Friday, March 16, 2018

Beautiful as well as delicious sushi at Fukuoka's Tenjaku!

Beautifully cut ika (squid) sushi!!
Shiny kohada (gizzard shad) sushi in the foreground
(with portions of negitoro maki in the back)
 Anago (sea water eel) sushi, with so many other toppings 
I wanted to try behind glass in the background!
Considering how much I love to eat sushi, it can come as a surprise to those who know me that I don't eat sushi every day whenever I'm in Japan; and this particularly since, almost needless to say, there's so much delicious sushi to be found in the country where this delicacy was invented and it also being the case that so much of it is a good deal less expensive than you might expect (with my actually never ever having paid more than 10,000 Yen (~HK$739 or US$94) at a sushi-ya in the Land of the Rising Sun; and my regularly paying one third what I would do in Hong Kong for the equivalent quality).
One big reason for this is that there are so many foods I want to try and/or want to eat when I'm in Japan, including regional specialties (such as Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, Osaka kushiage, Obuse's kuri okawa and Funabashi's sauce ramen!) that are hard to find in other parts of the country, let alone beyond Japan's shores.  Still, it's true enough that I frequently end up going to a sushi-ya for the final meal of each of my Japan trips!     

On this most recent Japan trip, the restaurant in question was a sushi-ya located in Kawabata-dori, Fukuoka's oldest shopping arcade.  When looking at Tenjaku's understatedly shop front, I got a really good feeling about the place and I also thought that its advertised lunch set was a pretty reasonable 4,320 Yen (~HK$319 or US$40) since it consisted of an appetizer, bowl of chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), sides of pickles, miso soup and dessert (which turned out to be a super large and sweet seasonal Hakata Amaou strawberry) along with seven kinds of nigiri sushi and one order of maki sushi.  
And so it proved, with Tenjaku's chef/owner proceeding to serve up some of the best sushi I've ever had in my life (and most definitely the most worth it in terms of quality at its price point)!   And yes, I know that is indeed quite the claim but just look at the photos at the top of this blog post!  Put another way: Look how big that tiger prawn and consider that the portion of rice on which it was placed on top is a regular sized portion for nigiri sushi; check out how masterfully cut the slice of squid I was served was; and just marvel at how beautifully shiny was that delicious slice of gizzard shad that I had at the restaurant!
Speaking of beautiful: I must admit to being one of those people who often makes happy noises and will let Japanese chefs know how I oishii I find the food they have prepared.  But I don't think I ever told a chef how beautiful I thought the food he put in front of me as many times as I told Tenjaku's chef/owner over the course of that one meal I had at his restaurant!
And on the subject of the chef: one big contributing factor to my thorough enjoyment of my lunch at his sushi-ya was my interactions with him, which included him obviously wanting to see and hear my reactions to the sushi he served up, and appearing to derive quite a bit of pleasure from witnessing how happy his creations made me!  In addition, thanks to a friendly customer able to speak English as well as her native Japanese (who, much to my surprise, was the only other customer there in the restaurant the entire time that I was there), we got to chat quite a bit -- and I also got to add two more slices of nigiri sushi to my overall order.
On occasions like this, I wish I had a greater stomach capacity than I in fact do.  If so, I'd have happily ordered even more sushi to eat at Tenjaku!  As it was, I reluctantly stopped myself from asking to try the akagai (ark shell clam), awabi (abalone) and other hikarimono (shiny blue/silver-skinned fish) I saw in the glass cases on the sushi counter besides the kohada and sayori (Japanese halfbeak) I couldn't resist getting.  And while I know there are people who'd be horrified at the thought, the main reason why I didn't try kujira (whale) sushi at Tenjaku was because I felt too full to eat anything as fatty looking as it by the time I spotted it in the glass case and asked the chef what that was!
For those wondering what else I ate: I definitely remember eating a decadent piece of chu toro (medium fatty tuna) nigiri sushi and also delicious pieces of ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin) gunkan makiAnd while I cannot recall which were the two other types of nigiri sushi I was served, I think I can state with some confidence that they were pretty tasty affairs too! ;b  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Machiya and museum in Hakata, Fukuoka

A Fukuoka craftsman fashioning figures out of wood
 A craftswoman at work on a Hakata Weaving machine
The first time I ventured into a machiya was in Kyoto a few years ago.  Having seen many of these traditional wooden townhouses when moving around in the city (be it by bus or on foot), I was happy to discover that a restaurant serving up delicious kushiyaki could be found in one of them and consequently was open to the public if they went and had a meal there.
In the years since, I've come across machiya in a number of other Japanese cities and towns.  While many remain private residences, others of these buildings -- which, be they in Kyoto, Nara or Fukuoka, follow a long and narrow design that made them far more spacious than they look from the front -- have been converted into museums that give one a fairly good idea of how they were traditionally furnished back when they were occupied by merchant families, many of whom customarily set aside areas in the houses to store and sell some of their goods as well as keep other rooms as their living quarters.
In Fukuoka, specifically the section of the city built by merchants, there's the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, part of which is housed in a machiya but actually encompasses three buildings.  More ambitious in scope than, say, the Ohashi House in Kurashiki or Nara's Nigiwai-no-Ie and Koshi-no-ie, it has exhibits on Hakata's history and area festivals (including an informative video on the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri hosted by the Kushida Jinja located just a stone's throw away from the museum) as well as the traditional merchants townhouses themselves.
In addition, one can observe traditional craftspeople at work inside the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.  The afternoon that I visited, an elderly man was fashioning a group of figures out of wood on an upper floor of the main museum building while a younger artisan was operating a weaving machine that was producing Hakata-ori (thick, tightly woven silk cloth specific to this part of Japan) in one of the rooms in the restored machiya section of the museum.
I must admit to generally having mixed feelings with regards to seeing people effectively put on display in a museum.  But my discomfort at encountering this at this Fukouka museum was eased quite a bit by both of the craftspeople taking it upon themselves to engage me in conversation when I approached their area.  
Incidentally, our conversation utilized a mix of English and Japanese.  And while there is no way I can claim to be fluent in Japanese, I must say that I'm actually amazed how many Japanese words and phrases I've managed to pick up over the years -- though it probably won't come as a surprise to those who know me that a good bulk of the Japanese vocabulary I possess pertains to food and drink! ;b    

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Colorful sights abound at Fukuoka's Kushida Jinja (Photo-essay)

There are certain cities and towns in Japan, notably Kyoto and Nara but also such as Onomichi and Tomonoura, where visits to Buddhist temples and/or Shinto shrines feel like a must do for even the non-religiously inclined.  Although I wouldn't consider Fukuoka to be one of them, it happens to be the case that I've spent time at the most important shrine in Kyushu's largest city -- and on more than one occasion too! 

It may not be the biggest Shinto shrine I've been to but Kushida Jinja is one of those places where it feels like there are a lot of interesting things to see.  On my first visit some twelve years ago, I found the colorful as well as very large portable wooden floats carried around during the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri which the shrine plays host to every July -- a couple of which are on display at Kushida Jinja -- to be particularly awesome.  But while they continued to fascinate me on my second visit, I found a number of other colorful sights catching my eye too...       

This otabuku mask installed at one of the shrine's entrances ahead
of Setsubun is what got me to visit Kushida Jinja once more!
An even bigger otabuku mask at the shrine's main entrance
that, at 5.3 meters high and 5 meters wide, is Japan's largest! :O
Pass through the giant mask erected for Setsubun to 
get good luck and, also, to enter into the shrine grounds
As luck would have it, I witnessed a priest performing what 
looked to be a ritual blessing on my visit to the shrine
Puppet Ponyo poses with ema that have different depictions on them :)
Barrels of donated sake and other shrine accoutrements, including a 
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri float, on display for all to see
I think it'd be remiss of me to not include a close-up photo of 
one of the festival floats installed in the grounds of the shrine... ;b

The decorations on the float are as beautifully 
elaborate as the float itself is big!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Polling Day urgings

Hong Kong's best!

The Hong Kong Legislative Council by-election to fill four seats left vacant by the ouster of their pro-democracy incumbents involved in "oath row" is taking place today.  A few hours after polling began, I went to my local polling station to cast my vote.  With it being just one minute's walk away from my apartment and the polling station being far from crowded, I was there, in, out and back home within minutes.  

For all the ease of casting one's ballot though, the early signs are that voting numbers are down this time around.  This is less because Hong Kongers don't care about politics per se but, rather, because many people think any elections in Hong Kong are now a farce when the politicians they vote for can be ousted from office because they did something as innocuous as quote Gandhi when taking his oath like Nathan Law did and a 21-year-old political campaigner gets banned from seeking office.  

While I can understand their frustrations, I honestly think such folks are playing into the hands of, and strengthening, the very groups they actually oppose and loathe.  Remember that during the Umbrella Movement, protesters and supporters were urged to register to vote, if they hadn't already done so.  And the likes of Nathan Law and Agnes Chow still obviously believe that voting matters since they've been out on the campaign trail for the likes of Au Nok Hin (who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Agnes Chow's disqualification).

The power of the vote may not seem like much these days but, as far as I'm concerned, it still represents a vote for Hong Kong and a slap in a face of those who think that Chinese people are better off controlled rather than free.  So please, those of you who are eligible to vote and actually care about Hong Kong, go and exercise your civic rights and fulfill your civic responsibilities before the polling stations close at 10.30 tonight!

Friday, March 9, 2018

An underwhelming Fukuoka yatai experience

 Scene inside a Fukuoka yatai

More than a decade ago now, my mother and I went on vacation to Taipei.  Among the attractions we were most looking forward to checking out was at least one of its famous night markets.  But our visit to the one at Shilin turned out to be on the underwhelming side.  

Upon wondering why it was so hyped, my mother was moved to suggest that those visitors who make such a big deal of it do so because they have never been to Penang, where there are lots of places to eat street food -- and a great variety of food to eat -- at night.  The more I think about it, the more I think she may have been right.  And I got to thinking again that growing up in Penang has spoilt me as far as this kind of thing is concerned when I went and checked out the similarly famous yatai scene one evening in Fukuoka and found the experience rather disappointing.

It may not have helped that the night I went out to get a meal at a yatai was a Sunday; the one day of the week that many -- though by no means all -- of them are closed.  So there may have been less variety as well as fewer options numerical available.  In any event, I figured that I might as well as go for it and selected a food stall that looked popular, yet didn't have too long a line of people waiting to get a seat at it, which turned out to have oden (fish cake stew), yakitori (chicken skewers), ramen and gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings) on its menu (which was written in Japanese and Korean but not English!).

To be fair, the bowl of oden that I had was pretty tasty.  And I liked that it had a good assortment of items; with mushroom, offal and shirataki in the mix along with the "classic" daikon and boiled egg.  But the gyoza that I followed that comforting winter dish with was disappointing -- in that I didn't only think that it was over-cooked but also wasn't handmade.    

Worst of all was how expensive it all (together with the one bottle of beer that I also ordered) proved to be.  Given the spartan conditions of the yatai as well as the by no means high quality of the food and drink on offer, I most definitely wasn't expecting it to be more expensive than a meal of equivalent size in an izakaya with more room, comfortable chairs (as opposed to rickety stools) and indoor heating!

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I think I had been ripped off, my Fukuoka yatai experience didn't feel as much of a bargain as well as pleasant as I had hoped that it would be.  Feeling unsatisfied and unwilling to return to my hotel just yet, I went and found a dining establishment nearby where I could eat in heated, indoor comfort -- and which turned out to have better food and drink as well.  Put another way: the Fukuoka yatai experience seems over-rated and since it's so easy to eat (and drink) better elsewhere in the city, I think that's what I do from now on whenever I'm there! 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Super delicious Yamato Yasai dishes at Naramachi's Vegetable Restaurant Hiyori!

A dish that's far more delicious than it looks!
A dish that tastes nothing like it looks!!
A dessert that may not look like much but tasted heavenly!!!
A couple of weeks ago, I had a dinner at a restaurant here in Hong Kong where many of the dishes served looked totally Instagram worthy but didn't actually taste all that special.  In contrast, when I look back at the photos I took of the dishes served at a super delicious lunch that I had in Naramachi, I get to thinking that the images make the food look so much less palatable than it all really was.  
Vegetable Restaurant Hiyori (aka Shunsai Hiyori) serves up yasai-biyori lunch sets: set meals featuring seven dishes of Yamato Yasai, the organic vegetables grown in -- and associated with -- the area.  But while Nara has a long association with vegetarian cuisine, the restaurant actually is not strictly vegetarian and diners have the option of supplementing their orders of Yamato Yasai with such as Yamatogyu (Nara's local beef), local chicken or local fish if they so wish.

With my appetite for wagyu having been whetted (rather than satiated) by my taste of Omi beef in Hikone, I made sure that my yasai-biyori set lunch would come with some Yamatogyu.  In due course, three thick slices of decadent, fat-specked beef came to my table and, almost needless to say, I found them very delicious indeed.

At the same time though, I honestly will say that there were vegetarian dishes at Vegetable Restaurant Hiyori that I actually enjoyed more than those tasty slices of grilled wagyu.  And so good were three of the vegetable dishes that I was served that I actually found myself making the kind of appreciative noises that I normally only do when eating extremely good Japanese beef or truly sublime sushi!  
The first of this trio was a mountain yam dish that came across like ideal comfort food for a very cold day (which it what the day was), and whose texture was something in between mashed potato and minced meat rather than mushy and sticky the way that previous mountain yam concoctions I've eaten have been.  The second looked like a creme brulee, complete with caramelized crust, but turned out to be an amazingly rich and delicious tofu and cabbage gratin.  
And last, but certainly not least, was a dessert that struck me as a super elevated version of the muar chee (peanut mochi (glutinous rice balls)) that's available as a street snack in Penang.  Bursting with flavor, it was one of those dishes whose every mouthful I savored so much that I actually forced myself to eat it more slowly than usual so that I would be able to enjoy it all the more! :)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The most charming part of Nara?

 Naramachi street scene

A quiet corner of Naramachi's Nigiwai-no-Ie

Puppet Ponyo making herself at home in 
the living room of Naramachi's Koshi-no-ie :)

After attending the Wakusa Yamayaki and spending the night in Nara, I spent the next morning doing something else few visitors to the ancient city, especially those there on a day trip, do: explore the old merchant district of Naramachi.  In so doing, I feel like I finally saw Nara's charm.  

In truth, before that, I was tempted to write the ancient Japanese capital off as yet another city spoilt by having become way too much on the beaten tourist path; with places such as Todaiji's Daibutsuden (but, thankfully, not other parts of that UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple) feeling more like a tourist attraction than a place with real cultural, never mind spiritual, significance still for the local populace.  So I'm really glad to have spent time in a much quieter and peaceful part of the city which  felt, at times, like a secret space as well as, as the blogger behind Paul's Travel Pics labelled it, the insider's Nara

Amazingly, Naramachi is just minutes away from the very touristy main drag of Nara that is Sanjo-dori but what a different world it feels!  One reason is that its streets, never mind side streets and lanes, are as narrow as Sanjo-dori is wide.  Another is that there really is not much foot traffic along with vehicles on those streets.  In addition, many of the buildings in the area are residential in nature and have remained private residences over the years. 

At the same time though, Naramachi isn't known as Nara's old merchant district for nothing.  While walking about the area, I saw a number of shops: many operated by craftspeople (including an elderly artist whose specialty looks to involve painting cute cats, monks and tanuki on pieces of wood); others of which hawked more mundane items like pharmaceutical items and groceries.  There also are a few museums (including one of calligraphy and another dedicated to toys) and historic houses that are open to the public scattered about the area.      

After its beautifully manicured garden caught my eye, I went in and checked out the Nigiwai-no-Ie, a traditional tradesmen's house built during the Taisho period of Japanese history.  From it and Koshi-no-Ie, a constructed replica of a traditional Naramachi machiya (townhouses that were characteristically long and narrow), I was able to get a fairly good idea of the kind of buildings that historically existed in the area -- and, on this cold winter's day, got a very good sense of how cold it can be in these aesthetically pleasing but also uninsulated structures!

Over the course of my wanderings, I also came across a subtemple in the area where the ruins of a pagoda of Gangoji are located and Goryo Jinja, a Shinto shrine nearby that I later learnt is over 1,200 years old.  Unlike the likes of Todaiji located in what I have come to think of as the tourist part of the city, both these religious sites look to have just a few visitors each day and came across as more sacred as a result.  

All in all, it sometimes seemed as though about the only thing that this part of Nara had with the more well known and trodden sections of the city is the deer adoration (or is it fixation?) of its residents.  For in Naramachi, I came across manholes with images of deer on them, a room divider with a large painting of a deer on one side of it, and also a statue of a deer next to that of a female flautist on the side of a road!  And while I didn't spot any actual live deer roaming about while I was in the area, I wouldn't be all that surprised if some of those creatures did occasionally take it upon themselves to visit Naramachi since it really isn't that far away from Nara Park after all!  

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nara after dark

Night view of Kofukuji's five-storey pagoda

A lesser building in Nara Park that I walked by on my way 
to see a mountain being set on fire!
Until my Japan trip this past January, I had never spent the night in Nara -- although I've visited the city twice before (including with my mother last October).  It's not like that's not a lot to see there, what with there being a number of historical monuments there that are UNESCO World Heritage-listed scattered across seven sites in what was one of Japan's ancient capitals.  But what with it being less than an hour train's journey away from both Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is usually visited on a day trip from some place else.
Since I was attending an evening event this time around in the city, however, I decided to stay the night.  And because I was doing so, I didn't have a train to catch that night and thus felt more able to linger at places that caught my eye on the way back from witnessing the ritual burning of Mount Wakakusa (and the fireworks display that preceded the setting afire of the mountain).  
If anything, my main reasons for end my viewing of the pretty unique spectacle of a mountain ritually set aflame were that: firstly, I was feeling pretty cold; and secondly, I was getting rather hungry.  And it seemed that much of the crowd were of the same bent because, as I followed those who had decided to take their leave earlier than me away from Mount Wakakusa, I found that I was being led to what turned out to be a row of yatai (food stalls) temporarily set up on the sides of the path leading to Todaiji's Daibutsuden!     

Although I was tempted by some of the food on offer (including the outdoor festival favorite that is yakisoba), I decided to hang on for less carb heavy food in an indoor dining establishment closer to my hotel.  I also realized that I wasn't really ravenous as I found myself being distracted every so often by the sight of a building made all the more beautiful by it being lit up -- or having spotlights illuminating it, as was the case with Kofukuji's five-storey pagoda.
I have to admit it: on my previous visits to Nara, I hadn't given that particular structure much of a glance.  In part, it's because I was so intent on getting to Todaiji, including the last time around.  It's probably also because I've seen a number of other pagodas on my various Japan trips (including while biking on the Kibi Plain, at Horyuji, and in Yokohama, Kyoto, Miyajima and Onomichi).  But in the dark, I finally was compelled to take a good, admiring look at what's, in fact, the second tallest pagoda in the country, with a total height of 50.1 meters! :)