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

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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

Nagano, Day 5

Nagano-Postcard-2

Day 5 started early and with a lot of promise: we had a newly recharged Tokyo Fixer in tow, it was Chao’s birthday, and we had big plans for our day in Obusedo, situated in picturesque Obuse, Nagano. A speedy, three-hour train bullet train ride from Tokyo, we decided that a skimpy train snack was out of the question. We arrived at the train station especially early to stock up on bentos, yakitori, beers, sake, and whatever else we could wrap our arms around.

Had the Tokyo Fixer not rejoined the gang, we would never have learned this awesome trick:

A New Friend

You can see where passengers might have been a bit jealous of our spread, but what can we say? This is a journey about food, and we’re going hard. So hard that a well-dressed gentleman seated to our left decided to join in, asking us where were from (spotting the American quite clearly) and letting us know that his daughter happened to be studying in the States, just like her dad. Yep, he’s an alum of Harvard and Georgetown. Long story short, he ends up being one of the top honchos at the Japanese Department of Defense, on his way home from Tokyo for a few days. Continue reading Nagano, Day 5

Tokyo, Day 4

Shibuya-at-Night1

When we woke up on day 4, both of us could feel a change coming… something dark and strange on the horizon. The Tokyo Fixer (gasp) was down for the count. For the first time in our days together, the Tokyo Fixer was too full, too tired, and too hungover to drag us around the city all day. We might have seen it coming when Chao and the Tokyo Fixer played last man standing until 4:00 AM the night before… either way, he took the day to recharge, sending us on our way with some detailed notes on where to go and a final vote of confidence: “You’re definitely going to get lost.”

First Stop – Meguro

 

We got the inside scoop on one of the best ramen and gyoza spots in Tokyo, which brought us to Meguro. Contrary to the Tokyo Fixer’s warnings, we found our way there without any problems. (If you forget about the part where we missed our train stop and had to backtrack; don’t blame us for having engaging conversation.)

So, back to this restaurant: our meal at Kaduya (shown above) was the cheapest of our trip so far, without making any sacrifices on taste. Being the only people in the place who didn’t speak Japanese made for some difficulties in ordering, but being the resourceful diners that we are, we got by pointing at pictures on the menu (thank god for this menu) and other people’s dishes. The place was packed, which made it easy to stand up and spot the dish you’d like a few tables over. Continue reading Tokyo, Day 4

Tokyo, Day 3

Shot-of-Tempura-Chef1

In true MCC fashion, each day just seems to top the last. Day 1 was an awesome intro to Tokyo, Day 2 was a whirlwind, mind-blowing experience (we’re still dreaming about that sushi), and Day 3–well, we’ll let this post speak for itself.

A full day of eating and drinking led to, yes, another hungover morning, which seems to be Theme #1 of our trip. Our choice of hangover remedy is as old as the hangover itself: fried food. The Tokyo Fixer had been telling us about his favorite tempura place since we met him, and it was finally time for us to experience it for ourselves. And here comes Theme #2: the Tokyo Fixer calling ahead to let them know we were coming because, once again, this is the sort of place where you have to know someone.

Tempura Uoshin

As expected, Tempura Uoshin was perfectly concealed, sign-free, and home to the best tempura we’ve ever had. We grabbed seats at the bar where we could watch the chef in action. The whole thing was kind of like omakase at a sushi bar–the chef cooking up a variety of items and serving them up hot and fresh. Check out the video below for a quick look at the chef in action, plus the full lineup of dishes we tried at Tempura Uoshin. Continue reading Tokyo, Day 3

Tokyo, Day 2

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Day Two in Tokyo started with a pretty legitimate hangover, for everyone involved–futsukayoi in Japanese. The Tokyo Fixer may go out for a living, but it seems to be one of Chao’s most well-developed skills, which made for a long night. The Tokyo Fixer called to delay our start a bit (fine with us), getting us all together for a 11:30 AM start.

We started with a walk to the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, Mori Tower for short, the fifth-tallest building in Tokyo at 781 feet, it is a 54-story mixed-use skyscraper that was completed in 2003. With panoramic views on the 50th floor and a helipad on the top floor (why should celebs and other a-listers use the door, after all?), a walk and a little elevation were a surprisingly good remedy for our hangovers.

Having completed a fairly mainstream tourist activity, our next journey was the complete opposite. The Tokyo Fixer had planned for us a series of hidden gems, only accessible to a select, connected few. (You can imagine our excitement.) Continue reading Tokyo, Day 2

Tokyo, Day 1

Fish-Composite1

Tsukiji Market. We woke up bright and early and got ourselves over to the Tsukiji Market, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world (and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind). Hectic. Mayhem. Chaos. All of those words pretty much define the market, especially in the deer-in-the-headlights eyes of newcomers like ourselves.

We saw just about every type of underwater ingredient imaginable, plus monster-sized tunas and an array of other awe-inducing seafood. Not content with your average tour, we were lucky enough to be able to go into the back room where the 5:30 AM tuna live auction goes down (see photo above, right). And now, a montage from around the market:

 

 

Our Lesson of the Day

Besides the fact that this is a must-see, our number one tip would be that this is an Oprah-style no phone zone (for serious). Etsuko warned us, in no uncertain terms, about the perils of fish-bearing fork lifts, scooters and other vehicles, the fact that they will truly run you over if you’re distractedly composing that really important tweet. She warned us, and yet, more than once we felt the wind of a passing fork lift that just missed one of us.

 

Sushi for breakfast?

Yes, please. If you’re going to eat sushi, eating it in and around Tsukiji is about as fresh as you can get, short of sushi rolled on a boat. Etsuko led us to the outer market area, where there are lines of small shops and restaurants specializing in sushi, udon, ramen, etc. We ended up at a hole-in-the-wall around the corner called Sakae Sushi (left), tucked behind a screen that slid open for new guests (translation: we would have never found this place without Etsuko). We noticed a chef eating at the sushi bar (good sign), then camped out until he finished and claimed the three seats at the bar. Continue reading Tokyo, Day 1