a real cool old school Tempura shop with rows and rows of strips of paper taped onto the walls showing the items available. That was their menu. Was as legit as one could hope for. It wasn't too crowded and though it was old, the energy from the owners was palpable, right from the enthused, 'Irrashaimase!"

It was a little hard to find a proper page on google because I don't think they have a proper website but I did find something on foursquare .


It was the first time I'd seen tempura served on plastic dishes. Just seemed very old school and kind cute too. ;p That lurid green.



I love these family businesses. I keep assuming they all belong to the same family but... they probably do right? When there's a middle aged lady/gentleman and a younger looking daughter... that's the most logical conclusion right? :D These guys were incredibly friendly and we so good about me taking photos.

Inside the restaurant

Tempura master

As we were leaving, the chef allowed me to take a photo of him and even gave me his name card with an even cooler picture of him posing with a vat of deep fried tempura. I promised him I'd post it on Facebook which I already have but here's hoping it reaches more people so that you can all go pay him a visit when you go to Fukuoka. ;) Deal?


Coffee - Coffee Bimi

Coffee Bimi 2

Coffee Bimi. A real haven for coffee lovers. Gods, I must have taken 10 + shots of this place and numerous repeated ones of the owner because I wanted to make sure I got at least one that was in focus. ;p It's a real gem of a cafe, with a quiet, cozy atmosphere, the heady scent of coffee from in-house roasted beans, and sturdy mid century furniture. It specializes in flannel filtered coffee which the owner churns out with such focus. Watching him was like watching a performance.

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Coffee Bimi

Best part of all? His really adorable uniform. I suspect the people there comprise of him, his wife (who chisels off ice from whole ice blocks for his iced drinks and helps him put out drinks) and his daughter (who mans the register and does the serving of drinks). And they all have matching, coordinated linen uniforms in quaint, muted colors with the occasional pop of color provided by a neck tie. Seriously, who came up with their awesome uniforms? I can't imagine any average middle aged person coming up with such great designs.

Iced Coffee

I had the iced coffee which was delicious (and I don't even drink coffee very much) while Donald had the classic black coffee. He said it was 'the best coffee' he had ever tasted. And this guy really likes his coffee. 'Nuff said.

Bookstore - Books Kubrick

Books Kubrick

Books Kubrick

Lovely bookstore we popped into along the same stretch of road as Coffee Bimi and a bunch of very unique stores (e.g. antique wares, local ceramics/handicraft stores).

Oden - Yasube

We went to a restaurant called Yasube, for our first taste of Oden (a type of Japanese hot pot/stew dish that is traditionally served in winter time). It's a little bit of a challenge to find because it's along a quiet alley so I'd recommend maybe Google-mapping it first to get a rough idea of its location. Miraculously we managed to find it despite its unassuming facade. The way some of these restaurants are built, you'd think they're purposely discouraging customers from finding it. ;p

It was such a great experience. Initially when we opened the door they apologized and politely turned us away because they said the restaurant was too full. I think to them they want enough customers to have enough room to enjoy themselves rather than be packed in like sardines even though they could definitely make more money that way. Isn't that incredible? Because we definitely saw a couple of seats available at some corners of the restaurant. But it speaks volumes of an establishment when they would rather compromise their profits than compromise of customer service and satisfaction. Luckily for us, two customers left the place not 10 minutes after so we managed to get a seat. It was a warm, cozy restaurant, yet another a family establishment with the dad as the chef, mum as sous chef and son as head server. :D We'd never eaten Oden before so I just asked the mum to give us a standard platter; whatever she could recommend, and she did.

I think the taste of Oden is meant to be light yet filling. The broth was good but extremely light. I think my taste buds are more used to the strong flavors of laksa/yong tau foo in SG but there's definitely something about the subtly of flavor that I could get used to in Oden.

Side dish of daikon.

The head chef in action.

On a side note, I find that certain chefs take on a particular posture when they reach master chef level. A case in point would be the Mee Pok Uncle (stall owner) at my secondary school. He definitely had some kind of arthritis/bad back going on because he was always sort of bent forward and his fingers were a little gnarled but you know what? They were perfectly suited to slicing meat. Left hand on a slab of meat, right hand holding on to the knife that would swiftly, even gracefully, slice through the meat, creating incredibly thin, uniform slices which he would toss into boiling water before adding it to his mee pok noodles. MMM. Just thinking about it makes me hungry. That was a bit of a digression but you get my point. After awhile, their bodies take the form most suited to their craft. This chef had a bit of a hunch that seemed all the more fitting as he bent over to check on the pieces of oden in the huge vat of broth, stirring occasionally, adding to it, removing pieces with his ginormous pair of chopsticks to be arranged artfully on a ceramic plate. It's a joy watching these chefs in action.

As we were leaving, the son, who probably could tell we were foreigners the minute we walked through the door, spent a bit of time kindly chatting with us to find out more about our travels. One thing I love about Fukuoka-ians is how they tend to be a very warm, curious and sincere bunch. He enquired about next stop and when we told him we were hoping to check out some Yatai (street food stalls) for supper, not only did he give us his analysis on the better areas for Yatai ("The Yatai over here is really expensive! Better to go to the other side to not get cheated"), he even gave us a map of Fukuoka city that was in Korean and might have been left behind by Korean tourists but suited us perfectly well because there were English translations as well.

2-17 Nishinakasu, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka 

Do go here! Another highly recommended place.


Ya tai

Walking along the canal at night, basking in the warmth of the street food stalls or Yatai.
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Peek at the back of the stall.

Sigh, the last day we were there was basically just a mad rush of eating, shopping, walking around, trying to get as much more of Japan in as possible.

Cafe - Rokuyoutei 

(taken with iPhone) 

We did manage to find this amazing place for tea! While waking along Tenjin, we happened to spot a signboard which showed a bunch of really yummy looking Western dishes including french toast. This place was a few floors above ground and while pretty small, was VERY cozy and kid friendly. Lots of young couples with their kiddos taking their time for Sunday lunch. The food looked really tasty (kept eyeing the dishes that were being served to other customers) but too bad we'd discovered the place after lunch. So we decided on dessert which was French toast, Japanese style, with mochi and red bean toppings. Took forever to come, really, but when it did come, it was a sight to behold. Layers of crispy french toast literally soaked in BUBBLING HOT BUTTER in a hot pot, sizzling and crackling away. SO good with the generous scoop of ice cream on top. I would definitely go back there again for lunch and a relaxing afternoon.


General Recommendations

Coffee. Fukuoka

When in Fukuoka, you must must go to the awesome neighbourhood of Tenjin. It's good a great vibe with lots of shopping (complete with your variety of department stores/malls and also the unique boutiques/shops which are so to explore)(apparently the biggest shopping area in Kyushu), cafes, and eateries. We stayed at Hakata which was convenient as it's one of the nearest stops from the airport by subway but Tenjin would only have been 2-3 mores stops down.



One place to check out would definitely be D and Department Kagoshima in Maruya Gardens. OOooooOo I could spend hours in there browsing through the beautifully crafted items. D-Department is an incredible company that focuses on Japanese design and has a whole series of travel guidebooks with a design edge. We referred a lot to the Fukuoka book while exploring and there were so many awesome places we didn't manage to check out yet! I'm sure they have D and Department stores in Tokyo, Fukuoka and other places which I would highly recommend checking out. ;)

Sigh. Ok I think that's about it for now. All in all, it was a really really great trip. :) I'm so thankful for every wonderful trip I get to experience. There were some definite post-travel blues upon coming back and returning home but then I always go back to this quote:

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” 

-- A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.

Isn't that statement plain genius? Whenever something wonderful happens and we feel sad that it's over, isn't it always better/easier to instead, feel grateful that we had the privilege of experiencing it in the first place? :) I go back to that every time. Plus, we can also do the next best thing - plan and look forward to the next trip!

Btw, Happy CNY everyone! Hope everyone's having a wonderful, restful time with family and friends. I just had one of the best naps this afternoon in a loooooong time. OH yeah. 


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Autumn in Japan #7

Day 7

While Kagoshima city is the capital city of the prefecture, it still gave me a small-town, peaceful, quiet sort of feel. There's a fish market by the port which is very close to the city center; just about a 10 minute drive by car. It's nothing like Tsukiji Fish Market of Tokyo of course, but it has its small town charms.

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We decided to check out a sashimi restaurant located at the fish market called Shinko Shokudo which opens really early at 5am (!) till 3pm. Of course, we had to have the sashimi platter.

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The fish was so lean subtly rich in taste; you knew it had to have been fish off the boat.

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The restaurant was really crowded and teemed with locals, including elderly people who ordered non-fish dishes such as tempura and deep fried mackerel. I know we shouldn't be staring at everyone else's food but when I saw those huge fried mackerel go by.... I knew I wanted to try it out the next day. Especially since even the Japanese grandpas and grandmas were eating them! But that's a story for the next post heh.

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By the Kagoshima Port. It was really quiet but there were some people sitting on the breakwaters fishing. The weather was mild and perfect for lounging. I could imagine just bringing a book, hot thermos flask, blanket to sit on and wrap myself in and that would be the ingredients for a perfect afternoon by the sea. :D

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(Taken with iPhone)

Best part about climbing onto the breakwater? The incredible unfettered view of Sakurajima, one of Japan's most active volcanoes! You could literally see the plumes emerging from the peak. There's the option of taking a ferry to Sakurajima to explore the island but then you wouldn't get to enjoy the view. So here's a less expensive alternative.

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After our breakfast, we headed off to Ibusuki, about a 2 hour drive from Kagoshima to try out its famed hot black sand baths (known as Sunamushi Onsen).

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I'd seen this video/report by Bee Rowlatt and thought it looked incredibly fun. Definitely check it out to get an overview of what to expect. But I think years of living in 100% humidity Singapore has warped my sweat glands into being ultra efficient at only pouring out sweat when the temperature is really high. I actually found it pretty tolerable. There is a definite feeling resembling that of a baby elephant resting on your belly but after awhile you start to enjoy the soft pressure exerted by the mounds of black sand heaped on top of you. And there's the clock right in front so that you don't overbake yourself. Because then the attendants run off somewhere else leaving you to your own devices. But it's no sweat. ;) After 15 minutes or so you just have to muster up as much strength as you can, give a little roar, and break free from the black sand cocoon.

We actually managed to get pretty good photos of ourselves (though of course, they are a little too embarrassing so they ain't going up here) taken by our nice Japanese shovel attendant using my film camera. I was really impressed! After all, most random passersby have difficulties focusing even with a regular digital point and shoot. But this guy really got down into a photographer's pose and focused his shots well. Either he does this way too many times for tourists or he really is some part time freelance photographer.
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Then after that you get to go for a dip in the indoor onsen facilities. They have a number of small pools to choose from.

Beware the smallest pool of water. I saw an old Japanese lady steeped in the water up to her chest, sitting very calmly on the seated area in the pool. I thought, oh, must be a nice lukewarm pool, so I promptly stepped in without a second thought. IT WAS THE COLDEST THING EVERRRRR. And there she was UP TO HER CHEST, almost in a meditative state. After about 1 min, she proceeded to sit in the sauna room for another few minutes. I decided to follow her lead. Basically what she did was soak for about a minute in the cold pool, pop into the sauna for another few minutes then hop back into the cold pool....about 10 times. Not easy at all. I tried but would always give up and move on to the cold pool from the sauna a lot faster than she did. But it definitely helps because you can endure the heat from the sauna a lot better after freezing your ass off. I think this cycle of hot and cold is supposed to help to increase the elasticity of your skin and maintain its youthfulness. At least, that's what a Korean tour guide told me years ago because that's what the Korean women do as well. Give it a go!

Ibusuki is a reaaaally tiny city and it's main business is probably catering to the tourists who use the hot sand baths. I would recommend taking a day trip there because the drive from Kagoshima takes you along the coast and is really beautiful and relaxing.


Monday, 9 February 2015

Autumn in Japan #6

Day 6

This was a pretty relaxing day compared to the previous more hectic ones. Basically we were just travelling from Kurokawa Onsen to the next city, Kagoshima. Not much that we did along the way... except stop by a rest point for a yummy lunch of curry rice.

Here are more photos of the gorgeous ryokan we stayed at.

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Quaint little garden inside the Ryokan grounds.

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View from the window.

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I LOVED this mid-century style chair in the room. I can imagine being an old lady ensconced on this grand old chair by the open window watching the changing colours of the leaves outside…then dozing off granny-style.

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Our breakfast feast. You never get hungry around here.

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Best part of the ryokan? Listening to the gentle gurgling of the steam outside that ran through the woods in the quiet, otherwise still depths of the night. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing it... and just feeling so amazed by the sounds of nature.

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Pretty much my favourite Autumn scene from the entire trip! This was taken at the road a bit of a drive out from the Ryokan. SIGHHH.

Ok short post this time with the photos doing all the talking. More next time.


Friday, 6 February 2015

Autumn in Japan #5

Day 5

This was the day of fantastic chance encounters. :D

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It started off with us making our way toward Mount Aso, one of the largest active volcanoes in Japan, in Kumamoto Prefecture. FYI, there are 5 peaks to the volcano's central cone and one of its craters has been active for the past 70 years. You can totally see these immense volcanic plumes misting upwards into the clear blue skies even from a distance.

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Seiffener Tippel, is a gorgeous German cafe that we stumbled upon while making our way up the long winding road to Mount Aso. It was incredibly surreal. There we were in our little trusty Daihatsu (who we affectionately named Daikon) slowly inching our way up the slopes when all of a sudden we see these beautiful European 'cottages' along the side of the road, in a completely anachronistic fashion. It felt like we had driven into a quaint German village in the middle of nowhere. So of course, we had to stop and take a look.

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Everything about this place was just surreal. After chatting a bit with the owner, turns out that they had lived in a part of Germany for about 10 years (couldn't quite catch whereabouts though). The owner said that he still couldn't speak much German despite having lived there because all he really needed for his business were catalogs that he could point at to indicate the products he wanted.

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Nothing like a delicious hot mug of cocoa with a generous dollop of whipped cream to start off a cold Autumn day! :D

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One of the best parts of the cafe? HOME-MADE BAUMKUCHEN. They literally had their own Baumkuchen machine that's usually seen in those department stores where they bake it on the spot. This one was in a home! OHH the never ending wafts of deliciously fragrant butter and sugar and milk coming together… a veritable slice of heaven.

Check out their website here or their facebook page here and do go to have a sip of warm coffee and munch on some yummy home-made Baumkuchen. I guarantee you will not be sorry! X) It was one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip.

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After that, we carried along driving up towards the Mountain. Along the way, Donald decided it would be cool to just get off the road to explore the surrounding meadow...cow-style. So we parked Daikon (our little Daihatsu car) by the side of the road and trudged through some really tall reeds into what literally was the middle of nowhere. It wasn't the first thing that came to mind when I thought of 'fun' but weeell... YOLO? And actually, I must admit that the weather could not have been better. Occasionally, a beautiful breeze would blow by through the reeds, making it all the more picturesque. I couldn't help but feel we were in the process of making some outdoor clothing catalog for an artsy magazine. ;)

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I love those endless cloudless Japanese skies…

After awhile we reached the peak observatory point where it was pretty crowded with the occasional tour bus unloading its passengers. If you walk down a somewhat steep, stepped path, you'll end up at the tourist center which also happens to have a horse ranch where you can go horseback riding along the plains!

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Incredibly randomly, on the way down the mountain, we spotted a bunch of cows grazing in a field by the road and decided to stop to say hello. The cows were cute but… HUGE.

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Managed to get some shots of them but then when they started advancing… I wasn't too sure they would take to a friendly pat by a stranger.

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This is about when I started to run…

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Somewhere up in the mountains. :D

Next, we headed on to our ryokan in the heart of Kurokawa Onsen, a really gorgeous hot spring town with some beautiful autumn foliage. It's good that we drove because it's one of those places that would've taken quite a long bus ride from the station to get to.

Travel tip: If you're staying at a ryokan, try to arrive just in time for check in! Which is usually around 3pm. Because usually all the ryokans with in-house onsens will have some sort of deal going on where you can by a pass to obtain entry into a number of different onsens in the various ryokans in the vicinity. We arrived a little late at about 5pm since we'd spent quite a while at Mt Aso, only to be greeted by the sight of a huge group of middle aged Japanese ladies heading OUT of the ryokan in their yukata and wooden clogs, presumably off onsen-hopping. It's also something you might want to do in the autumn/winter time since the sun sets earlier and there ain't much to do in a ryokan after hours.

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Dinner was such a feast! This one was really superb. We had our own private room with a dedicated server who would introduce the courses to us as they came.

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Isn't the presentation just incredible? There's so much artistry that goes into the cooking and presentation of each dish.

Psst. Right: Doesn't that look like a piece of steak? It's actually a piece of Daikon (radish) covered in a sweet sauce. UHHMAZZZING.

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The famous Basashi (or horse sashimi) that Kyushu's famous for. I didn't try any but Donald did and said it was nice but… gamey. As expected.

It's funny how some bits of our dinner were rather awkward because of the language barrier (my Japanese reaaaally needs a lot more work) but our server was a lovely, sincere lady (aren't they all??), Suzuki-san, who noticed that our Yukatas needed a bit of work and proceeded to give us a hands on session on how to adjust/wear our Yukatas the right way… in the middle of the meal. But I do love it when they go the extra mile to make things special for you.

After all that food, we settled in to a night restful night of slumber.