Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Red leaves, and pink Puppet Ponyo! :)

Puppet Ponyo and red leaves in Tokyo this past November :)
Puppet Ponyo and orangey-red leaves in Nagano in May!
There are many people who go to the Land of the Rising Sun in the fall expressly for its koyo season.  And the colorful autumn leaves are a pretty big deal among the Japanese too, with such as autumn color guides and reports being issued so that people know where are ideal locales to visit and what's the optimal time to do so.
Especially upon seeing that some of the leaves are redder than Puppet Ponyo (who's noticeably pinker than her plushie sisters and how the feisty character's depicted in Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), I can understand some of the koyo passion, even mania.  And then there's their transient nature, which makes catching sight of these natural things of beauty feel even more precious than they'd otherwise be.
Especially when in Hakone last month, I really did appreciate how it is to be able to gaze at vast swathes of colorful fall foliage.  And seeing photos of such places as Shodoshima's Kankakei Gorge and Kyoto's Kiyamizudera in their autumn glory makes me want to re-visit those places when the koyo season's at its peak in those locales. 

At the same time though, there's something to be said for seeing a red-leafed tree out of season and among ones sporting the expected green leaves -- an experience that I actually had when strolling around the grounds of Nagano's magnificent Zenkoji this past May.  As evidence, I hereby furnish (at the top of this blog post) a snapshot of Puppet Ponyo posing amidst those bright orangey-red leaves.  And I don't know about you but she seems to me to be smiling a bit more in that photo than the one I took of her in Tokyo this fall! ;)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Enjoying the colorful sight of koyo in Hakone

The very first photo I took after checking into the wonderful 

 Not all the leaves on the trees were red when we were in
Hakone but there were enough to take the breath away
 When viewed up close, this is the kind of sight 
that causes people to literally ooh and aah ;b 
When a friend asked my mother what her favorite part of our recent Japan visit was, she answered first that there were many highlights but then came right out and said that for her, it was seeing the red leaves.  Even given the possibility that my mother was particularly bowled over by the koyo (colorful leaves) that have been described as the autumnal equivalent of spring's cherry blossoms on account of her living in a part of the world where the seasons of the year are described as "dry" and "rainy" rather than spring, summer, fall (or autumn) and winter, I really do reckon that the fall foliage in Japan is quite something to behold.
As it so happened, we were in Hakone when the koyo there were displaying their peak colors.  And it's true enough that not a single day passed by when were in this popular resort area that we weren't moved to sigh at the beauty of the fall foliage around us. (On a related note: it really did add to our enjoyment of being at the lovely Gora-Kansuiro that our suite of rooms offered up views of many a red-leafed tree in the ryokan's expansive garden.)
Early on during our Hakone sojourn, we were treated to the eye-catching sight of clump upon clump of koyo on our ride on the Hakone Tozan Train that took us up into the mountains from Hakone-Yumoto down in the valley.  In retrospect though, I feel that it was only on the third and final day of our stay in this very scenic part of Japan that the fall foliage revealed their true glory to us.
The thing is that, as it so happened, the first and second days that we were in Hakone were on the misty side.  Consequently, when things cleared up considerably on the third day, my friend who lives in Japan got all excited at our finally having a chance to see Mount Fuji in Hakone -- and highly recommended that we forego our planned visit to the Hakone Open Air Museum that day (which was fine by me since I had been there on my previous visit to the area) in favor of aiming to catch sight of Fujisan while riding on the Hakone Ropeway.    
Since that approximately 30-minute-long ropeway/cable car/aerial lift ride may well be my favorite part of Hakone, that was perfectly fine by me.  And this time around, the experience was made so much better -- not only with Mount Fuji sightings but also by it offering up super clear as well as panoramic views of whole forests of trees sporting beautiful fall foliage that threatened to take the breath away and, at the very least, had me grinning madly at times! ;b

Monday, December 5, 2016

Feasting on fabulous food in Japan this fall (Photo-essay)

Since returning from Japan two weeks ago, I've only been twice to eat at Japanese restaurants. Granted that in this time, I've been to a Japanese cocktail bar once and Sake Bar Ginn twice.  Still, that's way fewer times that I've eaten Japanese food over the course of a fortnight than has become the norm here in Hong Kong.

It's not that I've gone off Japanese food.  Rather, it's because I ate so much and such fabulous food on my recent Japan trip -- among things, I returned to Kabuto for more eel parts on sticks, ate primo sushi or sashimi every day of the trip, had decadently rich ankimo at least five times, and amazingly juicy wagyu beef at three different meals -- and have such strong memories of those oishii and umai experiences that I'm afraid that what Japanese fare I eat here will inevitably disappoint!

Doubtless at some point in the near future, the urge to go have more Japanese food will surpass my fear of feeling underwhelmed by what I do eat here.  But in the meantime, here's offering up a selection of photos that hopefully will give a good idea of the kind of dishes I had on my recent trip, and loved so very much... ;b

Shirako (described as "codfish soft roe" on the English menu) 
was served along with spinach, Enoki mushroom, green onion, 
grated carrot and radish, and gingered vinegar 
at our first dinner at Gora-Kansuiro ;b

That same dinner's delicious seasonal dessert of persimmon,
Kyoho grapes and mango pudding looked like a work of art!

No ordinary soup for our second dinner at Gora-Kansuiro;
instead, we got one whose ingredients included scallop, 
Matsutake mushroom, green bean, leaf bud, gold leaf and citron!

Another standout course at our second dinner at the ryokan 
was the deep fried mixed pink shrimp, which was so tasty it 
didn't need any salt but which I did squeeze a bit of lemon juice on 
and ate with great relish with the grated radish and ginger

One dozen oysters from three different parts of Japan
-- and all just for me! :)))

At the same lunch in Tokyo, I also had this repast whose
main dish consisted of a generous portion of zuke-style tuna and 
tororo (grated mountain yam) on a bed of fluffy white rice!

Vegetarian nabe (Japanese hot pot) with four different kinds
of mushrooms -- yes, mushrooms were in season! :b

And for the final lunch of our Japan trip, my mother and I opted for
wagyu beef: hers prepared as sukiyaki, mine in steak form :)))

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hike and camera thoughts and talk

View from near the top of Black Hill (aka Ng Kwai Shan)
showing the close proximity of city and country in Hong Kong
It may be winter in Hong Kong but it still can be 
warm enough for the butterflies to come out to play :)
Two friends and I hiked Stage 3 of the Wilson Trail this afternoon.  While it was their first time, I had been on this scenic section of trail before -- and consequently knew to look out for the often strangely placed signs to be found on this portion of one of Hong Kong's major hiking trails.
Because of this -- and also the fervent wish on the part of one of my friends to make sure that we maintained sufficient distance from another hiker out today, whose blasting of Cantonese opera music on her radio was threatening to drive my friend nuts! -- we ended up completing this section of trail in a shorter time than the official estimates.  And this even though I spent quite a bit of time testing out my new camera along the way.
Before anything else: yes, my Sony Cyber-shot HX50V camera has died -- close to three years after it replaced my beloved Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 after that other camera gave up the ghost after having to deal with what, in retrospect, appeared to be too much dust and rain on my 2013 Vietnam visit.  Rather than add phantom rays of light into dark pictures (like my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 began to do in its final days), the Sony Cyber-shot HX50V signalled that it was on its last legs by first over-exposing zoom shots, then going all dark on me less than two weeks after showing signs of malfunctioning.
In light of my previous Panasonic camera having lasted five years to the Sony's three, I leaned towards getting a Panasonic camera again this time around.  And after reading positive online reviews for what looks to be the current edition of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 (which retains its 24mm wide-angle lens feature but now also has a 30x zoom (like the Sony Cyber-shot HX50V)), I've gone ahead and got a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ80 (aka Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS60), and hope that it will serve me well for at least the next four or five years to come.
Judging from the photographs I took today (a day that actually turned out to be hazier than the rest of this week -- and warmer too! -- but still pleasant enough weather-wise), this camera looks like it'll satisfy.  Put another way: I like both the landscape picture and macro shot of a beautiful butterfly at the top of this blog post (and took with my new camera), and trust that you do too! ;b     

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Derek Yee's Sword Master harks back to the past but also breaks new ground (film review)

The official poster for Sword Master
(courtesy of Distribution Workshop)

Sword Master (Mainland China-Hong Kong, 2016)  
- Derek Yee, director
- Starring: Kenny Lin Gengxin, Peter Ho, Jiang Mengjie, Jiang Yiyan

Earlier this week, I viewed a Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production which -- like with Benny Chan's Call of Heroes a few months ago -- felt like a welcome blast from Hong Kong cinema's glorious past.  But whereas that historical actioner which starred Hong Kong actors Lau Ching Wan and Louis Koo alongside Taiwan's Eddie Peng and Mainland China's Wu Jing brought to mind those kinetic Hong Kong action movies with plenty of heart from the 1980s and 1990s, this stunning blockbuster wuxia work feels like the inspired spawn of Tsui Hark at his demented best and a classic Shaw Brothers production.

As it so happens, Sword Master was produced by none other than Master Tsui (who showed with The Taking of Tiger Mountain last year that he's back in gloriously manic form), directed by Shaw Brothers actor turned filmmaker Derek Yee, and co-scripted by the two of them (along with Chun Tin Nam).  Moreover, it actually is a remake of Death Duel, the 1977 Shaw Brothers production in which Derek Yee had top billing among a star-studded cast that included his half-brother David Chiang, Ti Lung, Lo Lieh and Yeh Hua! 

Considering this pedigree, it's little coincidence then this film's eye-catching aesthetics look to have been inspired by the Shaw Brothers hyper-theatrical movie sets which prioritized splendour over realism.  Adding to the visual delight is the not at all insignificant matter of Yuen Bun and Dion Lam's inventive action choreography and Chan Wai Lin and Chan Chi Ying's cinematography having successfully combined to make thespians not known for their action prowess look like martial arts masters (like was the case with many a 1990s Tsui Hark wuxia production, including the Ching Siu Tung directed and beautifully action directed Dragon Inn and Swordsman II).

In Sword Master, Lin Gengxin (who had a major part in Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain) has the titular role which had gone to Derek Yee in Death Duel.  Having mastered his powerful clan's sword style at the age of 11 years, the still not that old Third Master of Sword Mansion is close to attaining martial arts supremacy after having vanquishing challengers and family foes galore over the years.  But he has grown tired of all the bloodshed and seeks to not only retire from the martial world but has his death announced and takes on the guise of a lowly servant in a brothel in Bitter Sea Town.

In so doing, Third Master Hsiao Feng -- who takes on the nondescript name of Ah Chi in his new life -- abandoned the woman he was betrothed to, the formidable -- and, in fact, often pretty frightening -- Mu Yung Chiu Ti (Jiang Yiyan).  And without realizing it, he also dashed the hopes of another master swordsman, the eccentric, facial tattooed -- and consequently evil looking -- Yen Shih San (Peter Ho), of engaging him in a duel that would decide who truly was the greatest swordsman alive.

These wuxia stories being what they are, however, you just know that Hsiao Feng's path will cross with Yen Shih San, and again with Mu Yung Chiu Ti; after which much fight action and bloodshed ensues.  Before that, however, Hsiao Feng finds caring friends among the most humble of folk, and even falls in love -- with Li (Jiang Mengjie).  A hard-working prostitute in the brothel, whose impoverished family doesn't realize for the longest time how she's earning the money that they so clearly need, she's worlds apart in status but also temperament from Mu Yung Chiu Ti, whose ambition and nature marks her out pretty much from the start as the story's chief villain(ess).

In what can seem to be another characteristic Tsui Hark touch (but actually goes all the way back to the source material by wuxia novelist Gu Long), Sword Master is a film in which actresses as well as actors have prominent parts.  And while the main roles in this Mandarin-language movie do rather naturally belong to native Mandarin speakers, I'm sure that if the work's director and producer had not been Hong Kong cinema veterans, there wouldn't be so many faces familiar to Hong Kong movie fans among its supporting cast.      

But if the on-screen roles played by the likes of Norman Chu, Paw Hee Ching and Henry Fong Ping could easily have been played by Mainlanders, I get the feeling that's less of a case with regards to the many Hong Kongers working behind the scenes of this offering which feels positively path-breaking in a number ways (and not just because its 3D effects actually work).  All in all, a good measure of Sword Master's impressiveness was shown in it being the rare theatrical release I've seen where the vast majority of the audience I viewed the work with staying seated throughout the entirety of the end credits rather than bolt for the exit long before that, as Hong Kong audiences are prone to do!     
My rating for this film: 8.5

Friday, December 2, 2016

An exclusive Bar de Luxe preview with a personal omakase touch

The classic and exotic at Bar de Luxe

A minimalist Japanese cocktail study?

This past September and October, Tokyo's Bar High Five participated in a pop up bar-within-a-bar set-up at the Mandarin Landmark's MO BarUnlike my experience with the similar PDT pop-up bar last year, I was so taken by the cocktails prepared by both Ueno-san (on my second visit) along with Yuriko-san (who prepared me stellar "off the menu" Vesper Martinis on both my visits) that I was pretty ecstatic to find out that Ueno-san would be involved in the establishment of a cocktail bar in Hong Kong where Yuriko-san would be the head bartender.

Although Bar de Luxe has yet to officially open, I got an exclusive preview this evening of what will be on offer at this cocktail bar located on the 30th floor of a high-rise building in Central's Wyndham Street.  And while I figured I was pretty privileged to get a personal invitation from Yuriko-san to try out some cocktails and food this week, I didn't realize how much I was -- until I walked into the bar, past an "in training" sign, and was told that I'd be the only guest for the whole entire night!

Although Yuriko-san offered to start me off with a Vesper Martini, I actually declined -- telling her that I knew how good she made them but was interested in trying some other cocktail concoctions by her.  And it's a measure of how great a bartender I think she is that the three other drinks she made for me this evening -- all of which I've never had before but were geared to my tastes, as Yuriko-san read it -- were all eminently drinkable!

First up was the Pink Gimlet, a refreshing drink Yuriko-san informed me was originally created by Ueno-san, and added campari to the usual gin (in this case, Boodle's dry London gin), specialty bitters and lime juice gimlet mix.  After I told her I'd like something stronger for my second cocktail, she concocted a syrupy and sweet -- but not to syrupy and sweet -- drink that, this time around, combined Boodle's gin with yellow Chartreuse and an unusual -- as far as I was concerned -- sakura (cherry blossom) liquer.   And although part of me wished I could continue further, I decided to err on the safe side and have the Black Negroni (which I actually like more than the White Negroni, which I also prefer to the regular Negroni) she made be my final alcoholic libation of the night.  

As one might be expect of a Japanese watering hole, there was food to at least nibble on in between sips of alcohol.  In addition to the usual serving of mixed nuts, I also had such omakase treats as a large green olive from Italy, capers stuffed with tuna, and a cooked dish that was strong on the marinated anchovies (and can also be made with smoked anchovies along with the regular version of the fish).  Still, while undoubtedly tasty, there's little doubt that Bar de Luxe's main draw most definitely -- and expectedly -- will be/is the cocktails rather than the food (which one nonetheless will feel compelled to have some of in order to line the stomach and make one physically more capable of imbibing more of the delicious libations on offer)!

With a number of seats at tables as well as at the bar itself, Bar de Luxe has a significantly larger capacity than the likes of Bar Butler and Sake Bar Ginn.  But while some of the tables offer more scenic views on account of their being closer to the large glass windows that line one of the bar's walls, I still would very much consider the seats at the counter -- where one is closer to Yuriko-san and her team (who include Hong Kong bartender Milk), and hopefully will be engage them in conversation about what to drink (next) -- to be the prime seats. 

And the truth of the matter is that the bartenders -- rather than such as the view or decor -- is why the likes of me go to a Japanese-style cocktail bar.  More specifically, they can come across like the alcohol equivalent of sushi chefs: in that they really know their ingredients, what they're doing, and the customers who become regulars at their establishments.  And even more so than the sushi chefs, these bartenders will have a good sense of what their (regular) customers like -- and consequently be able to offer up drinks when one visits that one will like, even love, and even when it may be the first time one tries them! ;b 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Feasting at breakfast at Gora-Kansuiro! :b

Even if I told you that the breakfast in the above photo
was for two people, it still looks like a lot, right? ;b
It's not every day that one gets served lobster miso soup,
especially at breakfast! ;D
And look at the bacon that was as tasty as it's beautiful! :O
"Together with hot spring baths, dinner is the highlight of a ryokan stay."  This statement on the website which I've found to be pretty much infallible captured the feelings of the three people as well as myself who spent two nights at Hakone's Gora-Kansuiro since two of us were particularly attracted to its onsen facilities (which included a rotenburo in the ryokan's grounds) while the other half of the party (including yours truly) was most looking forward to the kaiseki dinners that would be served in our rooms. 

But even while I knew to expect that dinner at a traditional Japanese inn would be something special, the likes of Anthony Bourdain -- who had proclaimed in his A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal that dinner at a traditional Japanese inn he had stayed at in the seaside town of Atami "may have been the greatest thing ever", but then followed up that statement by declaring that "Breakfast was another thing entirely"! -- got me thinking that breakfast would be a far less delicious affair.  

In retrospect though, I really should have known better.  After all, I'm a fan of the complimentary breakfasts at the branches of the Japanese business hotel chains that I've stayed at (such as Dormy Inn and Toyoko Inn), and also the budget Japanese breakfasts to be had at many a modest railway station eatery.  And, unlike Mr Bourdain, I happen to actually love natto and mountain potato (or yam; i.e., naga-imo or yama-imo in Japanese) in all their gooey glory! 

As it so happens, neither natto nor yama-imo were among the many items that we were served for breakfast on either of the mornings that we were at Gora-Kansuiro.  Instead, what appeared to me to be the most exotic things we were served at our first breakfast was a salad and sausages!  Although I initially suspected that this might have been a nod to our foreign origins (and, in particular, two of our party being white Americans), I was assured that these now appear fairly regularly on Japanese breakfast tables these days.  And whether un-Japanese or not, I really didn't mind at all that the most amazing looking -- and tasting -- bacon was included as part of breakfast the day that we sadly had to say goodbye to life at this lovely traditional Japanese inn!
Actually, perhaps the most shocking thing about both the breakfasts we were served was how substantial they were!  Consequently, as delicious as it was, I was unable to eat all of my first breakfast at Gora-Kansuiro.  In particular, I couldn't finish the amazingly smooth and creamy tofu that we had been served a very general amount of along with such as tamagoyaki (grilled egg omelette) with an absolute delicious sweet radish topping, tsukemono moriawase (assorted Japanese pickles), a variety of cooked vegetables, a mixed vegetable salad, and a plate of sausages!
Prepared to do the serving of tofu justice the next morning, I made a point to eat less rice (even though I do looove my rice) and managed to devour pretty much everything that I was served.  In all honesty though, this wasn't all that difficult since, if anything, the second morning's breakfast was even more delicious than the first morning's; with standout items including the lobster miso soup, a cooked "just right" onsen tamago (hot spring egg), sublime sujiko (salted salmon roe still in the egg sack) served with grated radish, soft mentaiko (spicy pollock roe), and a hijiki salad that tasted as good as it's supposed to be good for you.

Although I expected to want to go back to sleep after eating such substantial repasts so early in the day, I actually was okay to do quite a bit of walking and exploring afterwards.  And while it's true enough that I didn't feel a need to have lunch while in Hakone, I actually found myself being ready for dinner -- and even looking forward to it being quite the feast!

Something else that I definitely noticed was how umami-rich the food served at Gora-Kansuiro, at breakfast as well as dinner, was.  And as strange as it may seem, among these was an amazing concoction I fashioned out of two very different items I was given: strips of nori seaweed, which I wrapped around the strips of bacon we were served the second morning! ;b