Friday, January 29, 2010

Mixed Berries Galette

I finally got around to baking a galette.

A galette is supposed to a round, flat and crusty pastry, served with either sweet or savoury fillings. Some websites also say it is general term used in French to designate various types of flat, round or freeform crusty cakes.

According to my Julia Child recipe though, it looks more like a rustic tart.

I ended up adapting my pastry recipe from Use Real Butter, because I didn't have the ingredients that the Julia Child recipe called for. The only difference was that I added 1 3/4 cups of plain flour and 1/4 cups of cornmeal instead of the 2 cups of flour in her recipe.

The galette turned out pretty alright.

I would however recommend the following if you were to try this recipe:
1. Brush the galette with an egg wash prior to baking so that the galette will brown nicely. I find that just sprinkling it with brown sugar does nothing to enhance the colour of the baked galette.
2. Use extra fine sugar or even icing sugar to mix with the fruits instead of just regular fine sugar. This is because the sugar doesn't really completely melt after baking and you end up seeing tiny crystals here and there.
3. Refrigerate the pastry for at least an hour before rolling it out, to make the rolling job easier.

I'd do those the next time I make a Tomato and Basil Galette.

I liked how the mixed berries turned out - 
Blueberries and dark cherries go very well together!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I am not a toad!

Not that anyone really called me that outright... but Someone did kind of hinted.

It is like this...

I have been diagnosed as having "subclinical hypothyroidism".

Subclinical hypothyroidism refers to an early stage of hypothyriodism. Hypothyroidism is when your body doesn't have enough thyriod hormones, whose main function is the body is to run "run the body's metabolism". And so, people with this condition will have symptoms associated with a slow metabolism. It is the opposite of Hyperthyroidism, which is when your body produces too much.

The doctor explained it in a rather undiplomatic way and here, I've kind of quoted her explanation:

If you think of the two extremes of hypothyroidism and hyperthyrodism - One is like a toad and the other like a rabbit.

The toad is cold, puffy and somewhat fat and constipated. 

The rabbit is wide-eyed, jumpy, nervous and very active.

Her explanations were clear enough but I went away from the clinic wondering if I have just been called a toad, for the first time in my life.. (and hopefully, the last.)

If I say that I didn't feel somewhat anxious of having been diagnosed of an illness (it's kind of like failing a test, isn't it?), I would be lying.

But I was also in a way kind of relieved to know that the weight gain, intolerance to cold and dry skin  is not just in my mind.. but is in fact real and there is something I can do about it now that I know the reason.

I've always thought of myself as a healthy person.. since I exercise about 4 times a week, averaging about 5-6 hours each week. But I guess there is more I can do to make myself even healthier.. especially since I have more information now..

OK, so this is supposed to be a statue of a frog, not a toad.. 
but is a picture that came to mind for today's post. 
The Japanese word for frog sounds like the word "Come Home"
and is used as a symbol for safe journeys for fishermen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Road Less Traveled By

Taken along a part of Kuma no Kodo, Wakayama, Japan

This poem gives me lots of encouragement. Just thought I'd shared with all here.

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Two Different Paths.. One Brave Decision.. Same Destination.. Different Experience..

May we all choose our paths and enjoy where the road leads us to.

Ichiran Ramen

I went to Kyushu about 2 years ago and although I've always been partial to Sapporo Ramen, I was blown away by the good ramen we found in Kyushu.

Our favourite is Ichiran Ramen (一蘭拉麵).

I think I can safely say it is one of the best ramen I've had.

It is definitely one of the most interesting ramen experience. For the following reasons:

1. You buy a ticket which you use to exchange for your ramen, from a machine at the entrance of the restaurant. There is only 1 choice of ramen - Ichiran Ramen. You can pay for extra noodles, extra onions and so on.. but you only have 1 choice of ramen.

2. Before you step in, you need to take a look at this board where there is a layout of the seats in the restaurant. (Only in selected stores) You can tell if the seat is empty, occupied or if the previous customer is about to leave from the board.

3. You take a seat in the restaurant on your own, no matter how many people you are with. Yes, the seats are designed to be like those library seats, with boards to your left and right so that you eat and appreciate your noodles with full concentration. At least, that's what I think the owners intended.

4. You get a little slip of paper where you can specify your exact preferences for the noodles and soup - from the amount of onions you want, the doneness of the noodles, the spicines and so on..

5. A little notice in front of you tells you that you:
- Can ask for more noodles after you have finished yours for a small cost (just give their your bowl of soup)
- Can ask for a perfectly done soft-boiled egg at small cost
- Have a maximum of 1 hour to finish your noodles (Not that you'd need an hour.. but still, it's an interesting thing to say...)

A bowl of Kyushu Ramen - They serve it in this 
very special rectangular porcelain bowl with a cover

Top right: The library-like seats
Bottom right: The ticket machine where you 
buy a ticket for your noodles

Ichiran Ramen has lots of stores now around Japan - see for more details.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Provence Bakery & Cafe

We went to France for our honeymoon and our first stop in France was Aix en Provence, where we lingered over for a few days... touring around a little bit.. doing very little and eating very well.

In my mind, Provence is a place of leisure.. where you don't hurry Time to go along fast. You linger over your breakfast.. go for a walk.. pop by a museum.. have a long lunch.. step into a few tiny shops.. have a slow cup of coffee.. loiter around the streets.. have dinner.. and then read a book before you retire for the night.

Besides time passing by very slowly, I remember Provence for Paul Cezanne, lavender products and very good food... and bread.

So when I was really happy that this lovable bakery at Holland Village has such an apt name - Provence Bakery & Cafe (I like the names of their express stores even more - Petit Provence.)

Even if it is actually a Japanese bakery, and not a French one.

The breads there were really very good, a notch up from the usual bakery chain stores you find in malls all over Singapore.

I tried the Milk Bun and Cream Cheese Sesame. The former is light and fluffy, with a very light and creamy filling. The later is a mini sesame croissant with slightly salty cream cheese filling.

I can only say.. I wish I can make breads this good.

Provence Bakery & Cafe
Address: 17A Lorong Liput Holland Village
Tel: 6467 6966

Whilst looking for a suitable picture for this post, I found 2 photos 
of the "No-Knead Bread" The Husband made a couple of weeks ago.. 
I shall, however, remain silent on this until we (or rather he) perfect this.. :)

Hokkaido Azuki Jam

Japanese red bean jam - 
I find the texture of the jam a little strange

I opened another new bottle of jam this morning - Hokkaido Azuki Jam, supposedly made from 100% Hokkaido Azuki.

Azuki is written as 小豆 in Japanese.. although it is to most of us in Singapore also known as red bean, or 红豆.

From the bottle itself, I was expecting a thick, brownish red paste, not unlike what we usually find inside red bean buns.

So it was to my surprise that the Azuki jam is very.. well... jam-like. It is rather clear and gelatinous, like orange marmalade only that inside of citrus pieces, there are small pieces of red bean in the jam (and not too generous with the red beans too..) The red bean pieces taste rather good.. but on the whole I think the jam is a little too sweet and lacking red bean taste.

It's a pity because I tend to think that the Japanese usually make very good azuki-related products...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Milk Jam

During our last trip to Japan and Hong Kong, we brought back a few bottles of relatively special jams and spreads, to complement toasts and use in our baking.

I have been keen to try this particular brand of milk jam from Hokkaido ever since I read about it in this book by a Hong Kong food connoisseur. It is made by Hokkaido Shinmura farm. The Japanese wordings on the bottle says that the jam is made by slowly boiling milk from free range cows in Hokkaido and Hokkaido sugar.

It tastes very much like condensed milk, although the texture is thicker. Because of the use of Hokkaido milk (which is typically very good, for reasons I do not comprehend), the milk taste is stronger. And although it is quite sweet, I find that it is not overpoweringly so.

So overall, it is a very nice bottle of jam.

Would be nice to have it as the filling of small cakes.. but I only have 1 precious bottle so I have to be careful about how I go about using it..

I find this particular brand not easy to buy in other places. We bought it in Osaka's Muji when they had a fair showcasing selected premier products from the various parts of Japan. There is a small shop in Hong Kong has a shop selling it too.

If you ever have the chance to go Hokkaido, you can consider visiting the farm, restaurant or simply buy a few bottles of this jam. They apparently have other products apart from this milk jam - you can see their website for more details.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Project Mural

I was involved in a project last week where a local secondary school had about 200 of its students come today to make a mural that will ultimately be affixed on a wall in their school.

The theme of this project has something to do with the future... They were supposed to paint anything they like.. so long as it has something to do with the future.

I thought that most students would draw things like future transportation, equipments and technological related stuff. But to my surprise, many students drew pictures of nature - flowers, the sun, hills and beaches.

Quite surprising.. but interesting to know that many hope for a green future.

The students carved out the picture on a piece of soft clay tile, then painted 
them with various coloured oxides - here are some of their work.. 
Some students worked alone and others as a team to produce a larger painting

Friday, January 22, 2010

Good desserts in a familiar place

Out Of The Pan is a more-than-familiar restaurant.

My old office used to be at Raffles City, and it is a restaurant I often had lunch.. or dinner at.

I almost always ordered the same few items from the menu - Peking Duck Crepe, Seafood Jungle Crepe and sometimes just one of the soups.

Last night, I had dinner there again with a few girl friends.. and after having the mains (of which I thought the standard has deteriorated), we decided to share a couple of desserts..

We ended up having a very soft creamy tiramisu wrapped in a crepe, topped with ice-cream, and a cinnamon wafer with custard, vanilla ice-cream and mixed berries.

And they were both very good.

Which goes to show that I need to try out new things, even in familiar restaurants sometimes.

The wafer with ice-cream and mixed berries

A super yummy tiramisu... I think the crepe makes a real difference

Out Of The Pan
Address: Raffles City Shopping Centre 
Tel: +65 6431 6103

Wedding Corsages

In a typical Singapore Chinese wedding, the groom arrives early in the morning at the bride's place, with a group of male friends called "xiong di" (or brothers) to fetch his bride.

The bride would have a group of "jie mei" (or sisters) waiting for them and it is only after several games (more like obstacles, usually) and a fat "ang-pow" (red packet) later that the "jie mei" would consent to let the groom in and meet his bride.

Happy's wedding is tomorrow and she has lots of "jie mei". I wanted to help her with something for her wedding so upon my insistence, she allowed me to help her make corsages for her "jie mei".

Happy wanted red corsages and even though I don't really usually like red in things that are worn, I thought these corsages turned out pretty bright and cheerful.

Cheery red corsages - took me a while to make them.. but I really enjoyed it!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Congratulations Happy

This post is dedicated to Happy.

In a week's time, she will be walking down the aisle with her childhood sweetheart.

Happy - here's wishing you and KG every happiness in your lives together.

Thinking of Happy's wedding reminded me I haven't copied my 
own wedding pictures into my new laptop.. 

May you have a memorable, beautiful day next week 
and have a blast of a time that day, Happy!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kyoto's Kiyomizudera

Kyomizidera - It takes its name from the waterfall
in the grounds. Kyomizi stands for clear waters

I have been to Kyomizudera (清水寺) before. It is almost a must visit for anyone who goes to Kyoto.. and I went there during my last trip to Kyoto in 2003.

One of the itinerary of our tour this time was to go to Osaka's Universal Studio. Since none of us were interested to go there, we opted out and decided to have a day to ourselves.

Our nephew suggested we go visit Kyomizudera. So he researched intensively on the internet and was our tour guide for the day.

Kyomizudera is built in a beautiful environment - I especially like the little hill behind the temple, and the colours of the place.. in both spring (the last time I went) and winter (this time). I heard the autumn colours are the most beautiful.

Kyomizudera, also sometimes called Kyomizuji is one of Kyoto's most famous temple

Kiyomizudera has hints of Chinese influences

The colours in winter are beautiful..

..even if they look a little sad..

Rock Formations

This trip to Japan, most of the attractions that we went to have something to do with rocks.
These rocks have been weathered over time by the sea and winds and their appearances have tickled the imaginations of peoples of the past. Most of them have creative names and creative stories about how they were formed or were being used for.

A cliff where the rocks have been eroded away such that there looks like lots of holes in the rocks is called Onigajo Rocks, or literally, Ghost City Rocks. The cliff is believed to be the dwellings of demons, thus the name Onigajo.

The Onigajo Rocks

It was a beautiful, sunny day

You can kind of tell why the rocks were called Onigajo Rocks..

Another coastal area is called Sandanbeki, or Three Step Cliff. Sandanbeki consists of three steep cliffs with a large network of caves at water level. A shrine has been built in the network of tunnels and now, you can take an elevator down to the caves into the shrine below. It is said that pirates used to inhibit the caves and it is easy to see why.. they were perfect hideouts for the pirates and the caves were spacious enough for storage of any stolen treasures..

The Three-Step Cliffs
Water inside the caves..

The lights in the shrine.. donated by all kinds of companies and 
organisations, including the Osaka Prefecture

We arrived at this other place called Senjojiki, which in Japanese means "One Thousand Tatami Mats", at about sunset. Sanjojiki describes the appearance of the flat, sheet-like rocks along the coast, which looked like lots of tatami mats stacked upon one another. I thought I took the best pictures in this place.. because the sunset was beautiful. Alas, I had a speck of dirt on my lens and when I left, I realised all my photos of the sunset were marred..

 A photo that doesn't contain the speck of dirt..
You can walk all the way to the water at the Senjojiki

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Homemade wantons

Homemade wantons - this is how they look like after cooking

The Mother-in-law is here to stay with us for the month.

This week, I learnt how to make wantons from her.  These wantons are not like the ones you get outside. There is minced pork, bits of prawns, Chinese cabbage (The Mother-in-law says you can add any vegetables you like..) and Chinese parsley.

The meat made the wantons very tasty, the prawns made them a little crunchy whilst the vegetables made them really juicy.

They were surprisingly easy to make.

What we did
  1. Blanched the Chinese cabbage in some hot water
  2. Cool of the vegetables and wringed them to get rid of the water within the vegetables
  3. Cut the vegetables into small pieces
  4. Cut the Chinese parsley into small pieces
  5. Minced the pork, cut up the prawns into little pieces
  6. Mixed all the ingredients together and season with salt, soy sauce and some pepper
  7. Wrap the wantons up - place a little meat in the centre of the wanton skin, fold it into fold and then join the lower 2 ends together so that the resulting wanton looked like an ingot. This video clip illustrates this very clearly..
  8. Bring to boil a pot of water, then add in the wantons and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occassionally to ensure they do not stick to the pot or to one another
  9. Then add the cooked wantons to a pot of chicken soup and serve immediately. 
You can also add some vegetables, mushrooms and wolfberries to the chicken soup to have a more balanced meal, but cook these before adding the wantons.

How the wantons looked like before cooking - like gold ingots

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Japanese Drug Stores

Many of my friends like going to Japan to shop. Especially my friends from Hong Kong.

Here is a brief summary of what they say you should buy :
  • Burberry Blue Label (Unique to Japan, although you can find some parallel imports in Hong Kong)
  • Agnes b. (Much cheaper and they sometimes have items only for the Japanese market)
  • Shoes (all department stores. Buy those "Made-in-Japan" ones - the design and quality is good)
  • Selected factory outlets are very good, especially a very large one near Tokyo
  • Uniqlo and Muji (for their Made-in-Japan/ Available-in-Japan items)

I would just say you should make sure you go visit a Japanese drug store. Chances are you'd end up visiting several, like I always do.

Japanese drug stores sell a lot more than medication. Many of them devote a very large section to beauty products and cosmetics. Some even sell snacks. "Matsumoto Kiyoshi", "Kokumin" and "Sundrug" are major drug store chains.. but you'd find also many smaller ones in most cities.

It is the beauty products and cosmetics section that attracts me to the drug stores. Many beauty products and cosmetics are launched in Japan first before exporting to other countries, if at all.

Think SKII's claims to renew your skin in 28 days (or something) fantastic? Apparently there are products that can now renew your skin in just 20 days (or similar) found in Japanese drug stores.. at a fraction of the price of a bottle of SKII.

For me, going into a Japanese drug store is like stepping into a huge candy store when I was a child. There seemed to be an endless array of products and choices available. Deciding on what to bring home to try is most difficult.

I could usually stay in a single store for a long time, trying to pick out stuff to bring back home.

The better stores usually mark out their best sellers, though you have to be able to read some Japanese to understand the signs.. or else some Mandarin and guess work would also do at times.. Those are usually good to buy back home to try. Or you can also do some research online before going - this website (which I know also has a shop in Shinjuku) ranks the most popular items in various categories, including beauty products like facial products, bath products etc.

My spoils from Japanese drug stores..

And for those who are into buying vitamins and medicine to stock up at home.. Japanese drug stores have an amazing collection.. but you'd probably need a bit of Japanese to help you out there.

Art and Teppanyaki

One of us celebrated our birthday during our vacation to Japan.

Our family decided that for his birthday dinner, we'd not join the group for dinner but go out on our own to have a nice meal.

He wanted teppanyaki, so we found and booked the Teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel for dinner that evening.

I always thought that teppanyaki is just food cooked on a hot iron griddle.. and it wasn't really anything special.

I was so wrong.

The dinner that night was the nicest meal we had during our vacation.

The restaurant was a small cosy restaurant with 4 iron griddles. We occupied one of them and each chose a 6 to 8 course dinner.

Our chef looked young and inexperienced.

But he wasn't. He went about cooking each of our dishes in front of us, in a quiet, non-showy way. (not like those teppanyaki "performances" you sometimes see outside)

Every course was cooked in a superbly efficient manner. He used a different plate for every course and each dish was carefully arranged in a most artistic manner.

It was like watching art-in-motion.

We really enjoyed the dinner and even though we were all so full by the end of the meal, we all managed to finish a slice of the chestnut birthday cake. It was just the slightest bit creamy and had a hint of alcohol in it.

It was the perfect ending to a very wonderful dinner.

The starters and the cooking of the "decorations"

The seafood and meat were all plated tastefully and 
all these were done in front of us..

 From left clockwise: okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake), 
Wagyu beef and Japanese fried noodles

Our desserts - green tea ice-cream and chestnut cake 
(we bought the cake from a shop whose name I have forgotten)

President Chibo
Address: B1 Sheraton Miyako Hotel Osaka
Actually, Chibo is a chain store. The normal Chibo restaurants specialises in Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). President Chibo specialises in steak. See here for more details on President Chibo.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Markets and Good Sashimi

Inside the Tore Tore Market at Shirahama, Wakayama

I like going to markets and supermarkets whenever I travel.

I think it is a good way to learn more about the locals - what they eat, buy and use. It is also a good time for me to do some shopping.

Markets in Japan are must-visit places. They are usually quite busy but still very clean. You can find all kinds of food on sale in the markets. And you also get to eat very good food in small restaurants and eateries around markets.

The Tsukiji market in Tokyo is world famous.. and most tourists know that they can go there for a unique shopping experience and the freshest seafood you can find in Tokyo... at a very reasonable price.

I have also been to a really nice market in Hokkaido where I had the freshest bowl of Uni rice (Fresh sea urchin on top of piping hot rice).

One of the highlights for our trip this time was a visit to the Tore Tore Market at Shirahama, Wakayama. It is not a sprawling market like Tsukiji.. but big enough for us to spend a couple of hours there... And we could have stayed longer!

We saw someone filleting an entire tuna, sorting the meat by grades and then selling it on the spot. The really premium pieces were those where the meat actually were nicely marbled like a good piece of Japanese wagyu beef. The sister-in-law quickly bought a piece of those and had the vendor sliced it up for us into pieces for our lunch.

There were also some rather fascinating seafood on sale at the market - Frozen Giant crabs from Hokkaido, whale meat cooked in all kinds of style, giant scallops and even puffer fish. We couldn't resist buying some whale sashimi and puffer fish sashimi for our nephew who was keen to try anything new.

Apart from fresh seafood, there were all kinds of cooked and pickled seafood on sale in the market. I was so tempted to buy a few bottles of pickled sea urchin mixed with squid (sounds strange but these are very good with rice) but the lady who sold them said they had to be frozen and wouldn't last our entire day of travelling around on the tour bus. But I ended up buying some rather special preserved scallops (preserved scallops with sweet plums) that were really yummy so I was pacified.

Then there is this section of the market where they sold lots of fruits, vegetables and Japanese okashi (Japanese snacks). Because the region is famous for their Ume (plum) and Mikan (a type of seedless mandarin orange), we bought some Umeboshi (梅干) and Mikan jelly home.

We ended up having lunch at the market and it was a real feast of all kinds of raw fish and seafood.

A huge plate of sashimi, more than enough for the 7 of us.. 
The scallops and sea urchin were very good.

Left: This excellent plate of raw tuna cost more than S$60 but was really good
Right (top): Whale sashimi - It's wrong to eat whale.. but we just had to try a little.. It tasted like raw beef
Right (bottom): Puffer fish sashimi - you could die if the chef made a mistake.. but I thought ours didn't taste that great

A great lunch at the market

Married Couple Rocks

During low tide the sea is completely out and the rocks 
supposedly look less impressive.

The Married Couple Rocks, Wedded Rocks, or also called the Husband-and-Wife Rocks (夫婦岩 Meoto-Iwa) are located just off the coast of Futami, Ise.

The bigger rock is supposedly the "Husband Rock" and the smaller one the "Wife Rock". The two are joined by a very thick straw rope.

Some say that the two rocks symbolized marriage, others say they represent the primal couple in Japanese history... Whatever the story, the rocks are considered sacred by some, and especially those who frequent the shinto shrine nearby, along the coast where the rocks are.

Signage of the Rocks

There are supposedly several Wedded Rocks in Japan but this pair is most famous.

I liked the blue sky, the deep blue of the sea and the sound of the waves at this place.. and also how the colour of things change. When the sun came out, the sea turned from greenish blue to dark blue.

It was a nice day for photos when we were there

Monday, January 11, 2010

Japanese Ryokans and Breakfast

You can be almost sure that when you stay in a Japanese ryokan, you will get to have Japanese breakfast in the mornings. Some may offer you a choice of a western breakfast.. but I always opt for a Japanese one.

A typical Japanese breakfast consist of at least gohan (rice) and miso shiro (miso soup). These two are the main must-have items. Along with these you sometimes also get eggs rolls, pickled vegetables, crispy seaweed, boiled vegetables and so on.

I like Japanese pickled vegetables a lot, especially those that are lightly pickled. My favourites are pickled seaweed, lotus root and radish.

There is usually also something else served during breakfast - Natto (納豆).  Natto is fermented soybeans with a very strong cheesy smell. It has been liken to stinky tofu and durians. It is very well-liked by many Japanese although many foreigners have been known to be put off by it. It has the consistency of a glue-stick and you usually mix in some soy sauce and musturd, stir hard and then eat it with rice. (See this picture from wikipedia for details)

I used to find natto scary and quite gross.. but the ready-made ones in a cup (you can find these in the supermarket) taste quite unremarkable to me.

Japanese breakfast at the first Ryokan. Japanese grilled fish 
(fish grilled with very little salt) is very yummy
Japanese breakfast at the Urashima Hotel. Natto is the thing in the little red cup..

Japanese Ryokans and Onsens

This trip, we got to stay at 2 Japanese ryokans for 2 nights. Actually, because of the huge size of the place, they are more like hotels or resorts than ryokans. But the experience was still very typical of a ryokan so I shall call them that.

I like staying at ryokans very much. It's like the perfect kind of holidays.

In the typical ryokan experience, you would check in to a Japanese traditional room at about 3pm, go about wondering in the small town nearby, come back for a wondering Traditional Japanese dinner, go for a dip in the onsen (hot spring), go back to your room with your futon (bedding set) all set up properly, have a bit of green tea and okashi (Japanese sweet dessert, usually provided in the room) and then retire early.

In the morning you'd wake up to a traditional Japanese breakfast. And if you like you can take a dip in the onsen before breakfast. After breakfast, you can take a leisurely walk around the ryokan and then check out before 12pm.

Of course in this trip, we didn't have the full "ryokan experience" because we arrived rather late each day at the ryokan and checked out pretty early the next day. But it was still a pretty nice experience. Both ryokans were very good and had good onsens. One of them in particular was very special.

Hotel Urashima is a large ryokan hotel located on a little island near the JR Kii-Katsura Station, in the south of the Wakayama Prefecture. You have to travel to the by boat (5 minutes). The hotel is huge and has about 7 different onsens. It has 2 caveran onsens that overlook the sea. The larger and more famous one is called Bokido, or "Forget Home Cave" (忘归洞). It's a rather special experience, taking a hot bath in a large natural cave and watching the cold waves slap onto the rocks just outside.

As I couldn't possibly take a photo in the onsen, the image is from

Inside our ryokan room - the low tables and chairs on the 
tatami mats would be moved aside for the futon at night..

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A five days whirlwind tour

It has been many years since I last went on a holiday with tour group.

The last one was with my siblings and my mother when I was about 11. (I know, it was a loooongg time ago.)

But this time, we went to Central Japan with a tour group because we were travelling with The Husband's entire family. The Sister-in-law had booked this trip for all of us earlier in November. I was looking forward to the vacation.. but kind of apprehensive about going on a packaged tour.

It was kind of a whirlwind tour of five days and four nights around the Kansai area. We went to various places across 3 prefectures - Mie, Wakayama and Osaka.

To my surprise, I kind of enjoyed it. I guess it is the company (family is always good) and the place (Japan is always a good holiday destination) that made the trip enjoyable.

I only have 2 complaints - The tour guide spoke too much and far too loudly throughout the entire trip. It was particularly annoying to me because I'm very sensitive to noise pollution.. and because his Cantonese was too fast for me. The other bad part about going with a tour group is that you end up not doing much research before you go.. and hence you end up learning a lot less of the places you went.

But nevertheless, I had a very good time and collected lots of wonderful memories with our family.

My next few posts will be about some of my experiences on this short trip.

Sunset view from the tour bus

Pan Jia Yuan

Entrance to the Panjiayuan market

Pan Jia Yuan Antiques Market (潘家园古董市场) is a fascinating place.

When we stayed in Beijing, I liked it whenever we went there, apart from the parking part (Finding a parking space nearby the market is.. challenging.)

The name is somewhat misleading because I don't believe that you can find any antiques at Pan Jia Yuan. Of course opinions differ but I think if you do buy anything at Pan Jia Yuan, pay for it as if it is not an antique. Unless you really are (or think you are) an expert.

A documentary I've once seen on National Geographic called "Faking China" illustrates my point. A museum curator from Beijing once thought he had found some greenish bronze antique pieces at Pan Jia Yuan that were national treasures and proceeded to buy them all up for the museum. Then he realized the more he bought the more there seemed to be available in the market. With deeper investigations, he found that the "national treasures" were actually made in a little workshop in the country-side.

But I digress.

Although you can't find any real antiques at Pan Jia Yuan, it is still a really fascinating place. You can find all sorts of things at Pan Jia Yuan - wooden Chinese pieces of furniture - both new and old-looking (Note I said "old-looking"), fantastic looking ceramic pieces - old and new, practical or otherwise, all kinds of paintings - traditional Chinese calligraphy, oil paintings etc, all kinds of art (embroidery pieces, sculptures, pottery etc), antique replicas (Qing vases, Ming Horses etc), lots of various jewellery (jade bangles, Chinese beads and any kind of stones you can wear, more pearls than in the South China Sea and anything you can think of), old books and magazines and oh yes, lots of trinkets... If there is any trinket you can find in China, it can be found in Pan Jia Yuan - Mao clocks, Tibetian clothes, opium pipes and anything else you can think of.

The amazing variety of things.. or junk.. on sale..

The market swings into full operation on weekends, but I think you have to go in the morning, or early afternoon, to see the market in full operation. The entire market is actually pretty big (to me) but is relatively well organised into different sections for different things.

I like going to Pan Jia Yuan just to take a look at the stuff for sale there. It's quite amazing. Of course the bargaining that people do also amazes me. The bargaining part, plus the dazzling variety of things for sale, makes the Pan Jia Yuan shopping experience a very unique one.

We have gotten a few things from Pan Jia Yuan for our home.

My favourites are a tiny little Chinese-styled bench that we use to sit on to wear our shoes and a small Chinese painting.

Our little wooden chair - the coffee cup on the left is to show the size of this bench..

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nan Luo Gu Xiang

The entrance to Nan Luo Gu Xiang

Nan Luo Gu Xiang (南锣鼓巷) is a small street in Beijing's DongCheng district, near the famous Hou Hai area.

It is a charming little street, or what the locals call "hutong". This hutong has been undergoing a facelift for the last 2 years and is now a pretty little street with cafes, bars, handicraft, clothing and other quaint little shops hidden with traditional courtyard-styled houses.

Nan Luo Gu Xiang was built 700 year ago in the Yuan dynasty and used to be where the homes of court officers and literates are. The walls and tiles on Nan Luo Gu Xiang are a grayish tone, not the royal red of the Forbidden City just one street away. Even with the relatively recent refurbishment, the place is still charming and has a slower pace compared with the rest of the city.

The hutong..

I went there this trip for coffee with a friend. Can't really remember the name of the shop we went to now, but I had very good coffee and a surprisingly good chocolate cake. It's a nice feeling to sit in the "open" courtyard in winter and have coffee and cake. Of course, the entire area actually has a clear covering on top and also heating to protect us from the cold.

Surprising good chocolate mousse cake

It is nice to sit in one of the cafes at Nanluoguxiang, 
sip a hot cup of coffee and watch the world go slowly by..