For the next few weeks, this is where we’ll be documenting our epic Asian adventure, as introduced in this blog post: Our Adventure Begins. To see all of our regular posts from before our adventure, click here. Click on each of the cities below to see what we’ve been doing, seeing, and (most importantly) eating in each location.
Our story begins in Tokyo. We flew direct from O’Hare and landed around 4:30 PM (Tokyo time). Needless to say, this was a long-ish flight, so Chao’s feet were all locked up in his super-cool sneakers. Mike dragged him off the plane, then we jumped in a car and we were off! We checked in at our hotel, the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, where we were met with a pleasant surprise: The Tokyo Fixer, who we weren’t expecting to see for at least a few days. (Remember him from our last post? Tour guide extraordinaire, Tokyo nightlife guru, and so on?) He took us out to his favorite yakitori-and-beer joint, where we proceeded to spend the rest of our waking hours at the yakitori bar, eating every conceivable part of the freshest, most tastiest chicken we’ve ever had. So we’re eating plate after plate of chicken meatballs, gizzard, liver, crispy skin, things we don’t know the name of, etc., then some fried-then-grilled tofu, plus a steady stream of Yebisu (our favorite Japanese beer )… and then the jet lag starts to hit… After three beers and a chicken each (just about), we shuffled back to our hotel to rest up for our first full day (and were met with–hallelujah–really good internet). Okay, here are two other very quick photos/observations from our first few hours in Tokyo. (This should serve as a warning, there will be plenty of possibly unrelated photos during this trip)…
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.
Mike and Chao Arrive at Tsukiji
Shots From Around the Market
Mike and Chao Selling Tuna
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 fish montage:
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. We ordered Sashimi Omakase, Nigiri Omakase, and Donburi; we definitely weren’t expecting what we ended up with–everything was incredible. After a couple of glasses of sake, Chao starting talking to the Chef, Yamamoto, who’d worked in Singapore and Hong Kong before coming back to Tokyo. In no time, they were deep in conversation over specific techniques, Yamamoto gesturing expressively while Chao attempted to record everything in a small notebook. Just a few of what we tried (and loved):
Asakusa, Kappabashi, and Vintage Sake Bottles
After our unexpectedly epic breakfast, we were off to Asakusa, a district known for its long street market, bordered on either end by impressive temples. We walked a bit, found a really cool vintage sake bottle store, became disappointed that the store was closed… and then made our way into the temple to make a wish in the fountain. For the sake of the storyline, we’re going to say we wished for the sake bottle store to be open…
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.)
Nishiazabu Sushi Shin
The Tokyo Fixer had been telling us for a while about this one sushi restaurant in Tokyo, known for blowing the minds of celebrated chefs from all over the world. In short, after a meal at this establishment, most leave speechlessly satiated, saying something along the lines of, “I will not eat sushi for another 3 months after the meal.” That’s enough of a reason for us.
The Tokyo Fixer, Mike, Chef Shintaro Suzuki, and Chao
The Tokyo Fixer got us right in to this sake restaurant-meets-religious experience, Nishiazabu Sushi Shin, where we were met with owner and executive chef, Shintaro Suzuki. No cameras are allowed, but the chef was gracious enough to allow us to take the photo below.
We went upstairs to what appears to be a very high-end condominium, the perfect, lush setting for what would soon take a spot in our top 5 meals of all time–and hands down best sushi meal of our life. (Wonder which one of these places will get the boot from the list…) The “restaurant” is as simple as a seven-seat sushi bar and a booth for four–refined, tasteful, perfectly complementing our meal. We were both blown away, left just as speechless as the Tokyo Fixer said we’d be. The lack of menus would have made it hard to tell you what was served… if we hadn’t pretty much memorized the lineup:
|1. Madai – snapper sashimi with sea water
2. Saba – mackerel with soy
3. Tako – octopus with salt
4. Kue – sake-steamed grouper
5. Nika – baby squid stuffed with rice
6. Karasumui – preserved fish eggs
7. Steamed Shako – special type of shrimp
8. Chamamuchi – steamed egg custard with salmon roe
9. Shirako – cod sperm sack
10. Hirame – fluke marinated in kelp
|11. Smoked Buri – yellowtail
12. Akami – tuna
13. Toro – belly of tuna
14. Anago* – sea water eel
15. Kuruma Ebi – boiled Japanese prawn
16. Uni Two Ways** – murasaki and bapun
17. Hotate Gai – scallop with yuzu
18. Sayoir – needlefish
19. Tamago – egg omelet
|*Mike’s favorite **Chao’s favorite|
So, we’ve made it pretty clear that this is, without a doubt, the best sushi–but how does he do it? He works with the best of the best. He has the best connection at Tsukiji, meaning he knows the right people, and they get him limited quantity, top-of-the-line ingredients, stuff that most restaurants would die to get their hands on. Once he has the ingredients in hand, he’s incredibly careful in the way that he stores, preserves, and prepares the fish, down to the most minuscule details. Some of the fish is stored in special wooden boxes, filled with salt. He adds a touch of red vinegar to the sushi rice and the faintest dab of sauce to his ingredients. Most importantly, his technique is flawless: artfully cutting the fish with his custom-made knife, surrounded by only a few apprentices and a handful of adoring diners.
Floating (and a little bewildered) after the ultimate sushi experience, we headed to Aoyoma to do a little shopping and check out some of the neighborhood’s boutiques/attractions. The Tokyo Fixer’s mission to show us the best-kept secrets in Tokyo, however, was not over. This was another mind blower. Daibo is known for its hyper-fresh coffee, hand-dripped into cups for this incredibly pure, flavorful taste. We managed to get one picture before we got yelled at…
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.
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 on the right for a quick look at the chef in action, plus the full lineup of dishes we tried at Tempura Uoshin. The thought of a tempura-only meal usually makes people a little queasy–this was nothing like that. We left perfectly satisfied.
What makes this tempura so good? 1. The restaurant’s decor is incredibly cool. It’s all very understated, all clean lines and wood paneling with intimate bar seating, so you feel more like you’re in the kitchen with the chef (except the kitchen is way nicer than most that you’ve been in). 2. The ingredients were obviously fresh as hell. Everything was cooked to perfection. Enough said. 3. The tempura batter was flawless–crispy, light, and without the slightest hint of greasiness. The batter gave each piece crunch, but didn’t overpower the flavor of the vegetable/fish. 4. The sauces, soy, dashi, and Japanese curry powder perfectly complemented the tempura. They added the perfect zing.
Eager to cover some more ground before our next eating fest, we took another stroll through Kappabashi, stopping for a photo of the Big Boy building, then headed over to Akihabara, a section of Tokyo commonly known as Electric Town or Geektown (photo here). We made our way through the masses of people and electronics until we started to feel our appetites returning.
Takashimaya Food Court
Widely considered to be the best food court in Tokyo, Takashimaya Food Court in Nihombashi isn’t the “food court” you’ll find in your local mall. It’s like Fox & Obel meets Green City Market, but with a lot more pastries. It took us both about four seconds to see the appeal, gazing longingly at stand after stand of sizzling yakitori, delicately crafted desserts, tender gyoza, and more. Everything tastes like it was made in the last five minutes. In Chao’s words (repeatedly, dumbfounded): “There are no mistakes… everything is perfect.”
Satisfied with our appetizers, we were ready for our next course. We made our way over to Nakameguro, a young, hip neighborhood still in the midst of its renaissance, brimming with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants (score). In many ways, it’s remarkably similar to Wicker Park/Bucktown. Our restaurant choices up until this point had been based on recommendations, popular conceptions, and an undying trust in our faithful tour guide. Our arrival at this next restaurant was based on a dare. Did that make it any less delicious? Nope. Long story short, Mike was ready to admit that Japan did a LOT of things better, maybe everything, with the exception of one important category: pizza. A Chicago native who spent over five years in New York, he’s covered some ground on the subject, “studied” at least once a week with some of the foremost pizza experts in our nation and beyond (a little coursework in Italy to top it off). So, could the Tokyo Fixer change Mike’s mind? Has Japan conquered pizza as well?
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 (left) 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 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.
We had pork gyoza and original house special ramen with pork. Both dishes were simple, yet perfectly executed and (as with everything we’ve tried) incredibly fresh. We slurped down our ramen in record time, stopping only to savor how deliciously delicate the noodles were and how perfectly balanced the the broth’s flavors were, not overpowering or overly rich.
Next Stop – Shibuya
Still not convinced that we’d proven the Tokyo Fixer wrong, we got ourselves to Shibuya, the Times Square of Tokyo. As soon as we got off the train we were faced with another “food court,” put in quotes because the term “food court” doesn’t really fit teh quality of these places. This one was smaller than the one we hit yesterday, but rivaled it in the selection and presentation of food. Does anyone screw up around here? Once again, no mistakes. A series of perfectly executed, freshly prepared, mouthwatering selections. Having already hit some salty/savory flavors for the day, Mike was after something sweet, landing on a custard, gelatin and fruit cup. Get this: the packaged up treat came with its own ice pack, just in case Mike held off long enough (fail) for the dessert to get warm.
Shibuya Farmers Market
Not surprisingly, we weren’t content with an afternoon in the food court, and made our way out to explore Shibuya. We stumbled upon the Shibuya Farmers Market, our first one of the trip. It was incredible to see some of the crazy ingredients you just can’t get in the U.S., combined with the ridiculously friendly, welcoming people at the market who offered us tastes and bites of everything.
We continued to walk around, making our way down as many random, off-the-beaten-path streets as possible. Chao had been trying to find some good takoyaki since the day we arrived, and was psyched when we stumbled upon a gem in our directionless rambling. Takoyaki translates into fried or grilled octopus; it’s basically Japanese street food in the form of dumplings, usually made with batter and octopus; ours was topped with Japanese mayo and bonito, shown above on the right. Even their street food is perfect.
Final Stop – Daikanyama
Our final challenge: Daikanyama, the high-end fashion district that rarely sees tourists. Again, we got there in record time, no mistakes. Eat that, Tokyo Fixer. (Actually, we had to ask a dozen people for help and it took six different attempts to get there. Whatever.) We got off at Daikanyama, grabbed a double espresso, and we were on our way. This was definitely Mike’s favorite neighborhood they’ve visited so far; once we’d arrived, everything went smoothly, leading up to dinner and drinks at an awesome little izakaya.
Chicken Karake with French Fries
Chao with the Owner-Chef of Izakaya
We put our new sake skills to work (thank you, Professor Gaunter) and drank all night long, taking breaks to sample some Japanese/American pub food, like the fried chicken (“Chicken Karake”) with fries above. Yum. Overall, awesome experience, and really great to meet and hang out with the izakaya’s owner/chef (notice he’s representing MCC). We finally stumbled back to the train and somehow made our way back to our hotel, with only a few minor slip-ups.
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.
The Bullet Train to Nagano
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.
Much to our surprise (and almost-giddy excitement), the gentleman (right) ended up being in charge of purchasing for his department, and began started showing us all of these crazy, probably classified pictures of aircrafts, ships, and so on. Yeah, he just got back from Texas where he was doing some missile testing (plenty of open land in Texas for a little missile action, right?). After a quick photo and exchanging some contact info, he was on his way. The Tokyo Fixer took one look at his card (which is all in Japanese… not sure how we’re going to ever contact him), and simply said, “Wow… this guy is the real deal.”
Arriving in Nagano
We arrived in Nagano, home to the 1998 Olympics, grabbed a quick photo (left), and hopped a new train to Obusedo, where we’d heard about an awesome sake brewery/restaurant: Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery. We took a seat in their tasting room, where we proceeded to taste what seemed to be every sake they had. Adequately tipsy, we then took a walk around their store, did some drunk shopping, and headed to the Club Room for a little lunch. As if the brewery wasn’t breathtaking enough, the restaurant and kitchen were awesome.
We grabbed seats at the kitchen bar where we could see the chefs in action, thanks to one of the coolest open kitchens we’ve ever seen. We got down to business quickly, ordering pretty much one of everything off the menu (had to get the full experience) and a fresh bottle of sake.
Accustomed to the generally hefty prices we’ve been dealing with in Tokyo, we were pleasantly surprised by how reasonable the bill was.
We wandered around the town a bit, took some photos, peeked into different storefronts, then walked smack dab into the St. Cousair Winery in Obuse. Now, what would you do? Faced with a perfectly lovely winery in a perfectly lovely town, tending to your sake buzz and celebrating the birthday of a close friend? You’d go into the winery. And that’s exactly what we did.
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 (below).
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.
Feeling incredibly lucky that we met Sachiko San back in November, we were treated like royalty at the factory, given an all-access tour of the facility and the process behind making yuba–even allowed to make our own yuba! Nothing like some good ol’ hands-on learning.
|Let’s step back a second. A lot of you might be asking the same question (or, if you’re not, you could still do with a little education): What’s yuba? It’s a traditional, healthy food common in Japan; in essence, it’s tofu skin. After about 15 minutes of boiling soy milk, a skin is created on the surface, which is then skimmed off and can be eaten as is or after being dried. Eaten fresh, it has a delicious, creamy texture that really can’t be compared to any other ingredient, perfect on its own or with a little soy and wasabi.
The history of yuba goes back some 1,200 years, when the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Saicho brought yuba, tea trees, and Buddhism to Japan. At that time, it primarily served as vegetarian sustenance for Buddhists and members of nobility. It was reborn a delicacy during the more recent rise of Japanese gastronomic culture, and these days, it’s a vital ingredient in Japanese cuisine, especially here in Kyoto.
Well, now that we’re all up to speed on yuba, we’d like to say what a pleasure it was to spend a few hours with Sachiko San and everyone else at Hiei Yuba–educational, fun, and you have to try their yuba.
Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji
After that, we were off to the company’s namesake: Mt. Hiei. Setting aside the fact that Mt. Hiei is pretty breathtaking, it’s also home to the temple of Enryaku-ji, a Tendai monastery and an important landmark in the history of Japanese Buddhism.
As it happens, Sachiko San has special access to Enryaku-ji, and arranged for us to have a Kaiseki-style feast (formal, multi-course Japanese meal) and a tour upon our arrival. (Yes, at that moment, we were even more grateful that we’d met Sachiko San.)
Still not done with our yuba-filled day, we were excited to find that one of the main ingredients in the majority of dishes served at Enryaku-ji just so happens to be yuba from Hiei Yuba. Each dish was beautifully presented and delicious (see photo on the right), showcasing a variety of preparations and complements to yuba.
If we’ve ever thought that vegetarian food had to be boring, we’ll admit that we were very, very wrong. On top of all that, it was probably the most pure, healthy meal we’ve ever had (certainly something to feel good about based on the amount we’ve consumed since starting our blog).
Tour of Enryaku-ji
After lunch, we had a private tour of the temples of Enryaku-ji, including the main temple. There were no photos allowed inside the temples, understandably, so that’s something you’ll have to go see for yourself.
Unable to snap pics of the main event, we focused our photography skills on things like cool statues, ourselves with our tour guide (left), or the one on the right of the seemingly endless, impossibly steep stairs we had to climb (totally worth it). (At first glance, you might have thought: Why did Mike take a picture of Chao’s backside?)
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 (right), 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.||Their products are widely recognized as some of the highest quality sakes in the world.|
|They’re trailblazers, responsible for creating nigorizake, a sweet, sparking form of sake. That same year, they began producing koshu (aged sake).||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).
From the rice being steamed . . .
. . . to the very first taste of sake.
We documented some of the various steps of the process, seen throughout the factory. We’d like you to pay special attention to the top, center photo, in which a man is leaning very precariously into a vat of steaming rice. Okay, you should pay special attention to all of the photos now. Especially the Toji, bottom right, who’s responsible for the brewing itself, as well as the management of the factory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
Sake/Brandy Cocktails at Shukoujin
Sake Cocktails at Shukoujin
The bartender/owner took our picture for the wall of fame, where it will hang right alongside Philip Harper and John Gauntner (really, really good company). Honored and a little tipsy, we stumbled out of the bar and headed to the Namba area. After one drink at the first bar we saw, we retired to the hotel and crashed. Hard.
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.
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.
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.
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
Next up: 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).
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.
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.
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. So, then we get to Kansai International Airport (below): 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.
Kansai International Airport
Beijing International Airport
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).
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 (right).
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.
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.
Our First Morning in Hong Kong
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.
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.
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. Having finally gotten through lunch, we made our way outside into the significantly nicer weather (in comparison to Japan) to explore some neighborhoods:
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.
B. 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.
We walked through this remarkably large park on our way back to the Peninsula.
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 (below).
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 one of Hong Kong’s dried provisions markets, seen on the right. The plethora of weird, wonderful, but always dried products and ingredients there is truly astounding. It’s easy to imagine the world’s top chefs sneakily filling their pockets with scoops of the market’s finest products.
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.
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.
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 (above). Not surprisingly, they really don’t do it justice. Beautiful views, but not too much in the food department, so we made our way over to Stanley Market. We found a restaurant with prime, people-watching seats, and settled in for a few hours of observation, good food, and a few beers.
|Once we’d seen half the neighborhood walk by, we hit the road. The bartender at Lily & Bloom (where we at our first night in Hong Kong) told us about this famous mixologist from Japan and insisted we try our bar before we leave town. Remember how in Japan everything worth going to was hidden? Tucked into a back alley or on top of some strange, seemingly residential building?
Well, seeing that the famous mixologist is in fact Japanese, his bar is situated on the 24th floor of an office building in Causeway Bay. Getting to that office building was a different story altogether. After a period of wandering/bad directions, we finally found the building. As we perused the building’s directory, we noticed “bar” in very small letters–the only mention of our destination in sight.
Our friend at Lily & Bloom also warned us about the sign on the door at b.a.r. EXECUTIVE, which claims that the bar is “Members Only.” We followed his advice and ignored the sign altogether and grabbed seats at the quaint-but-luxurious bar. As with all things, it’s not about the size of the bar–it’s about everything behind the bar. In this case, a selection of every liquor ever made and a hyper-talented mixologist. Dressed in a sharp suit, Ichiro Hiidrome was just starting two cocktails for the other gentlemen in the bar as we perused the menu.
This is where it got interesting. Ichiro’s technique when mixing the cocktails is, without a doubt, like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s like this stylized ritual, a ceremony that ends with a delicate, loving pour. For a split second, it almost looks like he’s messing with you. That couldn’t actually be how he… but then obviously it’s effective because the cocktails were all delicious.
It’s worth hanging out there for a little while just so you can see him repeat this exact same process as other customers enter the bar. Once things slowed down a little, we started chatting a little with Ichiro, mainly about Japan. So, how did this top-level Japanese mixologist end up in an office building in Hong Kong? Well, once he had mastered his craft in Japan, he wanted to share it with the people of Hong Kong. He was not, however, interested in the street-filling swarms gushing into his bar (hence, the “Members Only” sign).
Our time with Ichiro also shed light on Hong Kong’s bar business. After walking around in several different neighborhoods, we noticed there weren’t a whole lot of standalone bars. Turns out the government is pretty strict as far as liquor licenses go–generally, if you’re looking for a drink, you’ll have to go to a restaurant. Luckily, Ichiro got his liquor licence and his office space before some of those changes came into effect. To further ensure the quality of his cocktails, he has his own import business so he can bring in the best ingredients from Japan.
After a good deal of conversation, a few more performances from Ichiro, and four not-so-cheap cocktails, we decided it was time to handle our tab and say our goodbyes. After one more bar, a ferry ride, and a quick walk back to our hotel, we decided to grab one celebratory drink at the Peninsula’s top-floor bar, Felix.
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:
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.
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.
Everyone slept in pretty late New Year’s Day, but we were up in time to get our big plans for the day in motion. It’s probably no surprise that our plans for Jan. 1 revolved around food. Once we were all up and at ’em, Chao made a trip to the local seafood market to get some supplies for:
The First (and Probably Only) Mike and Chao Chow Thailand New Year’s Day Extravaganza-Palooza Dinner and Party
Someone suggested we go with a more concise title, but we wanted the party to have a bit more weight to it. Our last dinner experiment was pretty awesome, so we wanted to see if we could recreate it–in a different country. We should take a step back: we couldn’t have imagined how incredible it would be to wake up on New Year’s Day to perfect weather and this outside your window.
Fresh lobster with eggs
Pork belly with garlic, black pepper & cilantro
Pad siew stir fry noodles
Steamed fish in a special, homemade broth
So, back to business. We had several friends coming over, one of which happened to be a self-proclaimed chef and would be helping Chao out with the meal. You know the phrase, “Too many cooks in the kitchen”? We were about to test that out, literally.
The cooking begins: Chao hit the grill first to get the lobsters/crabs going, but returned to the kitchen to see that our friend the chef (Maew’s her name) had taken charge of the kitchen like nothing we’d ever seen: Everything was going so smoothly–the aroma from the pork belly wafting as the steamed fish started to cook, while she finished up the papaya salad (which looked and smelled amazing).
Pork Belly in Special Thai Marinade
Chao’s initial reaction was to start asking questions, but a few moments in this completely under-control kitchen, filled with such beautiful, savory and sweet scents and he relaxed. He leaned in to taste one of the dishes, wondering if everything would taste as amazing as it smelled, and was once again rendered speechless.
You can imagine how incredibly entertaining this all was for Mike and the rest of the guests to watch. Every now and then, Chao stepping in to make a suggestion or change something, only to be immediately countered by Maew, firmly establishing herself as the not-to-be-questioned head chef of the evening. And Chao? Well, Chao took a backseat.
Was that difficult for Chao? Perhaps. It certainly helped that she was more than gifted in the kitchen, and that everything came out looking/smelling/tasting perfect. We all set the table, grabbed some dishes, and sat down for our first major meal of 2011, a year we hope will be filled with many more evenings of delicious food and good company, just like this one.
A few more highlights from our dinner: If this whole blog thing doesn’t work out, we definitely think we have the beginnings of a killer children’s book: “Chao the Chef”? “See Chao Eat”? We did a little storyboarding for you (below). To all you publishers, you can hit us up on Twitter if you’re interested (@mikeandchaochow).
|Another star of the evening: Peter. The sign of a true friend and bartender is always coming prepared (also the sign of a good Boy Scout, right?). Well, Peter always travels with his supplies, so he had a fresh mojito bar set up in the kitchen in no time. The fresh mint and the cool refreshing taste were just what our dinner needed–washing down our tasty meal and relieving any inter-chef tensions.|
Overall, our first party in Thailand was a success, largely thanks to our up-and-coming local friend who showed us how to do it up right, Phuket-style.
Phuket, Days 17-18
After a few days of relaxation, we were ready to kick it in to gear. Things like “chilling” and “lounging” come so easily when you’re spending a few days on a beach in Thailand, but we were ready to see what else the neighborhood had to offer. Our first stop: Kamala Beach. We spent a little time chilling (you have to ease into actual activities), then decided on a little jet skiing and parasailing. Lunch on the beach, a bit more lounging, and we called it a night. After all, we had even more planned for the next day.
Our next day was dedicated to some genuine, adventure-filled exploring of Phuket Island. The day began with one of Thailand’s famous past-times, go-karting, followed by a little shooting (clay discs only, thank you). Our final stop: ATVs in the jungle. We ran into some massive elephants, got our jungle on for a bit, then finished up our day of physical challenges for an evening of culinary challenges…
What’s a day with Mike and Chao without a little cooking and a lot of eating? That’s why we decided it was time for the Iron Chef Thailand Cook-Off. In one corner, we have Chao, a seasoned chef and one half of the renowned dining/traveling team known as Mike and Chao. In the other corner, Maew, a relative newcomer on our blog who took center stage New Year’s Day with her surprising culinary accumen and detailed presentation. The key ingredients of the day: corn and pork.
As the race got underway, the name of the game was decisiveness. Maew got off to a hot start, moving with diligence and a clear plan in mind. Chao took a minute to strategize, but responded to the concerned looks of guests with a stern, “I got this.”
Once both chefs were in the kitchen and moving, there was no getting in there. The one thing about sharing a kitchen in a competition like this–no room for surprises. On several occasions they couldn’t resist from sneaking a peek. The only other soul allowed in the kitchen was Peter, mixing up some specialty mixed cocktails and keeping an eye on the ongoing challenge.
That’s when thing started to escalate, beginning with Chao’s singular utterance: “Goddamn it…” His butter sauce had separated, a pretty basic mistake for a chef of his caliber. He tried like hell to get it back together, but recovering from a misstep like that is no easy feat. Meanwhile, Ms. Maew was all smiles, chugging away on her dish with speed and precision. Chao watched, shaking his head and declaring that it was all over.
Mike and the rest of the crew watched as Chao teetered on throwing in the towel, but pushed him to keep on trucking. Still unhappy with his sauce, he decided to press on–just without the pork part of the challenge. You can blame that on his secret taste of Maew’s pork dish–“It’s just too good.”
When it came down to it, Chao’s shrimp with corn and butter sauce couldn’t stand up to Maew’s garlic shrimp with corn. The flavor on Maew’s shrimp was perfectly balanced with the corn, leaving Chao’s dish tasting just a little bit salty (and then there was the butter sauce, which had been sadly irredeemable).
By the time we got to Bangkok, we were mere shadows of the vibrant, energetic travelers we once were. We headed straight for Chao’s house to meet his family, who took us out for a nice dinner at a local restaurant. We ate, talked about our travels, then headed home for one of the most well-received nights of sleep you can imagine.
On our first full day in Bangkok, we headed downtown to meet up with some friends from South Africa, in town for two nights. For our first official activity in Bangkok, we took a boat tour on what just might have been THE most polluted river on the planet. We cruised by the city’s famous houseboats and floating market (above). We disembarked to tour (or hike, really) some of the local temples (below) and to see the Grand Palace, a complex of regal buildings that have served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand since the eighteenth century.
We walked around for a bit in Siam Square, a popular area thriving with shopping, cinemas, and plenty of food. We tried a little pad thai, made fresh on the street, and some disco shrimp.
In the Mood For Love
At this point (have to be honest), we’d had our fair share of Thai food. Luckily, Chao had a special reservation set up for us that evening at a sushi place called In the Mood For Love.
How did Chao find this Japanese gem? As it happens, Chao used to work with the owner/chef in Chicago. The owner, who’s originally from Thailand, decided to move back and open his own sushi place, which has been open for the last 7 months or so. Everyone really enjoyed our Japanese respite, the perfect end to our first full day in Bangkok.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
We spent the next day at the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in Thailand. With over 5,000 stalls, there was plenty for us to do and eat and buy and see to take up a whole day. We finally got to try some of Thailand’s famous chicken and rice, then devoured a solid amount of quail eggs.
On top of all of our eating, we also did enough shopping to warrant the purchase of some new luggage (above). Even with our new suitcase, fitting all our new purchases is was a bit of a tight squeeze.
|That evening we headed to Chao’s where his mom made us an unbelievable homemade Thai meal.||Filled to the brim and teetering on the brink of passing out from exhaustion, we mustered the strength the hit the town, one last time before we headed back to the States.
We were meeting up with a different group of friends that just happened to be visiting Bangkok at the same time. Our evening started at the picturesque Moon Bar, a rooftop bar perched atop the Banyan Tree Hotel where you can take in panoramic views of Bangkok like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Some would say it’s important to get a good night’s sleep before international travel. We say, it’s important to have a good night out. And that’s what we did. We ended up staying out all night long, hitting night markets, a couple of different nightlife areas (like Soi Cowboy, above), and finally rolling back in where we were staying just to grab our bags, say our goodbyes, and head to the airport.