Thursday, February 22, 2018

Views of snowy Hikone! (Photo-essay)

One month ago today, I began my most recent visit to Japan.  The first few nights, I stayed at a city I had been to the previous October: Hiroshima.  But on the fifth day, I packed my bags and took the train to snowy Hikone -- and ended up spending the night there rather than head back south to less snowy climes on the next train out!  

Although things looked pretty bad (as in blizzard-y!) at first, I decided that since I should make the most of my being there and, also, that I should actually go and try to see some of the town rather than just hunker down in my cozy hotel room or an inviting izakaya (though trust me when I said that I did do a bit of that too!).  Looking back and when looking at the photos I got of an uncommonly snowy Japan, I'm glad I did that; this not least because a thick layer of snow really does seem to make even scenes that might otherwise be rather everyday look pretty special...  

Snow-covered bronze statue of Ii Naomasa, once lord of Hikone
 Not your usual view of a jinja (Shinto shrine)
So much more snow on the ground (and atop roofs and post boxes) 
than cars and people out on the streets in the town center!

Add a bit of blue sky and sunshine and the overall perspective 
quickly becomes significantly cheerier! :)

The plants may be snow-covered but some of them
still had their flowers!
Hikone lies on the eastern shore of Biwako,
Japan's largest freshwater lake 
I got closer to Lake Biwa on my very first visit to Japan
back in 1982 than this time around but still could 
appreciate its beauty on this recent trip :)

Puppet Ponyo adds welcome color to the snowy landscape
(along with the blue portions of sky) :b

Monday, February 19, 2018

Enjoying the festive but quiet time of the year that's the first few days of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

No resident in sight at Pak Tam Village
on the first day of Chinese New Year

Near deserted overhead bridge in Kwun Tong
on the second day of Chinese New Year

Shuttered shops are the rule in Sai Ying Pun
on the fourth day of Chinese New Year

The Hong Kong Tourism Board has a lot to answer for.  That's what I find myself thinking every time I see foreign tourists looking particularly befuddled as to why so many stores, restaurants and businesses are closed during the first few days of what's popularly known as Chinese New Year (but also is celebrated by others who use the lunar calendar such as the Vietnamese and Koreans).  Heck, even the museums and such are closed for at least the first two days of these holidays that tends to be celebrated with the family in the privacy of private homes; so visitors to Hong Kong can't even go museum visiting during this time of the year!

Even on Chinese New Year's Eve, things start to wind down: with many businesses closing early so that their employees can go home early to prepare for, and have, dinner with family; many restaurants not serving dinner due to a dearth of on duty staff; and those restaurants that have stayed open being quieter and far less crowded than usual since many of their (potential) customers are eating at home rather than eating out that night -- or have left town to go on vacation in some other part of the world where more things will open at this time of the year!

So why do I stay in Hong Kong at a time of the year where the city can be as quiet and shuttered as when there's a typhoon in town?  For one thing, I actually enjoy the experience of the city being so much more peaceful and less crowded than usual.  For another, I find that, because the factories and such on the other side of the Hong Kong-Mainland China border are not operating during one of China's "Golden Week"s, the air is often noticeably less polluted in Hong Kong (as well as presumably over there) over the first week of Chinese New Year.  

In addition, over the years, I've figured out how to enjoy myself during Chinese New Year, including by going hiking with friends in the peaceful countryside, and watching Chinese New Year movies that, more often than not, tend to be on the silly side but also are full of goodwill and deliver plenty of laughs.  And while a lot of restaurants and bars do close for at least the first few days of these holidays, I also know of quite a few that stay open for business.

A tip for those who find themselves in Hong Kong sans family and/or friends to visit and provide food and drinks during this time of the year: convenience stores (such as 7-Eleven and Circle K) and fast food chains (foreign and local) do stay open; and ditto with most (if not all) restaurants serving Western or South Asian food.  And with each passing year, it seems that more and more Chinese as well as Vietnamese restaurants have opened for business over the Chinese New Year period here in Hong Kong -- though in these cases, be prepared to be asked to pay double the service charge you normally would in restaurants where a service charge is included, and for a service charge to appear on the bill in restaurants where that normally would not be the case.

Then there's the matter of the red packets filled with money which are given (by some) and received (by others) at this time of the year.  They're not mandatory to give to the staff of restaurants and such but I must admit to actually enjoying seeing the smile on someone's face when they get handed a lai see; and this especially when they are the sort who are thoroughly deserving of a tip, yet really didn't seem to expect any reward or recognition for their good service! :)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hiking with two good friends in southwest Lantau on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog :)

Out on the hiking trail with couple of friends in Southwest Lantau
Not the edge of the world, though it sometimes looked like it! ;)
A veritable Chinese New Year flower bonanza this afternoon!
After resting for a day (during which I went and watched A Beautiful Moment at the cinema), I got back to hiking ways on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog.  And even though we're just into February, I already have an early candidate for hike of the year in the form of the one I went on earlier today!    
Ever since I came across Man Cheung Po and Lung Tsai Ng Yuen (along with a "flying dragon") back on February 12th, 2012 while going along Sections 5 and 6 of the Lantau Trail, I've wanted to go back there and spend more time there as those sections of Lantau Island really did seem to be very pleasant sections of Hong Kong.  And a little more than a year ago, I did return to that part of Hong Kong's largest island by way of the Keung Shan Country Trail that allowed me to avoid having to go up (and down) the many hills of Section 5 of the Lantau Trail.  
As it turned out though, I ended up not lingering in the area as much as I had wanted to because the conditions I encountered there were far more misty than I had hoped would be the case.  But thanks to that hike on the second day of Chinese New Year last year, I now knew of an easier way to get to that area: one that seemed very much following again -- as was the case this afternoon!
This time around, the weather gods were also cooperative: in that, while it rained a bit in places in Hong Kong in the morning, it was dry where my two friends and I ventured this afternoon, far from misty and even sunny at times, with bright blue skies peeking out from the clouds every once in a while.  And at various parts of our excursion, scenic, even downright spectacular views revealed themselves; with today's visual highlights for me including the spotting of clumps of pretty pink Chinese New Year flowers and a point during the hike when one looked out at a sea so similar in shade and color to the sky that it was hard to see where one ended and the already began!
At times even more enjoyable than the beautiful scenery around us, and as far as the eye could see, was the company of my two hiking buddies: one of whom used to be my regular hike companion until she returned to Canada a few years back and is currently back in Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year; the other of whom is the erstwhile regular hiking buddy who coined the phrase "non-competitive hiking" to describe our preferred hiking style.  Here's the thing: I really like that we never obliged to hurry to make particular times and, instead, just walked along at a pace all three of us were comfortable with -- and did quite a bit of shooting the breeze while we were tramping along too!
Back when I was at secondary school in Penang, I used to regularly walk up and down the school field during recess while chatting with a friend (or was it vice versa?).  I also made it a habit while attending college at Beloit of spending quality time talking with friends while strolling up and down the campus.  And I have enjoyed my share of conversation-filled long walks with friends when I lived in Philadelphia too. 
In Hong Kong, I do quite a bit of chatting with friends over meals and in bars but I also still very much enjoy chatting with friends while doing a bit of walking, or hiking as the case may be.  And as it so happens, the conversations today contributed quite a bit to making this afternoon's hike as fun as it was -- and, to my mind, helped further cement the friendship between the theree of us who went out hiking in Southwest Lantau together today. :)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Beautiful Moment delivers smiles, laughs, and many beautiful movie moments (Film review)

One of these Chinese New Year comedies I enjoyed viewing;
the other I plan to give a miss...

A Beautiful Moment (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Patrick Kong, director, co-scriptwriter (with Ja Poon) and co-producer (along with Jason Siu)
- Starring: Carina Lau, Simon Yam, Michelle Wai, Phillip Keung, Ivana Wong

Patrick Kong is one of those Hong Kong filmmakers critics love to hate but whose films have had quite the loyal fanbase in his home territory, especially among females of a certain age and class.  Often given a modest budget to work with, his movies tend to perform respectably at the box office but could hardly be considered "must see" blockbusters -- until now.

Super star-studded and featuring a bona fide A-list headliner in Carina Lau Ka Ling, A Beautiful Moment not only has the filmmaker working once again with many regular collaborators (such as Alex Fong Lik Sun and Jim Chim) but also a plethora of actors and actresses who collectively represent several generations as well as eras of Hong Kong cinema, from veterans like Patrick Tse Yin, Nancy Sit and Helena Law Lan all the way to youngsters like Cecilia So (who made such an impact with her 2015 feature film debut, She Remembers, He Forgets).  

Many of them have the kind of "blink and you'll miss him/her" screentime but those who notice their appearance will surely take some delight in their being part of this very local Chinese New Year movie that also sticks to this season's traditional conventions by being the kind of cinematic offering which focuses on family goings-on, delivering plenty of laughs and being sure to have a happy ending.  A Beautiful Moment additionally throws in the kind of mahjong- and poker-playing scenes that those who enjoy gambling movies will delight in, and ditto with regards to a pretty obvious allusion to the God of Gamblers.

Considering how many characters as well as jokes this sprawling movie manages to pack into its approximately 109 minute running time, I think Patrick Kong and co are to be applauded for keeping the main plot and sub-plots fairly coherent and the focus rather firmly on psychiatrist supreme Bo (Carina Lau), her martial arts expert daughter Michelle (Michelle Wai), and rich businessman Simon (Simon Yam) whose heart gets torn between his latest love and old flame.  Something else that's worthy of commendation is how much room Carina Lau and Simon Yam are given to show off their acting range; and, frankly, it's really wonderful to get a reminder of how these versatile talents can and do excel in comic and romantic roles.

In view of how very good the movie's two leads are, it might seem rather annoying that they have to share their screentime with so many others.  But Michelle Wai also proves to be pretty watchable and the likes of Ivana Wong (as Kiki, Bo's aspiring actress daughter) and Phillip Keung (as a major client of Bo who happens to be Simon's major business rival) manage to make what would otherwise be incidental as well as outrageously silly parts into ones which are pretty memorable as well as entertaining.

There are times when this film's cast is so good that it's tempting to think that they didn't need all that much directing.  At the same time though, I do also reckon that they were given some pretty primo dialogue to work with; with the ones likening men to Bluetooth devices and women to wifi being particularly amusing and also clever.  Regardless of who is (or are) primarily responsible for this effort, the main takeaway from all of this is that A Beautiful Moment delivered lots of smiles and laughs -- and, for that matter, many beautiful movie moments -- as far as I was concerned. :)     

My rating for the film: 8.0

Friday, February 16, 2018

The path less taken on the first day of Chinese New Year

Not the usual flowers I expect to see on a Chinese New Year hike!
Bauhinia in bloom in mid-February!
So were a bunch of smaller and less colorful flowers 
that attracted a scary amount of bees!
Since moving to Hong Kong, it's become a tradition of sorts for me to go hiking with friends on the first day of Chinese New Year.  And there have been occasions when, seemingly on cue, I'd catch sight of the bell-shaped flora known as Chinese New Year flowers on one of these hikes.
On today's excursion, which saw a friend and I trek from Lady Maclehose Holiday Village over to Sai Sha Road (but this time via Yung Shue O rather than Kai Kung Shan), however, I got to thinking that my chances of seeing the flowers that I will readily admit to looking forward to spotting at this time of the year would be on the slim side since it had turned unseasonably warm in recent days.  And as it turned out, today's turned out to be the warmest day by far of 2018, with highs of 27.7 degrees Celsius registered over in Sha Tin and Twa Kwu Ling, and the temperature in Pak Tam Chung having hit the 27.5 degrees Celsius this afternoon!
I hope that my chance to make some Chinese New Year flower spottings this year aren't completely gone though; and I really can't believe that it'll stay this warm through to the whole Chinese New Year period (which traditionally goes on for 15 days!).  I also take some consolation at today's hike being far from flower-less.  Not only that but I actually came across some bright pink flowers that I had never seen before, or at least not in the state of blooming that they were in, along with some bauhinia that had a different coloring from what I'm used to seeing.
Other visual highlights from today's excursion included my coming across rock pools that, even while I know they are completely natural, look so attractive that it sometimes seemed like they had come out of a movie set designer's imagination.  And while I'm not normally tempted to jump into one, I must say that if the temperature had risen a few degrees further, I might have wanted to take advantage of there having been few other people out on the trail my friend and I went on this afternoon and letting myself be cooled by those waters!
All in all, today's was a pretty pleasant hike along what really did feel like the path less taken since my friend and I spotted fewer than eight other people on the sections of trail between the Lady Maclehose Holiday Camp and Yung Shue O.  Actually, to judge by what we observed in Sai Kung town and while catching the minibuses to, further into and out of the Sai Kung Peninsula, the first day of Chinese New Year may well be the quietest and thus most optimal day of the year to go hiking in this part of Hong Kong which normally attracts many hikers and lots of others wishing to enjoy the outdoors on their day out!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Snow in Japan!

Snow falling while I waited for my train to arrive at 
Hiroshima Station on the second day of my recent Japan trip
I found the snow to be really pelting down and 
settling on the ground the day that I went over to Hikone!
 Not a scene I expected nor wanted to see on a Japan visit!
For the first twelve years of my life, I only ever saw snow in picture books, on TV or in movies.  On a visit to England a few months after my thirteenth birthday though, I saw snow for the first time and was pretty ecstatic to have had this then exotic -- to me! -- experience.  
After I moved to England to attend boarding school though, snow became less of a thrill and more of a bother, especially after it melted and then re-formed into super slippery ice.  And the four years I spent at college in Wisconsin (aka the Siberia of America) definitely made me like the cold white stuff even less, with the subsequent years I spent in Philadelphia -- during which the city would regularly run out of salt for the roads in winter -- making it so that by the time I left the USA on July 4th, 2003, for far warmer climes, it would have been perfectly fine by me if I never ever saw snow again!
Since then, I've actually been pretty successful in avoiding seeing snow for the most part.  Indeed, it wasn't until 2015, on a May visit to Norway, that I came across -- and even tramped on -- the cold white stuff again!  And after a brief encounter with falling snow while on transit at Munich airport later that same year, I had not had more encounters with that which can be so pretty to look at but not all that great to be in until my trip to Japan last month!
I won't lie: the first time I saw snow falling in Japan (upon coming out from Hiroshima's Okonomimura. where I had just enjoyed a delicious lunch of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki), I let fly an expletive -- and it wasn't because I was excited by the sight of the cold white stuff but, rather, because I actually was horrified by it!  But after I realized that the falling snow wasn't sticking onto the ground, I calmed down somewhat -- to the extent that the knowledge that snow was falling did not dissuade me from going ahead and journeying by shinkansen later that day to Osaka Funassyiland (and back later that evening) in order to get a 60cm Funassyi!
Over the next few days, as I saw more snow fall but almost never accumulate on the ground, I relaxed even more.  Indeed, I could be accused of having become rather blasé about the uncommonly snowy conditions that the Japanese media appeared super excited about; and this especially when the snow that I saw falling on my way to the Asashi Shuzo brewery up in the hills of Iwakuni prefecture also didn't seem to be sticking much at all to the ground.  Thus it was that I wasn't all that bothered when it began snowing once more my train journey from Hiroshima to Hikone, one that involved my switching trains at Shin-Osaka and moving from the Chugoku region over to the Kansai region.     

Some forty minutes after the second train of my journey passed Kyoto though, I began to see landscapes that were distinctly snowy in nature, with the snow getting thicker and thicker the closer I got to my destination that day.  By the time the train rolled into Hikone Station, I was thinking that some of the winter scenery I was passing could easily be mistaken for Siberia's rather than Japan's! 

I have to admit: there was a part of me that wanted to get on the next train out of Hikone soon after I arrived in that part of Shiga prefecture; and this especially it wasn't just snowing when I got there but pelting down pretty heavily!  But after reminding myself that I had experienced similar -- and even worse! -- conditions in Wisconsin, I not only kept to my plan of staying the night but decided to go out and walk around in the town since I was there for a bit before going and getting dinner (and at least one alcoholic drink!) in a nice, warm izakaya in the evening!
As I tramped about in the snow, I got to remembering how slippery the not completely cleared paths can get, how wet snow actually is, how few people are keen to be out walking about when it's snowing heavily, and how bleak but also beautiful it can turn landscapes into.  In addition, long before I completed my walk around Hikone town, I was thinking how happy I am that I no longer live in a part of a world where snow falls during winter but also how cool it actually was -- metaphorically that is, not just literally! -- that I was getting to see truly snowy conditions for the first time ever on a visit to Japan! :)   

Monday, February 12, 2018

A visit to the rural sake brewery that makes Dassai! (Photo-essay)

Back when he was the Asahi Shuzo Company's vice president, I met Kazuhiro Sakurai when he visited Sake Bar Ginn while he was on a stopover in Hong Kong.  Over a shared bottle of Dassai Sparkling 50, we chatted about subjects ranging from the films of Studio Ghibli to how one can get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki topped with oysters.  And at one point in the conversation, the man who's now the company president told me that if I ever did get to Hiroshima, I was welcome to visit his sake brewery, which is located in the neighboring prefecture of Yamaguchi; something I duly proceeded to do on my trip to Japan last month!

It took two trains (including a very local one with just one carriage and a driver who, at some stations, would do double duty collecting the fare from passengers getting off his train) to get from Hiroshima to Suo-Takamori, the nearest train station to the brewery that I hadn't previously realized is not only located in a really rural part of Yamaguchi prefecture but fairly high up in the mountains.  But it was so totally worth the effort to get there to see how the sake that -- as I told Sakurai-san -- I've drank thousands of liters of gets made. 

Adding to the experience was my getting extended incredible courtesy and serious VIP treatment: as in I got picked up from (and later dropped off at) the train station, given a personalized tour of the place, and met Sakurai-san again, this time over on his home turf.  Oh, and after I toured the brewery facilities, I also spent some time at the Dassai Brewery Side Store, where I got to not only sip glasses of the familiar Dassai 23 but also the even more amazing Dassai 23 Centrifuge and simply incomparable Dassai Beyond!

Inside the industrial-looking rice-polishing facility 
which was the first stop on the tour

 Unpolished Yamada Nishiki sake rice on the left and 
the same rice post polishing on the right

The Asashi Shuzo Company's main building

Before entering the working section of the main brewery,
one needs to put on protective clothing and spend time in an 
air shower room to reduce the risk of contamination of the facilities

The polished sake rice is (still) washed by hand
rather than machine at the Asahi Shuzo brewery

 I feel incredibly privileged to have been allowed into the area
where they make rice malt when people were in the process of 
sprinkling koji onto the steamed rice

I also thought it very cool to be allowed into the vast room
where hundreds of large vats filled with steamed rice, koji 
and water are mixed to make mash that's left to ferment

Filled bottles of sake about to have the famous 
Dassai label affixed onto them :)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

An evening of great sake and good food at Hiroshima's Koishi Sake Bar

Great sake and good food are to be had at the
Koishi Sake Bar in Hiroshima
I knew I was in good hands when this sake
was offered up to me! :b
Probably my favorite sake of the night :)
More than five years ago now, I had a revelatory evening at a sake bar in Tokyo called Sasagin.  Until that night, I had never known that the drink the Japanese call nihonshu and the rest of the world refers to as sake (which, actually, is the Japanese word for (all) alcohol(s)!) could taste so good and pure, with certain varieties tasting like alcoholic mountain water to my mind!
Since then, I must have drank thousands of liters of sake as well as come to have a favorite sake bar in the city where I live, Hong Kong.  And before my most recent Japan trip, I decided to solicit recommendations from a sake industry insider for good places to drink sake in the city that I'd be spending the most evenings: Hiroshima; and consequently ended up spending a few very pleasurable hours at the Koishi Sake Bar located in the heart of the city's entertainment district.

The sister establishment of Ishimatsu Sandaime, an izakaya specializing in seafood from the Seto Inland Sea, the Koishi Sake Bar is located right next door but quite a different beast in terms of atmosphere and set up.  Very elegant looking and really quiet when I got there, I actually was the sole customer there for the first hour or so; something I took full advantage in terms of my having the undivided attention of its single, knowledgeable and friendly bartender who initially appeared to have been rather intimidated at the prospect of having to speak English but calmed down considerably and opened up after I told her that I'm no stranger to sake bars and usually start with a carafe of Dassai!
Since the Koishi Sake Bar had a selection of over 100 sakes, I opted to drink by the glass on the evening concerned but did, partly out of habit, and partly to see how it would taste in its native land, opt for a Dassai -- the 23 (as in made with rice whose grains have been polished down to 23 percent of the original), to be exact.  To go with it, I had the otoshi that came with the seating charge and, this time around, consisted of herring roe (yum!), ankimo/monkfish liver (more yum!) and kuromame/sweet black soybeans (actually also pretty yum!).  

After I asked the bartender for recommendations and she brought out a bottle of the flagship sake of the brand known in Japanese as Kuheiji but also has Eau du Desir written on its bottles, I knew I was in safe hands -- as I had tried sake from this brewery on a visit to Sasagin and loved it!  And while the third sake I tried that evening was not as incredible, the fourth -- a Juyondai junmai daiginjo -- proved to be very tasty indeed and may well have been my favorite drink of the night!
To go with all that sake I drank that evening, I had a plate of assorted sashimi that was not super exciting but perfectly respectable, a delicious abalone dish that made use of its liver as well as meat, and a bowl of vegetable chips that really was the kind of bar snack that I wish all bars would have.  And while all that food may not have seemed to be on the substantial side, I honestly can attest to it appearing to have been sufficient to help me to avoid having a hangover the next morning.  Oh, and I do think it helped that a large bottle of mineral water -- which I did completely drain -- was part of the bar's otoshi
And yes, I know that some people consider it rather sad to drink alone.  But I must say that I often enjoy being out in Japanese bars on my own.  In izakaya, I tend to end up fixating on -- and very much enjoying -- the food and drink.  And in sake bars, I really do get much pleasure from tasting some really excellent nihonshu and love that once they realize that you're a sake lover, the people behind the bar invariably get super into introducing (and talking about) good sake to you! ;b     

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Not your usual critter spottings at Aberdeen Country Park!

Herons in flight -- at Aberdeen Country Park!
A welcome lull in the recent cold spell here in Hong Kong (which saw frost kill crops in the New Territories!) had me heading to the hills for a hike this afternoon.  And so warm was the temperature today that I saw a lot more critters out and about today than I expected. 
First up was a grasshopper that was so well camouflaged that my camera refused to focus on it.  I must admit to wondering for a time whether I had missed my chance to document my best critter spotting of the day.  But as the hike went on, I got to realizing that the small insect was by no means the only (non-human) critter that was out enjoying the +20 degrees Celsius weather!  
Among other things: The variety as well as number of birds I spotted on Hong Kong Island today rivalled that which I observed on a visit to Hong Kong Wetland Park earlier in the week!  And for the record: today really was the first time ever that I spotted heron and egrets in Aberdeen Country Park!!
With regards to the former: what really amazed me was the quantity that were present in the area; something I was alerted to after a bunch of them that looked to have decided to roost at the edge of Aberdeen Upper Reservoir suddenly took flight as a result of a kite flying close to them.  With regards to the latter: they do seem to be much more solitary creatures; which made me all the more amazed and amused to spot one in the vicinity of another animal -- and a tortoise to boot rather than another bird!
A good measure of how surprising I found these critter spottings is that I actually wasn't as excited to come across as a couple of wild boar at the edge of Aberdeen Country Park late in the hike.  Although that normally would cause quite a stir, the fact of the matter is that I've seen wild boar in that area before.  Indeed, a country park official I got to talking to confirmed that the wild boar have made that section of the country park their home -- as well as assured me that they're quite safe to be around since they're actually become used to the presence of humans near them! :O

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Thoughts on the past, present and future on the way to and at Hiroshima Castle

Puppet Ponyo poses with the rebuilt Hiroshima Castle
View from the top floor of Hiroshima Castle
showing how rejuvenated the city is
After my enjoyable oyster lunch at Kanawa, I decided to head over to Hiroshima Castle; this despite my tending to be an original castle purist who consequently eschewed the chances to visit the reconstructed castles in Kokura, Kanazawa, Okayama and Takamatsu when I spent time in those cities.  One of my reasons for doing so is because, well, there's really not that much in Hiroshima that survived the atom bombing of the city on August 6th, 1945 to check out.  Another is that, as it so happened, I happened to have had lunch very close to the Peace Memorial Park and after doing so, I felt like going to visit an edifice whose rebuilding in 1958 can be linked with the city's revival. 
On the walk over to Hiroshima Castle, I passed by the atom bomb hypocenter whose site is marked with a stone information plaque that one could easily pass by without much of a glance as it's so modest in size and overall appearance.  It's one of those great ironies that the atom bomb was dropped right above a hospital -- which was completely destroyed by the blast but has since been rebuilt and is operating again.  And here's what one learns over and over again in Hiroshima: that terrible devastation occured there but life actually has gone on, and the city has actually risen like the metaphorical phoenix from the ashes.     
In the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, I came across the ruins of the Imperial General Headquarters and obeyed an urge to give it a kick.  Much to its credit, Hiroshima does not hide the fact that one reason why it was chosen to be the atom bomb target was that it was a militarily important site; with the Imperial Japanese Military's headquarters being situated in the city in addition to the country's largest naval base and arsenal being located nearby at Kure.  For my part, when looking at the site where so much violence and deaths were planned, and which came to bring about such terrible retribution (including on so many civilians resident in the city), I must confess that my emotions got the better of me.
Also within the Hiroshima Castle grounds are the ruins of a war office communications bunker where student aides had been stationed along with military men.  Standing by there, one is more inclined to mourn the dead there as victims -- and not just because there's a shrine to their memory there.  Rather, it's that a good number of the people there were civilians and so very young.  Indeed, it was a girl who was just 14 years of age at the time who was the first to emerge from the semi-underground bunker after the atom bomb was dropped, be witness to the destruction all around her and sent out the first radio report of the devastation to the outside world.
After all this, a visit to Hiroshima Castle's main keep can feel rather anti-climactic; and this all the more so when one sees how ordinary looking its concrete interior is.  To be sure, there are some interesting displays and videos about the samurai era of the castle's and the city's history within.  But, in all honesty, they're not all that awesome and can't really make up for the building's lack of historical atmosphere, never mind the kind of aesthetic beauty that the likes of Himeji-jo and Matsumoto-jo have in spades.    

For all this though, I'm glad that I did go to Hiroshima Castle, into its main keep and all the way up to its top floor -- because the views from up there really show how rejuvenated the city is.  This development gladdens my heart for many reasons, including it giving me hope that humans really can overcome great adversity and also learn from past mistakes in a way that can benefit future generations.      

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Delicious oysters and friendly conversation at Hiroshima's Kanawa

An enticing plate of raw Hiroshima oysters on the half shell! :)
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki complete with oyster topping!
There's no two ways about it: the food in Japan plays a very big part in my decisions to visit the country; with my sometimes basing my choices of where to go in the Land of the Rising Sun on what local delicacies are to be had in this place and that, and my actually being motivated to return to Hiroshima so soon after my previous visit to the city as a result of my discovering that oysters tend to be eaten raw in the area only in winter!  
So it was rather ironic that I discovered that the oyster restaurant where I finally got to feast on raw oysters on the half shell in Hiroshima apparently serves up those raw oysters all year round -- unlike many other restaurants in the area -- thanks to their having their own dedicated stock of the succulent bivalves!  Put another way: Unless I misheard what the friendly server told me, I apparently could have enjoyed those delicacies in October (even when it was warmer than usual), not just this winter!

Rather than get upset about that though, I decided to just enjoy my meal and the overall experience at Kanawa, a restaurant that's actually located in a barge anchored on the eastern bank of the Motoyasu-gawa (translation note: gawa means "river" in Japanese).  Owned by a family whose ancestors include a man who started farming oysters in 1867 and founders of oyster shops in Tokyo and Osaka in 1946, this venerable dining establishment is one of those whose class is evident from when you approach its entrance all the way through to your exiting the place.

At Kanawa, the attention to detail can be pretty incredible.  For example, I was informed that the complimentary water served is actually the kind of water that's used in sake brewing (i.e., super pure).  Also, while the English menu lists different ways in which the oysters are served, I was verbally informed by my server after telling her that I wanted to have my oysters raw that they serve two different types of oysters in this manner -- distinguished not by geographical origin (all of Kanawa's oysters are farmed around Nomijima, "where the water is saltier and clean for safety") but by age (with the "regular" oysters served being six months old but 12-month-old oysters also being available for a slightly higher price).
After some thought, I went ahead and ordered a "regular" platter of five six-month-old oysters augmented by two that were twice their age.  When they arrived at my table (along with a couple of slices of lemon and a container of whiskey-flavored oil, which I eschewed since whiskey is one of those alcohols whose taste I'm actually not partial to!), it was actually really noticeable how much larger the older oysters were than the younger ones.  And when I tasted them, I was surprised by the increased delicacy of the flavor that the 12-month-old oysters had in contrast to the noticeably saltier younger bivalves!
In any case, I think it must have been pretty obvious that I was enjoying my meal (which also included a carafe of delicious junmai ginjo sake -- and yes, I think nihonshu goes really well with oysters as well as sushi and sashimi!).  At the very least, my good mood looked to have been evident enough for an elderly Japanese woman seated at a nearby table to decide to get to chatting with me!
Among other things, she confessed that she and her husband find it hard to eat more than four oysters at a single seating since the oysters that she's used to -- those from the Hiroshima area, seeing as the two of them are Hiroshima area residents -- tend to be on the large side.  In turn, I told her that I tend to be one of those people for whom six oysters doesn't seem enough but one dozen (which is what many Americans can easily devour) seems too much; so I tend to think that seven to ten tend to be the ideal for me!
Also revealed over the course of our conversation was that her husband would be celebrating his 75th birthday the next day.  A quick calculation got me realizing that the birthday boy was born in 1943, and it felt so very amazing that the three of us were chatting amiably and were alive in 2018 since, some two and a half years after his birth, a deadly atom bomb was dropped over his city (and, as a matter of fact, its hypocenter was just a few minutes' walk away from the restaurant).  But rather than allude to that, I just wished him a hearty happy birthday in advance, causing a big smile to break out on his face.
Something else that got the couple smiling was my telling them how much I also loved Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and my having had one topped with oysters over at one of the stalls jammed onto three floors over at Okonomi-mura the previous day.  I'm sure they'd have been doubly amused to learn that the last meal I had before I left Hiroshima a couple of days consisted of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki once more; this even though I left the city before noon and thus can honestly say that I've had Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not all in one day -- I'm not that insane, okay?)! :D