Tuesday 23 December 2014

Hoshino Resort KAI Aso (界 阿蘇)

Follow Me Japan organized a special itinerary for our vacation in Kyushu last winter, which took us to all the major points of Japan's south-westernmost island. Since all tours with them deliver a consistently high standard of food and accommodation in particular, when we found that they had planned a stay at KAI Aso (界 阿蘇) as one of the highlights of our trip, we knew it was going to be something extraordinary. 

Kyushu is an island full of spectacular vistas, from rolling hills to lush valleys. The most stunning lies in the Kumamoto Region: Mt. Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Scant weeks before our arrival, the Nakadake crater had spewed out plumes of volcanic smoke and ash, which still covered the ground when we went to visit the Aso Volcano Museum. In this land of fire, the danger of a volcanic activity provides a heady undercurrent of danger, but nature is also at its most enchanting. KAI Aso is a luxurious resort located within a thick forest, and boasts stunning views of the five peaks of Mt. Aso. 

When you think of accommodation in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is their ryokan (旅館), which no matter how simple or opulent, tend to possess many similar features. Where KAI Aso differs, is by blending traditional concepts of omotenashi (おもてなし - the uniquely Japanese approach to hospitality) with elements of luxury travel living not commonly seen in Japan. All 12 of KAI Aso's 'rooms' are in fact private villas, half of which are furnished with Western-style bedrooms, and the rest with Japanese Tatami layouts. We were taken by buggy from the spacious common area, where all of us had been warming our fingers by a roaring but sleekly enclosed fireplace, to our individual villas. M and I shared one adjacent to the villa occupied by D & BB, but standing on the terrace and looking out, it was all too easy to imagine we were alone in the woods. 

The villas were utterly lavish. D and BB tested the beds, and fell right asleep, which just goes to show how divine they were. The sitting area was spacious, and M and I had a leisurely pot of tea while we basked in our surrounds. But my favourite part of the villa was the private outdoor hot spring baths, supplied with an endless flow of natural mineral-rich water from the springs of Mt. Aso itself. There's no better winter-time activity than taking a soothing open-air bath. Being able to relax and commune with nature out in the middle of a forest was a real treat (No bears were spotted, but there were a few interesting looking birds), and having a tub all to myself was heavenly

I opted to go for dinner clad in the rather modern yukata KAI Aso had provided. M felt more comfortable in her winter gear, so when I couldn't choose between the red or blue silken obi that came with the gown, I was able to cinch both tightly around my waist. I realized the depth of my folly as our kaiseiki dinner went on. 

The cuisine served by KAI Aso is deeply rooted in the kinds of fresh produce that can be found grown in the fertile lands around Mt. Aso, and in the rich waters of Kyushu. Only the freshest seasonal ingredients are served, and everything is superbly cooked then exquisitely presented. We were served our sake in metal cups to keep it chilled, which I'd never tried before. The tang of the metal imparted flavours I'm not entirely certain I can appreciate in sake, but it was definitely an interesting experience all the same. 

KAI Aso took the time to prepare a menu in English for us, which made our dining experience a lot smoother, rather than an exercise in guessing the mystery flavours. Our appetizer course consisted of two small plates, and we tackled the one placed closest to us first. My first bite was of slivers of Akaushi Beef (赤牛) from the Mt. Aso region, preserved in miso paste. I had expected it to have the consistency of jerky, but was pleasantly surprised to find it softly textured. The horse meat served tartare style with a soft-boiled quail egg, hailed from Kumamoto province, where horse is styled sakura nikku, or cherry blossom meat for its delicate flavour. It definitely lived up to its reputation. The trio was rounded off with some home-made fresh cottage cheese, served with plump cherry tomato wedges and a crispy baked basil leaf. 

The series of intricate appetizers continued with a crabmeat and kinuta roll, held together by a paper-thin strip of daikon. The tall glass contained the insides of a deep fried eggplant, remarkably smooth, topped with tonburi seeds, or mountain caviar, and flying fish roe. In the black cup was refreshing mustard spinach, and a slice of boiled soy-flavoured shiitake mushroom, which reminded me of the surrounding forests. The yellow petal-shaped bowl held a creamy soy-milk tofu, served with shungiku, or bitter spinach miso, which tasted very fresh. It being winter in Japan, duck was featured on the menu, here served smoked, and wrapped around a piece of stewed yet firm apple. The dried yam stems were prepared tosa-style, basically pickled in soy sauce and bonito flakes. Simple, but surprisingly good. I gave my salmon rice cracker coated with almonds to BB, who didn't know how to appreciate most of the other appetizers, but certainly derived great joy from this one item. I enjoyed the dried persimmon ball stuffed with foie gras best. The rest of the table largely agreed, and we all marvelled at the effort that went into engineering it. 

Our soup course was a distinctly Japanese iteration of pumpkin soup, containing a deep fried daikon radish cake, seafood sticks, and blades of sliced snow peas. I'm used to heavier, creamier pumpkin soups, but this was delightful as well, with a very robust and sweet pumpkin flavour shining through. 

Our sashimi course was a great deal of fun. Instead of the usual platter to be dipped into the same bowl of soy sauce, the chefs had devised individual sauces to accompany each type of raw food. The natto soy sauce that went with the mackerel thankfully didn't have too strong of a natto flavour. The red snapper was served simply with flakes of salt and a lime, while the scallop was paired with a similarly citrusy yuzu sauce, which I thought was excellent. The red yuzu that came with the cuttle fish had a bit of a kick to it, which was soothed by a drizzle of avocado oil.  I'm still not quite sure what shuto soy sauce is exactly, but it was thick, slightly sweet, and went well with the amberjack. The most interesting pieces of sashimi were grouped together on a separate platter: sweet botan ebi shrimp served with a dollop of thick egg yolk soy sauce, Aso horse meat served with a pulpy blend of local leek and plum, and whelk, which came buried under diaphanous flakes of kelp yam and wasabi salt kelp. 

The tempura course likewise veered away from the strictly traditional, with a deep fried shrimp dumpling taking pride of place among pieces of seasonal vegetable tempura, and refreshingly served with matcha salt and lemon.

Our main course was shabu-shabu of not only beef, but red grouper as well. All of us were wowed by the quality of the beef - just look at that marbling and the wonderful colour of the meat - but it was the red grouper that stole the show. 

Cooked, the grouper took on an iridescent sheen, and had a wonderful texture just perfect for satisfying chewing. We'd never tried shabu-shabu with fish prior to this, and it blew my mind with how good it was.  

Before the meal began, we had to choose from one of five desserts, and throughout dinner I was worried that I'd made the wrong choice. Why did I order the cheese souffle with raspberry sauce, when I could have gone for the plum wine jelly, or the stewed apples? In the end though, my choice was vindicated as the best dessert. 

One thing special about the KAI Aso ryokan in the autumn and winter months, is their Yaki-Imo Lounge, an area where local sweet golden yams are roasted. As we exited from the dining area, we were each given a small gift of a freshly-cooked foil wrapped yam, snugly tucked into a bamboo basket. We were too full to eat it, but soon discovered that the yam made an excellent hand-warmer when we ventured out towards the unlit main road to gaze up at the starry, starry night. Up on the hill and with the sky free of clouds, I could make out the Pleiades. 

The yams were cool by the time we made our way back to the villa, but were still so good, and served as a moreish midnight snack. KAI Aso was a magical getaway, and a fitting highlight for a wonderful holiday. 

Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Second Best Red Bean Porridge in Seoul (서울서둘째로잘하는집)

When M & D travel, they're extraordinarily good at stumbling upon tiny hole-in-the-wall gems of places, particularly little cafés. I've benefited from this innate skill of theirs enormously, whether we're exploring a place together for the first time, or when they decide to bring me along for a return visit to places they'd previously chanced upon and fell in love with. From day one of this trip to Seoul, they kept telling me "We're going to bring you somewhere really special for red bean porridge!", so I was naturally quite excited to follow them to trendy Samcheong-dong (삼청동) where the café was located. We hiked there from Anguk Station, following hordes of well-heeled people who descended on the artsy neighbourhood to see and be seen. 

Walking down Samcheong-ro

What we hadn't expected, was for Bingo (빙고) to be closed that evening. The owner put up a sign that cooly said "Gone for summer vacation". M and D, who'd first tasted Bingo's hand-made sweet red bean porridge, or Danpatjuk (단팥죽), the previous winter, were absolutely distraught. Bingo's Danpatjuk was unlike anything they'd ever tried before, and they hadn't been able to get over the silky-smooth texture or rich flavor, so different from Singapore's watery red bean soups. Thankfully though, their travel luck soon kicked in. We'd return to Samcheongdong later in our trip to visit Bingo for some enjoyable Pat Bing Soo (팥빙수) and Pat Bing Soo with Fruits (과일빙수), both perfect for warding off the summer heat, but on that evening fate had decreed we were to discover an even better Danpatjuk instead. 

Unlike the rest of the buzzing shopfronts, the tea-house lacked embellishment - no loud signs to announce their presence, no staff hollering out onto the street. We'd have walked right past it, if not for eagle-eyed D, who spotted a family by the window, huddled around a single bowl of Danpatjuk. We later came to understand that we'd "discovered" Seoureseo Duljjaero Jalhaneunjip (서울서둘째로잘하는집), which translates to "The Second Best in Seoul", an institution that's been around since 1976. For all the modesty of its name, the tea-house is a frequently mentioned must-visit location in guidebooks covering Seoul, which we'd neglected to read. Inside, it was clean but homely, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd been transported back to the previous century on stepping in. Steel-haired ladies ran the small open kitchen with brisk efficiency, standing over steaming pots and stirring them constantly. Looking at them was like watching my grandmother cook, and we instantly felt quite at home. 

At all the other tables, couples and families were sharing the generous bowls of Danpatjuk, and when I suggested we do the same, M and D looked at me with matching looks of horror and outrage. 

It's red bean porridge, they said to me, in a scandalized tone that effectively conveyed the fact that they were, under no circumstances, going to do anything so silly as share their precious bowls of porridge, and why couldn't I just do the obviously sane thing and get my own?

In the end, we looked so greedy compared to everyone else there, but it was definitely the right choice in getting one bowl of porridge each. At 7000 won a bowl, it's definitely on the pricier end of patjuks, but so, so worth it. 

Laden with pine nuts, chestnuts, ginko nuts, red beans and a brilliantly velvety piece of glutinous rice cake, it was a masterfully executed dish. The red bean porridge itself was a thick but clump-free liquid, salty-sweet and elevated by a dash of cinnamon that gave it great depth of flavour. Some people reckon that Danpatjuk is heavy enough to be a meal on its own. Even though it was the middle of summer and we ate it right after a massive Korean Barbeque dinner, every bite was delicious instead of overwhelming, and we scraped our bowls clean. 

The Second Best in Seoul was originally opened to serve traditional Korean medicinal teas, which probably explains why their sweet red bean porridge still tasted so healthy and wholesome. We also tried their Sujeonggwa (수정과), a cinnamon punch cooked with dried persimmon. It was very interesting, but I can also see why most visitors just ordered the Danpatjuk. 

Even better than Bingo's, M and D decided. Possibly the best they'd ever tried in the world. Now, whenever we discuss travelling back to Seoul, one caveat is making sure we have enough time to return for more of this amazing Danpatjuk. 

Saturday 26 July 2014

Zipline from Gapyeong to Nami Island: Taking the Nami Skyline ZipWire ZipRider®

Korean Reality TV isn't just entertaining, it's also a great way of finding out all the coolest things to do in the country. Once anything worth visiting turns up on the radar, whole teams of celebrities will be sent to scope out the place. There's no doubt that the added drama of the television format can make these places seem far more appealing than they might actually be, but most of them are still worth a visit. This trip, M decided she wanted to us all to try something exhilarating she'd seen on one of these shows: the zipline that runs from Gapyeong to Nami Island (Namiseom, 남이섬 종합휴양지, named after a famous General).

The Visit Korea website, run by the Korea Tourism Organization, is a treasure trove of useful information, and M used it to do some reconnoitering before we set off. She found that the most direct way to get to Namiseom from Seoul was via a shuttle bus that departed from Insa-dong each morning, but somehow managed to miss the footnote at the end stating "Advanced reservations necessary". It's always a challenge taking public transport in a country where you don't speak the language, and even more of a nightmare when it turns out to be some kind of holiday. All the buses for the day were fully booked, so we were waved towards the general direction of the train station. 

I broke out my very best travel mime, and we were finally able to get tickets to Gapyeong Station, where we'd be able to catch a cab to the island gateway, about a five minute drive away. We were standing near enough the boarding area that we felt quite confident of getting seats for the hour-long journey, but we hadn't counted on the swiftness and determination of everyone else on the platform, who mercilessly pushed past us once the train arrived. We were so impressed we couldn't even be annoyed. The only real downer was the overcast sky, which rather marred all our pictures of the day. 

Imagine therefore, clear blue skies and much brighter images when you look at the rest of my pictures here. There was, thankfully, absolutely no issue getting a cab once we exited Gapyeong Station, and soon we were pulling up by the Nami Skyline ZipWire Platform. At 80 metres tall, it stood head and shoulders above all the other buildings around it, and there was really no mistaking it for anything else. The next tallest structure was the bungee jumping platform, which looked rather small in comparison. 

4 ferries ply the route between Gapyeong and Nami Island, transporting a majority of the 2 million visitors who make their way to Namiseom each year. But if you want to arrive in style, ziplining across is obviously a lot cooler than being packed in with everyone else on a boat.

The Nami Skyline ZipWire is run by ZipRider®, which operates similar experiences throughout the world. This particular one opened in November 2010, and is apparently unique thanks to being one of the biggest ziplining experiences in Asia, and the first of ZipRider's offerings to be almost entirely over water. 

Riding straight from the top of the platform to Nami Island, you get to soar over the Han River, before descending through a wooded grove on Nami Island, and coming to a gentle stop further inland. The whole ride is 940 meters long, and they claim that you can reach speeds of up to 35 mph on it. (That's 56 km/h for all of us who wisely use the metric system. I don't really get why they switch around between the two, it's really strange.)

The package to Namiseom (38000 won) includes your entry fee to the island, as well as a return ferry back to the mainland. Unfortunately, there isn't yet a return ZipWire.

There's also an option to take the ZipWire to Jara Island, an uninhabited and undeveloped plot of land in the opposite direction. The Jara Island package costs the same, but also includes a ferry to take you from Jaraseom to Namiseom on top of the Nami levy and a final boat ride back. The wire cable to Jaraseom is steeper, with riders able to hit speeds up to 45 mph (72 km/h), and they recommend it for the more thrill-seeking customer. 

Before you ride, you need to be deemed tall enough, and then you have to go stand on a rather arbitrary scale. I was obviously heavy enough to take the line directly to Nami Island with M and D, but apparently the yes on the scale wasn't good enough for the receptionist, who imperiously decreed that I had to wait an extra half hour after M and D crossed, and take the next line to Jaraseom instead. 

Nothing I said would move her. I was in the clear! Not good enough. Could I carry all our bags to add extra weight? Apparently not. Didn't the video they were playing on loop show a starlet obviously smaller and thinner than me taking the ZipWire directly to Nami Island? No film crew, no dice. Turns out, the prevailing winds were blowing against the line, and there was some concern I might get stuck halfway through the ride. The cables to Nami Island aren't very steep as it turns out. 

There was nothing I could do but wave a solemn farewell to M and D as they took the lift up without me. With half an hour to spare, I ended up taking myself out to a nice, simple lunch of bibim naengmyeon (비빔 냉면) at one of the restaurants near the tower. 

I returned in good time, only to find out that the rain had caused further delays. When I finally ascended to uppermost platform with the rest of the people in my timeslot, we had been delayed by almost half an hour. We completely understood why all operations ceased when we made it to the top, and we were met by bracing winds.  

While the harnesses were being set up, a member of the crew gave us a safety briefing, which consisted of how exactly we ought to sit, where to put our hands, and a reminder that cameras were strictly discouraged. You're over water after all, and it's easy to drop things when you're whizzing through the air at high speeds. All of us solemnly took note.

80 metres up, the ground looks very, very far away, especially if you're standing on an open air platform. In front of us, one of the staff began practicing what looked like a vicious looking shove. When they asked who wanted to go first, everyone politely volunteered someone else. 

Our jitters were also being fed by screams from the bungee jumpers nearby. We knew, logically, that both activities were completely different, but their platform was so small and ours was so much taller...

The greatest moment of terror came after I was trussed up in my harness, and instructed to bend my knees and brace my feet against the metal door, which would swing open when it was my time to go down the wire cable. I'd already witnessed the first two batches before me go down shrieking all the way, and for a moment I deeply regretted everything. 

Once the ride started though, I calmed down immediately. It was a smooth descent that turned out to be far, far slower than it looked. The taxi ride we went on later that afternoon to Petite France (쁘띠프랑스) was a lot faster, and a lot more frightening. 

I had 90 seconds to slowly look around at the scenery, and once again I thought it was a shame we'd come on a rainy day. All the mountains in the distance were hazy blurs on the horizon. As my harness came to a stop, I realized I still ought to have whipped out my phone to take pictures of the view since the ride down was so tame. Ah well. 

As I expected, taking the ZipWire via Jara Island was quite a hassle. You had to wait for everyone in the batch to get down before the small boat at the dock would set sail for Nami Island with all aboard. Thankfully, I'd managed to make friends with a group of girls who were in Seoul for a study-abroad program, and we spent the time chatting about the best places for bingsu in the city. 

The Nami ZipWire wasn't quite as hair-raising we'd been expecting, but it was still a pretty thrilling experience overall. Another bonus: Saying you went ziplining in South Korea will also never not be cool. (No one has to know it's a ride suitable even for the faint of heart.)

Thursday 10 July 2014

Art Jamming at Arteastiq, Mandarin Gallery

We like to think of ourselves as being fairly artistic souls, so when Arteastiq first opened its doors at Mandarin Gallery, M & I agreed that we'd definitely go down, one day. The problem with one day is that it can so easily become never. As we dragged our feet on the matter, whenever we found ourselves in the building having tea at Jones the Grocer or dinner at Itokacho, we'd say maybe next time. In the end, it took two years before we wound up going there on a whim the afternoon of M's birthday. We dragged Auntie S along with us, and what transpired next felt like the fastest three hours of our lives as we got really into creating our masterpieces. 

Mandarin Gallery Arteastiq

Here's what you'll definitely get in each 3-hour session for the $48 entry fee:

1. All the basic materials you'll need to paint your masterpiece - A 50 cm by 50 cm white canvas, pencil and erasers for sketching your outlines, tubes and tubes of acrylic paint placed in an accessible plastic box in between the easels, a set of six brushes with different widths, a set of disposable paint palettes, a fresh bucket of water to rinse your brushes in and a stack of serviettes to use as you see fit (They turned out to be absolutely essential). There might have been sponges available, but we forgot to ask after those. 

Arteastiq Art Jamming at Mandarin Gallery

2. Free run of the Inspiration Shelf - If, like us, you arrive without a picture in mind and find yourself paralyzed at the thought of picking an image out of the vastness of the aether, the shelf has a rather eclectic selection of prints to help the process of inspiration along. Apart from the books, there are also folders full of printed images, organized by theme. M & Auntie S found what they were looking for there, with M settling on a work by Britto, while Auntie S picked out a flower with colours that matched her outfit of the day. 

Art Inspiration at Arteastiq

3. Having an image printed off the Internet for you - Coplu's paintings were a very popular choice with a lot of the other Art Jammers, but being fully aware of my own limitations and the fact that I hadn't so much as touched a paint brush in nearly a decade, I decided Mondrian's Compositions would be the best place to start. Once you find the picture you want, you just need to email it to the email listed on the counter, and they'll print it in a jiffy. 

Art Inspiration at Arteastiq

4. Use of an artfully paint-speckled apron - Like the floor, the easels, the stools and some parts of the walls, these are covered in abstract splotches from artists past. This might keep the worst of the paint splatter off your clothes, but if you're anywhere near as clumsy as I am, you'll still get paint on your clothes, on your arms and legs, and possibly in your hair and on your face. (I leaned down to take a sip of my tea, misjudged how near the canvas was to my face and... Well. Art is messy business.) Wear clothes you don't mind getting splattered, although the acrylic paint they provide washes off fairly easily from skin (Thankfully!)

Art Inspiration at Arteastiq

5. Gawked at - It is a truth universally acknowledged that people working in glass studios make compelling viewing subjects for everyone else milling outside. The first few camera flashes may come as a surprise, but just roll with it, especially if you've been seated right by the glass. You may feel like an animal in a zoo for a while, but treat the circumstances as performance art. I put on my best serious artist face, and even though all my attempts to paint within the lines ended up with wonky failures, the intent gaze of my audience elevated the entire experience. 

Art Inspiration at Arteastiq

6. One free beverage of your choice from the Boutique Tea House next door - Someone will bring a menu around and take your order as you begin, then place your to-go cup in the drink holder that's been very conveniently cut into the work bench. I got a cold lychee tea, which was surprisingly good. M's cold pear tea was refreshing, if a little sweet. Once we finished our paintings, we were even invited to have a rest on the plush seats of the Tea House to enjoy the rest of our drinks while they packed our works into individual boxes for us to carry home. 

Creative Tea Sipping

Three hours may seem awfully long, but time works in mysterious ways within the walls of the studio at Arteastiq. Picking a good picture that corresponds to your skill level and how long you want to spend on the piece is the key to ensuring that the experience remains fun and therapeutic, rather than the cause of a meltdown. If you relish a challenge, then by all means, go for something as complex as your heart desires. If you're a perfectionist who needs time to get each shade or stroke exactly right, you might be better off sticking to something simpler if you're going to attempt to finish your work within a single three hour slot. For those looking to pull off something ambitious, buying a block of sessions (5 go for $180) and working in your own time is probably the most practical thing to do - they'll even keep the canvas in the studio for you as long as they have sufficient storage space. 

Creativity in the Lion City

Caught up in the excitement of the moment, every artistic principle I've ever learnt went flying out the window, and I completely forgot to use masking tape to mark out some nice, crisp lines. Instead, I sketched them out in pencil, using my palette as a makeshift ruler. With guesstimation as the underlying principle, the effect was that of slightly scratchy crookedness, but it didn't seem too bad overall, so I powered on. 

I am a terrible artist, sorry Mondrian

The nice thing about acrylic paints is that they're pretty versatile and fast drying because they're water soluble, and unlike oil paints they don't really smell or need to be cut by harsh chemicals. The old storage bottles have been swapped out for sealable tubes that prevent the paints from drying out, so everything is nicely watery and pliable, but note that the pigments aren't the strongest here. Two layers of white paint weren't quite enough to cover the pencil marks, so I had to build and build the colour until I got the opacity I wanted. Once I got into the groove of it, the slow back and forth of paint application was wonderfully soothing. The most complicated thing I did was mixing the two different shades of yellow that were in my paint box to get the in-between hue I wanted. 

I Look Better In Real Life

The black paint was a bit more dribbly than I was expecting, and in my inexpert hands wound up smudging all over the place. Still, I'd already found a state of Zen, and accepted my piece for what it was - a pastiche of Mondrian, at my current level of (zero) artistic skills. Stressful as M found it, we've already made vague plans to go back for more. Maybe we might even attend one of their weekend painting workshops and pick up some foundational skills to help us progress as artists. 

One day. 

Mondrian Rolls In His Grave