Thursday, 30 July 2015

Tokyo Shopping Heaven Lumine EST and Lumine Shinjuku

When M and I first looked over Follow Me Japan's Tokyo Shopping Tour itinerary, we were completely baffled by its inclusion of guided walking tours to introduce us to the malls, on not just one but both of the shopping days. Let's be real here: If shopping were a subject you could take in school, M and I would totally wreck the bell curve. But even if we hadn't been perfectly capable and avid shoppers, it still seemed like a rather odd inclusion. Malls are malls are malls - You walk around each floor, and when you're done, you move on to the next. 

In the end though, what we first perceived to be madness and folly turned out to be quite an ingenious plan. Our guides were none other than staff from Lumine headquarters, interested to see what travellers from Singapore thought about the shopping experience and mix of available brands at their sprawling malls in Shinjuku, Tokyo. While observing us, they also acted as our personal shopping assistants, bringing us to stores we might be interested in (We'd filled out a fairly extensive questionnaire about our shopping plans, which they then put into action), and helping us with all the necessary translations. As shoppers on a time-sensitive mission, it turned out to be wonderful not to have to pull out our usual song and dance routine to bridge the language barrier and communicate what we needed.

Since I was due to start work on the 3rd of August, I meant for this shopping spree to be dedicated towards getting basics I could build up into a sleek, chic office-ready wardrobe. Of course, I ended up getting completely sidetracked by store after store of glorious shoes that came in sizes that actually fit me.

I have ridiculous baby feet. Most nice shoe stores in Singapore don't carry my size, and while buying kids' shoes is cheaper, they don't usually come in the styles I want because making babies wear heels is a bad idea. Japan is like the promised land of shoes for people like me, so all my well laid plans to stick to poised professional wear got chucked out the window. Instead, everything was run through shopping triage: Could I possibly work this into a work-appropriate outfit? If the answer was anything approaching a hint of yes, I snapped it up. 

A brief primer on the Lumine chain of shopping malls: the company was founded by Japan Railways way back in 1967, with their first building located next to Omiya Station in Tokyo. They've expanded across the city and beyond since then. 

Because their malls are always located conveniently by major train stations, their stores have healthy foot traffic. Most of their tenants cater to younger shoppers, and thanks to the regular infusion of new brands in their store lineup, they've kept ahead of the fashion curve.

The great thing about Lumine is how they carry mainly local designers, and many of the boutiques there carry Japan-made items. If you don't own a pair of Japanese leather shoes, start now and your feet will thank you. Within an hour I changed out of what I'd originally picked out that day into a totally new outfit, just because I could. Here I am halfway through this transition, in a cool white and teal wedge heel I'd just purchased. Breaking in new shoes is always such a trial, but this pair from a brand called Poolside were so beautifully crafted that I was able to walk around them for an entire day without issue. The salesman who sold them to me also helped me affix a pair of insoles, which made them even comfier. 

You wouldn't notice it from the somewhat tired exteriors, but apart from constantly updating their line-up of brands, frequent remodeling also keeps the interiors looking really fresh. When we visited Lumine EST, the floors dedicated to dining had just undergone a complete overhaul. The all-new dining area is beautifully decorated and there are so many Instagram-worthy angles, but unfortunately the lighting doesn't make for the most flattering iPhone pictures. 

#YumYumEST is the official hashtag for the revamped dining areas, called 7&8DINNER. M and I wanted to check out their special summer beer garden up on the rooftop, but sadly found that it was only open in the evenings. So we went for some really modern udon instead at the cheery Men, Iroiro. Itsudemo, Oyatsu. Here's my shiso and bonito chilled udon, perfect for warding off the searing heat outside. 

After refueling, it was back to the shops for us. The stores at Lumine all seem way ahead of the fashion curve - we were there smack in the middle of summer, yet the autumn styles were already being launched. Turns out we were there in time to witness their "It's New!" week and the transitioning of the design season. 

We really did pick the best time for a shopping trip. Thanks to the influx of Autumn-wear, most of the items from the Summer collections were on sale. Japanese fashion imports are priced at a premium in Singapore, so it was nice to see much more reasonable numbers printed on the tags of clothes that just so happened to be perfect for our hothouse climate. 

Sales aside, there were also loads of signs telling you which stores are tax free. Most boutiques don't come with this perk, but under Lumine's roof the stores that don't offer it are in the minority. A few intrepid Chinese visitors aside, we seemed to be the only non-Japanese shoppers around, surprising given how tourist-friendly the mall infrastructure was.

We got the full VIP treatment while shopping our way across the three Lumine mall buildings. Apart from pointing out the best stores, helping us hunt down specific we wanted to buy and answering all our questions, they also whisked away each shopping bag for safekeeping so we wouldn't be bogged down on our shopping spree. 

Do you know how dangerous it is to go shopping and not have to carry any bags? Every time you step into a new store, it's like you've restarted your shopping adventure. To say we went a bit mad with our purchases would be a gross understatement. 

Shopping with M is always a joy, because she has quite the eye for interesting pieces. I'm the sort of person who'll go for comfort over style in my clothes, and M ensures I don't end up looking like a complete slob. This time around, she even indulged my shoe habit, and helped me pick out a few awesome pairs, like these smart, heeled Mary Janes.

Tucked away in the corners of Lumine EST are small stores offering services, like a tailor on the 4th Floor, and a nail salon offering exquisite Kiki and Lala (My Little Twin Stars) manicures. I was so tempted, but I always manage to subtly wreck every manicure I've ever done within ten minutes of leaving the salon, so I decided it was for the best to leave it.

Lumine's target audience is mainly young working women, but they don't just cater to this demographic. M managed to find some nice things for herself, and we ended up buying BB some really cool shirts and bags from the menswear floor. 

Some shops make their tax refund counters so utterly grim, but Lumine EST sought to make theirs a much more stylish and pleasant place to be in. They've got a row of chairs so you don't need to stand in line, but the best part is how efficient the staff. 

Because our bags kept getting magicked away throughout the day, we didn't realize how much we'd actually bought until they were all brought down to the tax refund counter. We were quite horrified when we saw all our stuff piled together.  

We'd have been in big trouble if we had to carry everything back to the hotel ourselves, so thankfully Lumine arranged to have the bags delivered directly to our rooms in Ginza. You couldn't move from the door to our beds, what with all our brand new things lining the corridor. It was quite the sight. 

The focus of our next day at Lumine 1 and 2 at Shinjuku was beauty products. What our itinerary modestly noted as an opportunity to try out Japanese skin care and make up, turned out to be the chance to get a full makeover at one of their beauty emporiums, and an option for a mid-day touch up at another cosmetics counter. 

After a brilliant first day, I was down to experience the works of whatever they had planned for us.  

I'm pants at applying makeup. After many years of practice, I can now put on eyeliner without accidentally stabbing my eyeball 9 times out of 10, and I like liquid foundations because all you need to to is smear it on. But tell me to put on eye shadow or blush or (Heaven forbid!) bronzer, and I always revert to the skills I picked up doing my own stage makeup. Great when you're in a theatre, frightening on a day to day basis. 

I'm absolutely keen to learn though, and what better look than the Japanese version of something natural and pretty? Korean make-up looks are all the rage right now, but I have fabulous naturally arched brows, and I refuse (On principle) to straighten them out. 


My makeover was done by the wonderful Erika-san, who took the time to walk me through all the steps she was taking, and teach me the techniques I ought to be using for that fresh-faced glow. She started by prepping my skin, then applied makeup from Shiseido's Benefique range, which was formulated for people with sensitive skin.

The eyeshadow routine she took me through was super fuss-free, thanks to a really well put together shadow palette. I ended up buying it for the convenience, as well as Benefique's gorgeous floral packaging (The design is exclusive to Japan). I was also introduced to a brow mascara from the Maquillage range that actually fits my skin tone. Two gentle brushes and my face looks framed and polished. It's fantastic.

I took full advantage of Erika-san's expertise to learn how to apply falsies as well. Turns out: the angle you apply it in? So important. They ought to lie flat against your own lashes for a subtle flutter. Learning something new every day! 

Face done, we moved on to explore the rest of the shops in Lumine 1 and 2. One of the stores we really liked was Vecua Honey, a Japanese brand that was set up fairly recently, and is currently carried by Tokyu Hands in Singapore. They started out at Lumine and have expanded greatly since, and it's easy to see why. We ended up getting a dozen of their limited edition Wonder Honey moisturizing summer gels for ourselves and as gifts in the Cucumber and Apple Gelee scents. I carry mine everywhere now, it's so cooling and I slather it on my neck and arms whenever I feel overheated.

Lumine 1 and 2 are a tad more grown up than Lumine EST, with more high end and household brands carried.

Toiletries are my weakness, and I had to physically tear myself away from stocking up on more lotions and cleansing face brushes that I don't need, but desperately want. The products at Hokuroku Sosui had such a heavenly Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) scent though, and in the end M caved and bought a few bottles to bring home.

Since our guides were people who've made shopping their business, I took the opportunity to ask them questions to understand more about Japan's unique shopping culture. We gained quite a number of interesting insights, from rather spirited discussions of people's shopping habits and favoured brands. Tokyo's shoppers always seem to be chasing the next big thing, so the trick is discovering what's hot just ahead of the fashion curve. 

Lunch this day was specially organized for us courtesy of the Lumine team, at one of their specialty restaurants. The Kodawari (Specialty) of the menu at Okamadomeshi Torafuku (大かまど飯 寅福) is Japanese rice from Nagoka, Niigata. The meal began with sharing platters of vegetables, which is apparently the Kyoto style of serving starters.

We had a choice between a bowl that mixed five different grains of rice, takegomi, rice braised with pork and vegetables, or white rice. The five grain rice is the best-seller, but takegomi sounded exciting, so M and I decided to get one of each to share. In the end, the takegomi was ridiculously good on its own, but the five grain rice went so well with the excellent miso cod that was part of our set. 

Torafuku's rice is all cooked in very traditional iron rice pots, over fairly untraditional clean burning fires. The large pots looked terribly impressive. 

After our delicious and filling lunch, M's energy flagged as she was hit by the dreaded food coma. Lumine 2 had quite the exciting collection of work by young Japanese designers in well-curated boutiques, but given M's zombie-like state, I spent more time making sure she didn't wander off instead of shopping. I deeply regret not buying this dress, which was on sale at a reasonable price.

Eventually, we successfully corralled M to the second of their big beauty stores. M was able to hunt down the products Auntie S had requested we bring back, while I made my once-yearly makeup remover purchase.

I've been using Shu Uemura's POREfinist cleansing oil for my oily skin all this while, but the salesgirl convinced me that my sensitive skin needed their A/I anti-inflammatory cleansing oil instead. Both get rid of my makeup equally well, but I must admit I do like the slightly richer feel of my new cleansing oil. 

At the end of the day, we stopped to consider how we were going to cart everything home.

M: Eh, we'll find a way. I packed in another expandable bag that we can also check in. 
Me: You're a genius. 

After two outstanding (and successful) shopping days, the Lumine team spoiled us further by organizing an exquisite Kaiseiki meal for us, which we enjoyed with the President of the company, who was truly interested in hearing our opinions on shopping, both in Singapore and Japan. It was a wonderful evening, and a blog post for another day.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Joshi Tabi (女子旅) with FMJ

女子旅 (Joshi Tabi) 


Girls' travel: A whirlwind of shopping and eating, with occasional moments of relaxation and sightseeing thrown in. Usually involves locations and meals that induce travellers to exclaim "How wonderful!" or "So delicious!". And exactly as said on the tin, there are no men around to moan about how long the shopping is taking.

It's the kind of experience M and I always wanted to have in Japan. So when Follow Me Japan sent us an email about their latest shopping-heavy itinerary, we leapt at the chance to leave the boys at home and have a proper trip.

Flying near Mt Fuji on Singapore Airlines

Anyone who's been on a tour with FMJ will attest to how well they feed their guests, and this trip was no different. After an overnight flight (On which M and I got to see Mt Fuji from the air, lit up by the morning sun), our first port of call was to the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market for a truly decadent breakfast. We'd never visited the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood market before this trip, and it was good to finally correct that. 

Closed shops at Tsukiji Fish Market on Sunday

Tokyo is gearing up for the 2020 Olympics, and while most tourists (Like us!) are really pleased with how the city's getting spruced up and kitted out with signs in English, some iconic locations are being sacrificed on the altar of progress. Tsukiji Fish Market, which has existed in one iteration or another in and around its present site since the 17th century, will be moving 4 km away to Toyosu in late 2016. 

Inner and Outer Market Tsukiji

Those who've visited the market in the dead of night to watch the seafood auctions unfold at a frenetic pace swear it's the best part, but since our flight arrived well into the morning, we instead caught quieter glimpses of the work that continues to happen later in the day.

Tsukiji Fish Market Outer

Visiting Tsukiji Market on a Sunday as we did, has its pros and cons. 

The Downside: Only about 30% of the stalls operate on Sundays 

The Upside: Only 30% of the usual tourist volume makes an appearance on Sundays

Verdict: Sundays still have a really good mix of available sellers even if you don't get to see the inner market, and I loathe crowds, so I thought it was fantastic. 

Sushi Bar Tsukiji Fish Market

We had an hour to explore the market before our 10 am breakfast reservation, and we took to it with gusto. I had a completely different mental picture of Tsukiji compared to the reality of it, so the sight of rows and rows of stalls lining the numerous alleyways took me by surprise. The fact that not everything was fish or seafood-based was something I hadn't expected either. One of the specialty street snacks we encountered was Tamagoyaki, a sweet-savoury thick omelette made fresh in unique rectangular pans, and served on a stick. Not long after we glided away, the staff of Follow Me Japan began handing us plates of piping hot omelette, done up with grated white radish and a light soy sauce.

Just a little snack to tide us over till breakfast, we were told. They really are wonderfully considerate. 

Rectangular Omelette on a Stick Tsukiji

Temptations abound as you walk through the market. Omelette in hand and with the promise of a full sushi breakfast just round the corner, it was still difficult to walk away from some of the displays.

Oysters at Tsukiji Seafood Market

Food I was strong enough to say no to (You have no idea how hard this was): A dozen oysters, ice cream, red bean stuffed rice cakes topped with strawberries, sea-urchin stuffed squid ink buns, a tub of Ikura bigger than my face, rice crackers, fried fish cakes, Oden, milky shaved ice, amen. 

Japan Peach Season

One purchase I did make was a white peach from Okayama, Japan's Fruit Kingdom. Peach season was in full swing, according to a 25 Ans article we read on the plane, and I was determined to make the most of it. When we went to Okayama last winter, we didn't have the time to try their famous fruit buffet, so I got this peach to make up for it. Japanese peaches cost upwards of $10 each here in Singapore, and those from Okayama command a premium, so 500 yen for one was an amazing deal. It was a glorious peach. M & I devoured it in our hotel room later that evening, and it was so ridiculously juicy we needed a bath towel to mop up the bits that dribbled everywhere. We tried different kinds of peaches every day we were in Tokyo, but none were as good as this. 

Cold Tea at Tsukiji Market

For all that Singapore is hot all year round, we positively wilt while summering in temperate countries. The sun just feels more extreme. We collectively ducked into Maruyama Tea Store after drinking cold samples of their Meicha 80 brew, made with leaves from Shizuoka, famed for the quality of their tea. We were absolutely shameless in going for seconds.  

Tsukiji Fish Market Dried Seafood

Fresh seafood and interesting snacking aside, Tsukiji market boasts a rather large array of dried provisions as well. M bought a few bags of dried scallops to boil soup with, while I contemplated the likely possibility of cracking my teeth if I gnawed on any one of the large strips of cured fish on display. 

Sea Urchin and Squid Ink bun Tsukiji Fish Market

The inner and outer markets are labyrinthine. Whole other worlds lay down each alleyway. I didn't venture in, because winding up in Narnia would have been fairly inconvenient.

Tsukiji Market Alleyways and Architecture

As we meandered around, sudden jostling and an alarming number of selfie-sticks emerging out of thin air alerted us to some action happening around the corner. We followed the growing circus, and found a group of men carefully handling a hefty Hon Maguro (Real Bluefin Tuna). Laid out on a slab and carefully positioned for butchering, was a fish that could single-handedly (finnedly?) fuel the dreams of a thousand sushi dinners. 

Bluefin Tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market

It was exciting to be sure, and certainly whetted our appetites for the breakfast ahead. Some rather more avant garde sushi chefs are pushing out fish that has been deliberately aged for a few days, but I'm of the opinion that freshness has a lot going for it. And where better than in the heart of the mecca of fresh seafood itself? 

Best Sushi Bar Tsukiji Fish Market

FMJ had booked us seats at one of the better sushi bars located in the outer market, and judging by the long queues that formed outside both branches of Tsukiji Sushi Say (築地寿司清), they had the right idea. Being able to swan past the rest of the line when they called for our reservation was rather satisfying. 

As we took our seats along a counter on the third floor, we found out that some poor girl on our trip was tasting sushi for the first time here at Tsukiji. We warned her that it was all going to go downhill once she got back to Singapore. 

Omakase Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

We began our extravagant meal with a piece of Ootoro (Fatty Tuna Belly), which was a rather surprising choice - our chef certainly didn't believe in saving the best for later in the meal. When we asked why he planned  the menu out this way, he initially told us "It's a secret!". After much wheedling though, he gave up the mystery and told us this much: With 12 pieces of sushi involved in the Omakase (Chef's Choice) menu, he wanted us to truly appreciate the taste of the tuna belly while our palates were still fresh. We might not enjoy it as much if he had served it later, given the inevitability of taste fatigue. 

Fatty Tuna Belly

Next on our menu was a light and crunchy pieces of Suzuki (Seabass) sushi. As you can see, we were going all out on the decadence front, and having sake for breakfast alongside the sushi. 

Sea Bass

Because the seafood served at Tsukiji is so fresh, you can taste the rice much more clearly. Each sticky, puffy grain felt like the perfect complement to the slice of Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna Belly) we received, tender yet quite bloody in my mouth. 

Medium Fatty Tuna Belly

The finely sliced scallop that came after was a touch of sweetness and light. 


The delicate shrimp likewise. 


We had a bit of fun with the next piece of sushi. Our slice of Tako (Octopus) tentacle was served to us already topped with salt and a hint of lemon, and our chef told us very firmly that we weren't to dip this into our little bowls of soy sauce. I'm not usually one for octopus, but this was chewy-firm without venturing into the territory of rubbery toughness, and quite a pleasure to eat. 


The same no soy sauce! warning came again for the slice of sardine that appeared in quick succession. This one had been hollowed out in the middle, and stuffed with a pinch of ginger and chives. A lot fishier than everything else we tasted, it was nevertheless sinfully oily and with a good bite to it. 

With Ginger and Chives

One of the other chefs at the counter sent his group into raucous peals of laughter at regular intervals. Our chef tried his best to ham it up and make our meal an interesting experience, and we had quite a bit of fun even with the language barrier. Shame we can't understand Japanese, these chefs must be great wits.

Uni and Ikura

The battleship (Gunkanmaki "軍艦巻") rolls came next, rather dainty little morsels in spite of their name. Since M doesn't like Uni (Sea Urchin), I was able to have an extra bite of pure bliss. 

Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe

We washed all that richness of flavour down with Kani (Crab) leg sushi, served with the next joint still on. 


The penultimate course was of Anago (Sea Eel), lightly grilled and dressed with a sprinkle of salt and some yuzu shavings. We could hear the "sha sha sha" sounds of the peel being swept atop the fish. A seemingly simple dish, but so sweet, so fatty, so good. 

Sea Eel

The chef caught us eyeing the display of seafood in front of us, and with what little Japanese I could comprehend, the smattering of English words he knew, and a whole lot of enthusiasm, we ran through their names. Octopus! Sardine! Shrimp! Scallops! Ishigaki Gai! He even prodded the Ishigaki Giant Clam in the display case as he named it, causing it to writhe rather dramatically after being disturbed, and us to recoil in a mixture of wild horror and quiet amazement that the clam was still alive. 


Another piece of Anago, skin on and traditionally done with a thin glazing of savoury-sweet sauce, made for a good end to the meal.  

Sea Eel

Bellies thus satisfied, we made for Ginza and the shops. Since we were staying at the Hotel Gracery Ginza, just moments away from the bustle of the main shopping area, we were able to shop as much as we wanted without worrying about how far we were going to have to cart our shopping bags. Here I am, getting fitted for a Yukata I ultimately bought, and now have no idea when or where I'm going to wear it to. 

Uniqlo Yukata

After almost two hours of carting our ever-growing bags of shopping hither and yon, M and I decided it was time for tea, and made our way over to Rose Bakery at Dover Street Market. Originally set up in Paris by a French-English couple, it recently made its way to Tokyo. It's a cheery looking space, and we were soon drawn to the selection of pastries on display at the counter. I eventually set my heart on a Pavlova. 

Dover Street Market Ginza Cafe

The nice thing about Pavolvas is this: They're so crumbly and airy that they have a quality of being almost insubstantial on the tongue. So you can enjoy all the sweetness and flavour of a good dessert, while also retaining some sense of plausible deniability on having just scoffed one. If you're like me and not the sort to watch what you eat, this means space for second dessert. 

Rose Bakery Ginza Pavlova

We absolutely made the most of our first day in Tokyo. After the eating and shopping was done and our bags stashed away in our rooms, we were whisked off to visit the towering Tokyo Sky Tree, which opened in 2012. The city was blanketed by a thick fog while we were up top, which was a shame. Still, the elevator rides were a marvel. Some people get excited about the engineering that goes into making them ultra fast, I'm all about the artwork. Each elevator has a piece based on one of the four seasons, and we took Autumn up and Spring down, catching a glimpse of Summer in the queue. Winter was out of commission for the day.  

Tokyo Sky Tree

The rest of the group had dinner around the Skytree, but M, ever resourceful, had sussed out the location of an all-you-can-eat Shabu Shabu place called Shabu Zen (しゃぶ禅 You can check out the English language page they have for their Roppongi branch here), and made a reservation for the both of us. Other tables focused on hoovering down platter after platter of Japanese beef, while we were the only ones who asked for extra vegetables. It was glorious. 

Shabu Shabu All You Can Eat Tokyo

Our family travels to Japan with some frequency, but we always bypassed Tokyo in favour of all the other parts of the country. All we saw of it was fleetingly glimpsed in passing, in transit to elsewhere. Spending a whole day back in Tokyo made me realize how much I do like this city, and now I wonder why I'd taken so long to notice.