Phuket, Day 15

We took the next morning kind of slow–we’re pros, after all, and it was New Year’s Eve. Chao took it easy, while Mike hit the road for a little exercise and a little “sightseeing.” The neighborhood surrounding our condo was absolutely perfect–quaint, quiet, untouched by chaos.

Once Mike had covered a good deal of ground, he grabbed a seat at a restaurant by the beach for a quick bite to eat, unaware that it was home to the best seafood pineapple fried rice the world has ever seen. Served up in a fresh pineapple, the seafood tasted like it was plucked from the ocean moments before. And the view? Well, the view helped a bit.

Pineapple-Fried-Rice

Monkey-at-the-Beach-in-Phuket

Phuket, Day 14

By the time we got to Phuket, we were exhausted… the weather was a bit overcast… but none of that mattered. We were finally in a place where we’d be able to lie low, in warm weather–no packing for five whole days.

It’s not that we didn’t love all of our tours and pre-planned visits and behind-the-scenes walk-throughs, but when you hit all of those things on a rigorous schedule like ours? We needed a break.

When we arrived we headed straight to our condo on Kamala Beach, located just outside the main area of Patong Beach. Back when we were planning the trip (which seems like it was 10 years ago, by the way), we chose Kamala Beach specifically so we’d be a little removed from the craziness of Patong. Arriving at the condo, we couldn’t have been more pleased with our decision. [Insert giant pat on back here.]

Our condo was absolutely stunning. Three bedrooms (just in case we wanted to switch it up a little?); a big, beautiful kitchen and dining room; and, the best part, a massive patio overlooking the ocean. Under most circumstances, we would have dropped our luggage and hit the town. But you just can’t leave a spot like that immediately. You need to savor it. You need to relish it. No, seriously, you personally:

Condo-View-Phuket
Phuket-View-1 Phuket-View-2 Phuket-View-4 Phuket-View-5

Corona-Ad

After a bit of relaxing, we headed out for the night in Patong, met up with some friends, and celebrated our first evening in Thailand.

Hong Kong, Day 13

Repulse-Bay-Beach

Our evening at the Temple Street Night Market included maybe a few too many beers… so our fourth day in Hong Kong got off to a slow start. Which then ended up being a slow start to a perfectly slow, relaxing day. All of this eating and walking and writing and drinking and eating and eating… it can get exhausting. You all think it’s just fun and games over here. Okay, it kind of is.

It would be a shame to stay in one of the nicest hotels in the world and not take advantage of some of its amenities, and that’s exactly what we did. Chao went for a swim in their beautiful indoor pool while Mike took on a little workout/steam action, before sinking back down on the outdoor terrace to enjoy the weather–by far the best we’ve had on our trip so far. Right around 70 degrees and not a cloud in sight. We weren’t about to waste our newly zen-ified selves (or the glorious weather) on more crowd surfing, so we hopped on a bus for Repulse Bay and Stanley Market.

We stopped at Repulse Bay Beach first and took a few pictures (that, surprisingly, don’t really do it justice):

Repulse-Bay Continue reading Hong Kong, Day 13

Hong Kong, Day 12

Hong-Kong-Island

We mentioned in our introductory post, Our Adventure Begins, that a friend of our had connected us with a tour company for our time in Hong Kong. Our third day in Hong Kong would be dedicated to some good old fashioned tourism, with the help of Eastern Journeys. We met up with our tour guide and started our day off with a ferry to Hong Kong Island; the vantage point and the near-perfect weather made for some more postcard-worthy photos:

Morning-Ferry
Our tour of Hong Kong Island began in Sheung Wan, located in the north-west of the island and home to a thriving market. From there we made our way to Hong Kong’s dried provisions markets. The plethora of weird-yet-wonderful, always-dried products and ingredients there is truly astounding.

Dried-Food-Market

Once we’d had our fill of the dried provisions market, we hopped on a double decker bus to cover some more ground and see Hong Kong Island from a bit of an elevated perspective. Also, we’ve only got a few days here, so a little bus action means more sites than our feet would have been able to handle.

Repulse-Bay

The highlight of the bus ride was definitely our view of Repulse Bay (above); if you’re well off and you live in Hong Kong, you might just call Repulse Bay home. Real estate prices here are only matched in one of our next stops: The Peak. So, being the educated shoppers that we are, we decided to hold off on buying a vacation spot in Repulse Bay until we saw The Peak. Just being savvy. Otherwise we’d totally be two specks on that beach.

We arrived in Stanley, which seems to be on an entirely different schedule than the rest of Hong Kong. Everything’s a bit more casual and relaxed, making for a truly pleasant neighborhood to walk around in. The spot was once a fishing port, and is now home to the Stanley Market and a variety of shoreline pubs and cafes. We settled upon one such restaurant for a bit of lunch, digging into curry fish cakes and several different noodle dishes.

Stanley-Market

We have to say, one of the biggest benefits of using a tour company: you never stop. We fit a hell of a lot into one day, covered a lot of territory, and rode more buses than we normally would in a month. Our next bus was headed to Aberdeen, located on the south shore of Hong Kong Island. For a long time it was known as the floating town; today, there’s still the Floating Jumbo Restaurant beckoning to tourists (behind Mike in the photo below), surrounded by a thriving fishing harbor.

The only way to see a harbor, really, is by boat. So we took a little sampan tour: sampans are generally flat-bottomed, smaller wooden boats that have become one of Hong Kong’s signature forms of transportation (well, all over Asia, really). From our sampan we could see into the harbor’s working fishing junks, the real lifeblood of the area and a concept/design with some serious staying power–they originally developed around the Han Dynasty, in 206 B.C.

Aberdeen

After that, we were off to The Peak. At 552 meters, it’s the highest vantage point on Hong Kong Island and an understanably popular tourist spot. Usually we try to avoid the “typical tourist spots,” but we’d have been fools to miss this one. Thankfully, our clear weather continued and were able to take in the area’s reputedly stunning views of Hong Kong. We walked around a bit, hit some of the area’s shops, then got back on our merry way.

The-Peak

Our next stop was Causeway Bay, located on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island. It’s another one of the city’s main shopping/market areas, easily rivaling Mongkok as far as crowding goes. (We hit Mongkok yesterday, and by “hit,” we mean “stumbled through the mosh pit-style streets trying not to get trampled.”) A solid lineup of street food vendors create a refreshing contrast to the variety of department stores and designer boutiques–it’s pretty obvious where our priorities lie…

Causeway-Bay-MarketCauseway Bay Market

At this point, we’ve seen a solid amount of Hong Kong Island, several different markets, taken a ride on a sampan and 432 buses, and enjoyed our fair share of the local cuisine. We were craving just a few minutes in the sweet refuge of the Peninsula, so we headed back to lighten our load and process everything for a minute or two. (This is what it looked like when we arrived back at the hotel the night–beautiful, right?)

Peninsula-Hotel

…but we weren’t about to call it a night. Our final stop of the day: the Temple Street Night Market for a little nighttime shopping, dinner, and drinks. Popular with tourists and locals alike, the market’s open from 4:00 PM until midnight each day and is consistently buzzing with activity.

Night-Market

Hong Kong, Day 11

First-wake-up-in-Hong-Kong

Our First Morning in Hong Kong

We’ve been on the other side of the world for a little while now, and if nothing else, our navigational skills have greatly improved. On the schedule for our first full day in Hong Kong: absolutely nothing. The day was devoted to exploring on our own, for the first time in a while. We studied up, put on our Hong Kong Fixer hats (okay, not really)… then we stopped by the concierge desk for some final reassurance that we wouldn’t be lost forever.

Lin Heung Lau

Our first goal: get some dim sum. We had two options, both top notch, both known for their dim sum. One was frequented by the locals, one a favorite haunt of locals. You can guess which one we chose (locals, please): Lin Heung Lau. We found the place and went straight upstairs to the insanity that was the dining room. First-come, first-served communal tables from wall to wall mean it’s every man for himself–and this was just the beginning.

We spotted two open seats in the distance, bounded over a few people to grab them, and sat down, quite satisfied with ourselves. We sat there for a little while, contemplating the dirty dishes of the patrons who’d just gotten up, when someone brought over a cup of water. Something refreshing to drink, perhaps? Maybe wash our hands? Nope. The water was to wash the dishes.

Lin-Heung-Lau

We hid our initial reactions of disgust and confusion and cleaned the dishes off… no big deal. So, now we’ve got clean dishes, a place to sit, how about some food? We quickly realized that the every-man-for-himself model was applicable to food as well. We watched as a few dim sum carts were pushed out of the kitchen, only to be mobbed and cleared within a few moments.

At one point, we even managed to grab a dumpling, but were pushed, spilled on, and shoved back into submission pretty quickly. Now, so far, we’d like to think we’ve been pretty good sports. But we lose our patience when it comes to food. Frustrated and still a little disgusted, we paid up and shipped out, excited to go to a restaurant that actually wanted us to eat.

Luk Yu Tea House

Knowing that the second spot, Luk Yu Tea House, was only a few blocks away, we decided to put aside our locals-only notions and give it a shot. This one was definitely a bit more upscale, but they were more than willing to bring us plates of dumplings, BBQ spare ribs, and so on–and when you’re hungry, that’s really all that matters.

Shark-Fin-Soup-at-Luk-Yu-Tea-House

That being said, it was all pretty good, but didn’t by any means knock our socks off. We did decide to splurge on their shark fin soup, one of the most talked about dishes in Hong Kong and–let’s face it–it just sounds cool.

Mike and Chao Tour Hong Kong

Hong-Kong-Map

Having finally gotten through lunch, we made our way outside into the significantly nicer weather (in comparison to Japan) to explore some neighborhoods:

A. SOHO
B. CENTRAL MARKET
C. KOWLOON PARK*
D. MONGKOK

*Kowloon Park is a large public park we walked through this remarkably large park on our way back to the Peninsula.

Soho

By far, Soho was Mike’s favorite neighborhood of Hong Kong. We didn’t really realize it until we’d seen more of the city, but this neighborhood was by far cleanest and was probably one of the most international areas that we’d seen. It was truly an amalgam of all walks of life, all cultures and cuisines and people.

photo-of-SOHO-area

Central Market

Widely considered to be the first market in Hong Kong, Central Market is a multilevel paradise filled with a multitude of products. For us, it was a dry food heaven, like the infantry of shark fins seen below on the right.

Central-Market

Mongkok

Mongkok was, without a doubt, the most crowded area of Hong Kong… maybe the world even. “Chaos” doesn’t even begin to touch upon it. The area is famous for its street food and thriving outdoor marketplace. The street food was incredible, which we think more than translates in the photos below:

Mongkok-Street-Food

No matter how delicious the chive cakes were, however, the truly remarkable talent lies in the salespeople. There’s nothing quite like a street-side salesman pushing knockoff belts and other imitation items. They really just do not take ‘No’ for an answer. That being said, we did get some pretty good deals, so…

Mongkok-Market

Post-shoe shopping, we were off to the local fish market. We’re all for fresh fish, but standing in the middle of the pulsating fish market, you start to question just how fresh the fish needs to be. It was like an edible aquarium. And then there is the unavoidable smell.

Walking through the aisles takes some caution: one false move and you might have a squid attached to your arm, or some other unnamed creature sliding down your leg. After our octopus experience, however, it takes a lot to put us off fish.

the-fish-market-where-everything-was-moving

After a day of dodging people, fighting for food, and covering a lot of ground in Hong Kong, we were happy to make it back to the hotel in one piece, narrowly avoided crashing in the lobby, and hit the hay up in our luxurious room.

Hong Kong, Day 10

mike-and-chao-in-the-back-off-the-rolls-royce

Pardon our language, but this was a pretty badass way to get picked up from the airport.

To all of you who have slept in recently: we’re insanely jealous. Our sake-filled night was followed by a 5:30 AM wakeup call, paired nicely with a 6:30 AM bus to the airport, during which we may or may not have passed out/drooled on fellow passengers.

Kansai-International-Airport

Kansai International Airport

So, then we get to Kansai International Airport: You know those people you see in the airport scrambling to unpack and repack suitcases, then reweighing them, then smiling at everyone in line as they do it again? Oh yeah, that was us. A few minutes of panicky repacking and a heavy dose of sweet-talking later, we had finally check our bags and were on our way to the gate. Win.

At that point, we were hoping to take it easy. Unfortunately, our flight to Beijing was about thirty minutes delayed, leaving us with about 20 minutes to book it from that flight to our Hong Kong flight. Did we mention another round of customs and security, or the fact that the Beijing airport is HUGE and our gate was at the other end? Yep. And yet, another win. We got there just as were closing the gate, practically jumping from the jet bridge onto the plane (okay, not really, but this is our story).

Beijing-Airport

Beijing Capital International Airport

We had planned on recharging during that flight as well, but our brisk airport workout meant a whole new surge of energy. Combine that with having a whole row to ourselves, and you have the classic airplane office:

office-set-up-on-the-air-plane

A few hours of typing and blogging and photo organizing later, we landed in Hong Kong, feeling quite productive and pumped to see the city. As soon as we got off the plane, we were greeted by someone from the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, who led us to baggage claim, then onto our ride: a Rolls-Royce Phantom with the extended wheelbase. Our morning bus had nothing on this.

getting-picked-up-in-style-at-the-airport-by-the-Peninsula

We arrived at the hotel–truly spectacular–showered up and headed out for our first night in Hong Kong. We were more than ready for a little Christmas dinner, and perhaps a little drinking to relax our nerves. There’s been a lot of buzz about Lily and Bloom, a new-ish restaurant/bar that was, on the whole, pretty hopping and a had a pretty cool ambience.

We didn’t grab any photos of the food at Lily and Bloom, in part because we were, well, pretty tired and part because the food wasn’t really much to write home about (literally). This was definitely one of those restaurants that focused on the style/scene over the cuisine. Up ’til now we’ve been really lucky with our substance-over-style restaurants, so we were okay with a night off.

Lily-and-Bloom

After dinner we headed over to the Kee Club for drinks, then mustered up the strength to check out Lan Kwai Fong, the party and bar scene in Hong Kong. It’s really a small square composed of two L-shaped streets, each filled with it’s own array of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. It’s like a perpetual party, lasting late into the night and filling up not only the establishments, but the street itself (as seen in the photo below). We found a good bar, nestled in, made some friends (see below), and the rest is a mystery.

Lan-Kwai-Fong1

Osaka, Day 9

Good morning, Hangover! We haven’t seen you in a while. Well, a day or so. Today, everyone, is our final day in Japan. Hard to believe, but we’ve covered a lot of ground, we drank a lot of sake, we ate a hell of a lot of food…

The day was supposed to begin with an early morning train and an even earlier wakeup call. It’s been another major theme of the trip: the hungover, early morning struggle to press on in our travels. Unfortunately, on this morning, Mike was not up to that challenge. So, while Mike stayed back for some rest (and, ahem, blogging), Chao caught his train.

suisin-president

Suisin Knives

Chao caught the train because this was the kind of trip that, as a chef, he’d never be able to miss: a tour of the Suisin Knives Factory. Chao met the owner of Suisin, Junro Aoki, at the Worlds of Flavor Conference in Napa (again, really glad we hit that up). When he heard we’d be in Osaka, he invited us to tour the factory.

Mr. Aoki picked Chao up at the station and took him to the factory, where Chao was blown away by this behind-the-scenes look at some of his most treasured tools. The precision, the craftsmanship, the gleam of the finished product–just one, shiny, blade-filled dream.

Touring Osaka

When Chao arrived back at the hotel, Mike was pretty much just as he’d left him. We cleaned ourselves up and headed out for a final stroll around Osaka. We hit some of the areas we’d missed the day before, but it wasn’t very long before we started to feel the familiar pangs of hunger.

our-seafood-and-noodle-okonomiyaki-at-the-random-spot-we-found-copy

Thankfully, we walked smack-dab into one of the best okonomiyaki places we’d seen in Japan. We ordered the seafood special, which was whipped up right in front of us, served with udon noodles, and topped with sweet sauce and Japanese mayo. Absolute perfection. We cleaned everything up (including a few Yebisu beers) in record time, further establishing ourselves as charter members of the Clean Plate Club.

Daimon Sake Brewery

Yasutaka-DaimonNext up: Daimon Sake Brewery. The only problem: we were going to the brewery by train… with three stops… Forty minutes later we were there–error-free and in one piece. We met with Yasutaka Daimon, Daimon Brewery’s 9th generation owner and toji (the master brewer at a sake brewery).

Around-Daimon-Brewery

Technical-Side-of-Daimon-Brewery

Yasutaka took us on a tour of Daimon, a beautiful, historical brewery that’s been producing some of the world’s best sake since 1826. After that, he led us to the tasting bar where we sampled one of each, followed by lunch upstairs in the brewery’s restaurant, Mukune Tei. The restaurant has a beautifully rustic ambience, perfectly complemented by the unbelievable food, prepared by none other than Yasutaka’s wife.

When we stepped into the restaurant, there was a reserved table waiting for us. Yasutaka brought us a tray and told us, “Please enjoy.” On that tray was a lineup of every bottle of sake they produce. There’s nothing like a little royal treatment to finish up this leg of our journey.

Dinner-at-Daimon

We were there until pretty late, chatting about sake, the food, Japan in general, reveling in the incredible hospitality of Yasutaka Daimon and the rest of the lovely folks at the Daimon family brewery. Stuffed, mildly intoxicated, and in no state to navigate Osaka’s trains, we cabbed it home to get an “early” night (midnight’s early, right?) for our flight to Hong Kong in the morning.

Osaka, Day 8

Welcome-to-Osaka

We’re back on the road, folks. Today we head to Osaka, the street food capital of Japan. Before we say farewell to Kyoto, however, we were told that we had to make a stop at one of Kyoto’s must-see sites: Nijo Castle. We agreed that a little history might be the perfect precursor to a whole lot of eating.

Nijo

Originally built in 1603, the castle was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. Today it’s one of the best examples of architecture/design from the era, with a history to match: it was completed in 1626, returned to the Emperor in 1876, renamed the “Nijo Detached Palace” in 1884, before finally being donated to the City of Kyoto in 1939. In 1994 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kuromon Market

picture-of-the-market

History aside, we’re starting to get a little tired of packing and unpacking, but if that’s our biggest complaint so far then our trip is going really, really well… Next, we made our way over to the train station and hopped a ride to Osaka. Staying true to our classically one-track minds, we headed straight to Kuromon Market and the surrounding Namba area, famous for its street food, blowfish, and takoyaki (which, you might remember, we first tried in Shibuya). The area’s known as a dealers’ town, which makes for–hallelujah–awesome prices. The quality was on par with Tokyo, but around 40% cheaper.

Kuromon-Market

The best part of our time at the market, however, was our fresh, blowfish sashimi. Chao selected it, our helpful chef sliced it up and prepped it, and we inhaled it, seasoned with just a bit of soy sauce and a good deal of zeal on our part.

Blowfish

Takochaya

We made our way back to the hotel for a quick shower, changed, and went to check out Takochaya, a recommendation from a friend. For a spot “known for its octopus” (one of Osaka’s signature dishes), it was relatively unknown to the concierge and cab driver. Thankfully, we had the Japanese translation and a phone number handy, so the driver was able to work it out.

Okay, so, by this point, we’re running a bit late, but we’re happy the place is fairly unknown. In fact, it’s so unknown, there’s no signage. The driver directed us to the fairly discreet entrance, up to the sixth floor, and that’s when we arrived at one of the greatest surprises of the trip.

Outside-Takochaya

It took about two seconds for us to realize that we’d reached a new level–incredibly quaint, remarkably high quality, with a giant tank of baby octopus greeting us as we found our table. Doesn’t get much fresher than that. This next part – not for the faint of heart. Freshness takes on a whole new meaning when your dinner is clinging to your chopsticks. Once we finally managed to pick up the octopus, it was… delicious. Were we nervous, watching it dance a bit on our dishes? Yes, as most human beings would be. But after that first bite/kill, we were all about it.

Takochaya

Chef-on-PhoneWe were also told to ask for Philip Harper sake, a British-born sake brewer in Japan and the only immigrant to have earned the title of toji or master sake brewer. He’s also a close friend of John Gauntner and the Master Brewer at Kinoshita Brewery, home of Tamagawa Sake. The chef knew exactly who we were talking about and within a few moments handed us his cell phone: Philip was on the phone. I mean, you really can’t plan that kind of thing.

Philip told us a little bit about the sake list at Takochaya (which just so happens to be one of the best around), made some recommendations, then spoke with the chef for a few moments.

Shukoujin

Super-Secret-Tour-Guide

While debating between hitting the hay and hitting the town, the chef told us to wait a moment. Philip Harper had arranged for us to make a stop nearby.

Moments later, a mysterious lady down the bar motioned for us to follow her (in Japanese). We looked to the chef for approval, mildly convinced we were in the beginning of a mystery novel, but the chef nodded. We got up to follow her, thanking the chef for his hospitality, only to notice the lady was sprint-walking ahead of us, disappearing out onto the street and weaving like a guided missile, through back alleys and around tight corners.

Once again, no signs, no indication of the bar within, nothing. Once we hit the fifth floor, the mysterious lady nodded and took off. We floated into the bar, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. When we came to, we were sitting in the middle of Shukoujin.

The people sitting nearby filled us in: Shukoujin is a fairly famous mixology/sake bar, home to one of Japan’s most famous mixologists who originally worked at Takochaya (above). From there, everything melts into a shower of crazy-delicious drinks–a sake/brandy cocktail that had been aged in a barrel, was 40% alcohol, and could get even the most exhausted of travelers up and at ’em. After that, another crazy sake-infused cocktail, equally killer, equally intoxicating.

Kyoto, Day 7

another-pretty-cool-shot-of-kyoto1

An early night was probably one of the better decisions we made yesterday. We met Etsuko downstairs bright and early at 7:00 AM, just in time for a long day of sake tastings and tasteful tourism.

Tsuki No Katsura

First up: Tsuki No Katsura Sake Brewery, located in the Fushimi area of Kyoto. From the outside (above), you probably wouldn’t guess this is a créme de la créme sake brewery, would you? Well, it is. We were greeted by our host, the 14th generation owner, president and CEO, Tokubee Masuda. You can all imagine what an incredible honor this is. And if you don’t immediately realize that, we’ll break it down for you:

This brewery has plenty of history to back it up; in fact, it’s one of the oldest, founded in 1675.
They’re trailblazers, responsible for creating nigorizake, a sweet, sparking form of sake. That same year, they began producing koshu (aged sake).
Their products are widely recognized as some of the highest quality sakes in the world.
They jumped on the whole organic/local thing about 20 years ago. Yep, they’ve been using only local, organic sake rice since 1990, which makes their sake some of the healthiest fun you can find in a bottle.

So, back to our immense excitement for hanging out at the brewery for a few hours. We had a full private tour of the brewery; we were able to see the rice from the beginning to the end of the process, watch as it was steamed in the largest pots/vats we’ve ever encountered, down to the moment when we could snag the first taste (seen below with Tokubee Masuda). Continue reading Kyoto, Day 7

Kyoto, Day 6

Mt-Fuji-from-Train

Note to self: A 6:30 AM wakeup call is pretty unpleasant after a full-day celebration and the Tokyo Fixer’s final evening. Also, packing the night before would have been a real time-saver… It was, to say the least, a struggle, but we made it downstairs where we met up with Etsuko Nakamura, the tour guide we introduced in this post (met through John Gauntner), who will be undoubtedly be our saving grace in Kyoto and Osaka.

We boarded another bullet train, this one from Tokyo to Kyoto. Chao was pretty much comatose, but managed to keep his eyes open for the panoramic, postcard-worthy views of Mt. Fuji from our train car (above).

Yuba! Yuba! Yuba!

We arrived in Kyoto and quickly changed trains for Otsu and Mt. Hiei, where we were meeting up with Sachiko and Noriko Yagi, friends we met at the 2010 Worlds of Flavor Conference. We reached out to them while planning our trip to let them know we’d be visiting Kyoto, and they were kind enough to invite us out to their yuba factory, Hiei Yuba, for a private tour and an incredible lunch.

 

The company is named for nearby Mt. Hiei, located on the border of the Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. The yuba produced at Hiei has an equally distinguished reputation, recognized by chefs across the world as the best yuba. If your customer list includes Nobu Matsuhisa, we’d say you’re doing well for yourself. Continue reading Kyoto, Day 6