Monday, 30 December 2013

28 Hours in Tokyo

The last stop on our tour was Tokyo, Free & Easy-style. from the airport, we were brought to Royal Park Hotel The Shiodome, and from there we were the masters of our own destiny we were free to find our own dinner. The main part of Ginza was a short walk away from the hotel, so we wound up at Ginza Core's (銀座コア)Yakiniku Toraji An (焼肉トラジ庵), a Korean BBQ restaurant serving charcoal-grilled Japanese beef. Our orders were nearly lost in translation until the waiter realized we could speak Chinese. After that, everything went smoothly.

We shared the meat platter, which came with a serving of beef heart. M flipped out and the waiters very kindly offered to switch the meat for us, but BB and I weren't fussed and we split it evenly. D looked like he was going to be sick.
BB: But you'll eat intestines! Isn't that worse?
D: No, intestines are different
Me: Yes, in that you have to wash them out like crazy before they're even safe to eat. The heart's totally like normal beef just crunchier
D: *shivers*
The rest of dinner went really well though. The meat we were served was Matsusaka beef, perfectly marbled. We ordered plates and plates until even BB went "Enough!". Because we were there on a day where there were specials, the bill came up to a very reasonable amount. 

The next day, we had an early breakfast at the hotel's Japanese restaurant, where the only options were rice or porridge. BB and I went for rice, which was accompanied by a small but well-cooked selection of side dishes. The salmon in particular had been perfectly grilled. 

There was also a small bowl of steamed items, with the radish being especially delicious. Thusly nourished, we followed Pauline as she navigated the subway system, and a bunch of us made our way to Disneyland together. 

Our plan hadn't always included Disneyland, but after watching Frozen, BB and I were inspired to revisit one of the happiest places on Earth. M was there for the merchandise, and D had to tag along so I wouldn't have to take all my rides alone (BB & M's motion sickness means they don't do very well on the wilder rides).

Unlike Hong Kong's Disneyland, which has a single-rider option for many of the popular rides, Tokyo only had that policy for Splash Mountain, which meant that D & I had to queue up for FastPasses for Space Mountain. By the time we got to the park at 10.30 in the morning, all the FastPasses for Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters (A family favourite) had unfortunately been snapped up, and we weren't prepared to queue the 210 minutes indicated. Which was how we ended up taking It's A Small World as our first ride of the day. 

There's something very soothing about that ride, mostly because it brings to mind happy memories of finally getting over jet lag the first time we went to America when I was 7. As foundational childhood memories go, it's a little odd, but hey. No one in the family can stomach Tea Cup rides, so I sadly had to wave goodbye to Alice.

D didn't believe me when I told him we could go Single Rider for Splash Mountain, but he followed me to the queue anyway, so at least he'd know if I got tossed out of the park for trying to cheat the lines. I was right (Obviously), because I'd made a point of asking park attendants for confirmation, and when we successfully breezed past everyone else to the front of the queue, he manfully admitted it. It just so happened that there were exactly two seats available (The groups next to us were three-three-four), so we managed to take the ride together. Good things happen at Disneyland, natch. 

Splash Mountain was another 210 minute queue for everyone else, but we made it in and out in under 25 minutes. When we stepped, blinking, back into the sun, M & BB were nowhere to be found, so we had to give them a ring. Turns out they'd gone for snacks, and had joined the queue for one of the restaurants, so we walked over to meet them. 

BB had had the maple churros, and while we were in line for a table went on and on about how good they were.
Me: Did you get one for me then?
BB: No. You weren't there. You have to eat them fresh.
Younger brothers for you. 

While in line, M & I had time to check out what everyone else was wearing. The latest in hats had the character bodies as tails, and seeing everyone all decked out made me regret not bringing my Little Green Men hat along. 

The queue for the restaurant turned out to be the longest one we had to endure for the day, and as we stood stationary at a spot for almost half an hour, BB and I ended up looking wistfully at the shops and the arcade nearby. We ended up going to play with the claw machines next door. These actually had a grip on them, but I still managed to grab just air.

BB: These are sure win! How did you manage to lose?!
Me: I have mad skills. Also, these things are my nemeses. 

By the time we got a table, BB had managed to win M two little fuzzy toys. I would have been intensely jealous, but I know my own limits. It was a pleasant lunch and the drinks were free flow, so we hung around for a bit. It was then that we realized why the queue only inched forward in spite of the restaurant's massive interior and large seating capacity. Oh well, we'd paid our dues. 

With the lunch sets, desserts came at a discounted rate, so I had the black sesame pudding with ice cream, which was very enjoyable. 

After lunch, it was almost time for D & I to take Space Mountain, so we left M & BB to wander on their own. On our way there, we saw some of the people who'd begun camping out for a good view of the parade. Everywhere we looked, people were toting Duffy and Shellie May bears from Tokyo DisneySea, and the parade campers were no different.

We also witnessed first hand the insanity of the queue for Astro Blasters - the FastPass queue stretching out the entrance of the building was longer than Tea Cups and It's A Small World combined. Space Mountain wasn't as crazy with our FastPasses, which warranted high fives all around.

We were out earlier than expected, so while waiting to meet up with M & BB, we went around taking pictures and watched the band play popular Disney tunes. 

We bid goodbye to the park at 3pm just as the parade began, and travelled back into the city. 

On our last trip together, M had seen adverts for the newly opened Tokyo Station Hotel, and deemed it necessary for us to visit and have tea there. The signage wasn't very clear, so we ended up taking the long way around to get to the Lobby Lounge, but we were rewarded with ridiculously comfy sofa seats near the back of the lounge, which gave us a good view of the rest of the diners. 

There was also high speed WiFi access, so once again we were those terrible people with their phones out at the table. BB's drink came with mint chocolates and cookies, which he didn't touch, so the rest of us split the hoard. D had a beer when he found that it was the cheapest item on the menu. 

M & I had the tea sets. By the time we got there, only the Orange Mousse and the Raspberry Opera Cakes were left, so we both went for cake. It was all fruity and light, pairing well with the calming blend of tea I was recommended. 

Our aim in Tokyo was to eat all the good beef we could before we went back home, so after a bit of shopping post-tea, we headed out for dinner at Kisoji's Ginza branch. We'd read a few recommendations for it, but never got round to making a reservation in. The maitre' d was kind enough to have a look for us though, and managed to squeeze us in.

Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki at Kisoji is a rather more elegant affair than at other places, the dinner set coming with the full works including an exceedingly fresh and smooth seaweed in vinegar starter with crab meat. 

Our dipping sauces also came with a wider range of condiments than normal, including chives, chilli oil and really strong minced garlic for the sesame dressing, which is usually left plain. 

The slices of beef served were paper thin but massive, so we ate slowly. BB was adamant that beef is best taken grilled for the fats to caramelize and ooze, but I'm still partial to the silkiness you get from quick boiling. The accompanying vegetables were good as well, and D & I declared that the bean sprouts we ate there were the best we've ever had. 

Our things were placed on chairs next to us, and hidden away with yards of cloth. It's that kind of posh place. M & BB went for the Sukiyaki, so our table was filled with the delicious smell of the sweet stock used. 

The Sukiyaki came with a refreshing tomato salad. Since BB doesn't touch his veg, D & I shared his.

At the end of the meal after we'd finished all the beef and vegetables, we declined bowls of rice but said yes to the Kishimen (きし麺) and mochi, which was cooked by a kimono-clad waitress at the table, and simply seasoned with salt and pepper. We then had rum & raisin ice cream for dessert, and the raisins that studded the ice cream throughout were surprisingly plush.  

The rest of the evening was spent at the biggest Uniqlo in the world, navigating the 12 floors of clothes. They even had customization services, but it required a wait of two weeks to add bronze studs to the collar of my olive silk shirt, which I sadly could not stick around for since we were flying the next morning.
A week-long family holiday where everyone has fun and no one has a meltdown? It doesn't get any better than this. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013


Tomoko-san hails from Otaru and is understandably proud of her hometown, so as our coach driver Nagane-san expertly drove us there over icy roads and through heavy snow on our departure from Rusutsu, she regaled us with the town's history. 

Didn't feel like braving the snow at the rest stop, so I stayed on the bus. D went, and came back with steaming buns for me to snack on. 
In brief, it goes like this: Otaru was the richest city in Hokkaido in the early 20th century, thanks to its booming herring trade and its position as the main hub of Hokkaido's coal industry. With goods traffic flowing both from its port and via the first railway line in Hokkaido (Between Otaru and Sapporo), Otaru flourished commercially. It was designated as an international port just before the turn of the century, and the town's buildings dating from that era still have a vaguely Belle Epoque air about them. 


It became something of a business and financial centre, and today the buildings that housed the banks are still recognizable with their grand Western-style architecture. The city went into a decline in the middle of the 20th century as coal mining ceased and the other major industries moved to the bigger city of Sapporo, but Otaru remains a tourist favourite. There's a decided romanticism about its canal, along which a number of converted warehouses remain. The town is also famous for its Music Box Museum, located at the end of an old merchant street, Sakaimachi. The shops there are housed in the offices and warehouses of shipping companies from the city's heyday, which have been preserved.  

Our first stop in Otaru was Tanaka Shuzo (Sake Brewery) Kikko Gura (田中酒造亀甲蔵). The brewery was founded in 1899, and the stone building where all the magic happens was built in 1905, and has been designated as an important historical property in Otaru. In English, Kikko Gura means turtle warehouse, and I suppose if you squint a bit at the picture of the brewery on its website, it does look a little like a giant turtle - the colour scheme fits at least. 

Traditionally, sake brewing begins in October, and a ball of green cedar leaves is hung at the entrance when the first of the new sake is pressed. Over the course of the brewing season, the leaves turn brown. The brown ball is meant to indicate that fresh sake is ready, but in many places the Sakabayashi (Sake Forest) Cedar Ball remains in place more as an indicator that a places sells sake at all.  Turns out, at Tanaka brewery the cedar ball retains its originally intended significance as the brewery operates throughout the entire year. Thanks to its employment of the latest technology, the cedar ball very legitimately hangs out by the front of Tanaka Brewery all year long because there's always fresh sake to be had inside. 

Tanaka Brewery uses only proper sake rice cultivated in Hokkaido for their various brews, which contains much more starch in its core than normal rice for eating. For premium sake (Ginjo), at least 40% of the outer kernel is milled away, while for super premium sake (Daiginjo), at least 50% is milled away, which affects the eventual taste profile of the resultant sake.

We went upstairs for the brewery tour, and since we had the place to ourselves we were able to fan out and take our time looking around. The information charts provided were entirely in Japanese, and without a guide to translate it can be massively confusing. However, we had Tomoko-san, and the detailed flow-chart of the various steps involved in sake-brewing was explained to us clearly. Also, thanks to Tanaka Shuzo's year-round brewing policy, for the first time ever we got to see people actually involved in the the process of sake brewing, rather than just wax models or empty rooms. 

The brewer in the room was making preparations for the production of Koji, the steamed rice that has koji mould spores cultivated onto it, without which there can be no sake. The Koji is responsible for breaking down the starch in rice to specific sugars that can actually be fermented by the yeast added, resulting in the production of alcohol. Outside the cultivation room was a glass jar full of Koji, which looked like the disturbing green of sickly miasmas. It made me wonder how exactly sake brewing developed in ancient times, and why the first person to employ Koji thought it was a good idea to add mould to rice.  

Next was the actual brewing, which we'd never seen before. The vats were very helpfully labelled with the number of days the sake had been brewed for, and we could see the progression from day 2 to day 23 as the clumps of rice gave way to smoothness and the production of alcohol increased - the bubbles were carbon dioxide, another by-product of the fermentation process. Once we finished our short brewery tour, it was time for our favourite bit, the free tastings in the shop of the ground floor. 

We had a taste of their celebration sake, freshly bottled for the new year, the seasonal winter sake, as well as a couple of their award winning bottles. Those who didn't take alcohol were offered cups of their black bean tea. There was also plum wine to be had, which was surprisingly sour. The liqueur was made from plums produced in the Shiribeshi Subprefecture to which Otaru belongs. The reason Japanese fruits always look so magnificent is because those that don't meet quality control standards are destroyed, and employing these less pretty but no less tasty fruit for brewing purposes helps to make the most of these otherwise under-utilized produce. I loved the tang from the plum wine, but it proved to be too much for D, who made a face that looked like this: (  ゜Д゜)⊃旦 

While snacking on sake kasu (酒粕) crackers, made from the lees left once the clear sake has been pressed out from the fermented mash, we made the necessary decisions regarding our purchases. D preferred the heavier flavours of the first Daiginjo they offered us and got that for himself, and I liked their award winning sake (大吟醸酒 宝川) better, and bought myself a bottle to bring back to London along with the plum wine, for the party MC & I were planning (づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ

By the time everyone made it back to the bus, it was time for us to head to lunch. Otaru is also famous for the freshness of its sushi, so for lunch we dined along the sushi street (寿司通り), an informal moniker for the road liberally dotted with sushi establishments. Our restaurant, Sushisho Sakai (すし処 さかい), was a cozy family-run establishment that's known for only using locally-sourced produce. 

While everyone else went for the Japanese-style seats upstairs, BB's insistence that his knees were going to give out meant that the four of us sat at the bar counter on the ground floor. This gave us the perfect opportunity to watch the chef in action. Unlike other places, which would have pre-made everything, the chef's insistence on freshness and quality meant a bit of a wait as he began assembling the pieces of sushi only once everyone was in the restaurant. It's totally the kind of eccentricity we can get behind. 

As we waited for our sushi, we had other things to occupy ourselves with, like this massive bowl of chawanmushi. It was extremely well made. Sometimes you get the really gloopy ones that end up falling to bits, but this one, while silky, retained a pleasing firmness. The massive piece of chestnut nestled in the middle made it one of the sweetest chawanmushis I've ever had, but somehow it worked. 

Our platter was a mixture of medium fatty tuna, yellow tail (Which was in season), salmon, botan shrimp, scallop, salmon roe and sea urchin. Everything was extremely fresh, and we got chatting with the chef, who told us that the best time for sea urchin in Hokkaido is in the summer, save for Hakodate, which seems to run on a different schedule from everywhere else, where the sea urchin is freshest in March and April. 

Mm - look at that lovely bit of marbling on the tuna. 

Bowls of scallop miso soup were brought round for us to enjoy with our sushi, and it was utterly delicious. D ordered some mantis shrimp to try after seeing them in the display case and thoroughly enjoyed it - the shrimp generally don't travel well, and by the time they reach Singapore they taste a little dried out, but here it was nice and juicy. 

After lunch, we had free time to ourselves to explore Sakaimachi. M wanted to check if Otaru Orgel (The Music Box Museum) still sold the doll she'd purchased there the first time we visited (They didn't), D wanted to check out his sake tasting store (They'd been thoroughly refurbished and just wasn't the same anymore apparently), I wanted cheesecake, and BB was just along for the ride.  

The first time we visited Otaru, LeTAO (In Japanese, it's the syllables of Otaru pronounced backwards - the first time I heard it, my mind was blown) was just one store across the street from the museum, where all the tourists would camp out for free chocolate samples, and to buy boxes and boxes of cake. Today, it feels as though they've taken over half the shops in town. 

We'd visited Otaru on a whim last winter after our lunch at Moliere, but by the time we made it there all the stores were in the midst of closing up for the day and there were no cakes to be had. So this time, I was determined to make up for it. We went for a spot of dessert at LeTAO's PATHOS Cafe at one of their newer stores. The Cafe had a long wall showing the changing of the seasons, while we sat next to a panel with an endless falling stream of cakes. 

All that walking down the snowy streets of Otaru gave us just about enough space left over after lunch for BB to have a chocolate cake, while D tried the braided Danish pastry, and M & I both had the tea set.

LeTAO has all kinds of limited edition seasonal goodies on offer, but I was there for their most famous product - the original Double Fromage cake of Italian mascarpone cheese atop a caked cream cheesecake. The tea set had a selection of best sellers, and apart from the original Double Fromage there was a slice of the Chocolat Double and a helping of their Markuchen rolls, a different type of cheesecake made with butter cheese cream. They came with a raspberry compote and decorative toppings like spun sugar, which went quite well with the cakes. The Chocolat Double was my favourite, with the chocolate giving more complexity to the delicate flavour of the cheese.

Afterwards, M & I wandered around together and ended up at the Kitaichi Glass Company. In the 19th century the craftsmen made lamps for the fishing vessels, but today they've branched out to more decorative wares, and allow visitors to try their own hand at glass blowing. M found herself a nice blue-yellow vase, and they gave us a free wall calendar with our purchase. 

When we got back to the bus, we found that D had dragged BB for even more food, and there was a tub of oden waiting for me at my seat. D was in raptures over the soup, and made me drink it immediately, after which I too marvelled at the richness of the broth. It was off to Sapporo from there, where M & I spent the rest of the evening doing some intensive shopping.