Saturday, 24 September 2011

Kyoto - Gion, Ginkaku-ji Temple & Gardens and a Nuclear Protest!

Continuing from my previous post, we were on our walking tour and the sun was shining. Our journey was now headed towards the Ginkaku Temple along the winding traditional street filled with old school looking buildings, shops and restaurants. Carefully checking the map, we turned a corner to walk down some steps and noticed a couple of ladies dressed in full Geisha dress. I am not too convinced they were real Geishas but you never know. They were following two foreign men and doting on them from what I could see.

We were exhausted by the time we got to Gion corner so we stopped for a pick-me-up green tea milk float and Tom had an iced coffee. The green tea float was really yummy. The coffee shop was one of many selling iced drinks and desserts. We resisted the temptation to eat more at this point and rested while seated in the shop window. This turned out to be the perfect place to view the gathering crowds. We had walked through a park where we realised people were meeting in order to begin a protest. We think that it was a reaction to the Japan nuclear disaster and from the posters and the numerous people dressed in cow costumes, we surmised that they were particularly worried about the effect it had on milk!? Best guess! (The next day we saw on the news that the trade minister had resigned. Not sure if the two things are connected but it seemed pretty exciting!) This made me feel a little funny about drinking green milk!

After that surprising turn of events, we decided to catch a bus north to the Ginkaku temple because quite frankly my back and legs were not happy with me! It wasn't long though until we were close by and had a short 20 minute walk towards the mountains. Soon enough we were on a familiar shop lined walk up to the site. There were  lot of food vendors and in true Liz and Tom style we couldn't resist so we sampled a couple of flavoured rice cakes, one spicy, one sweet. They pretty much tasted like snack-a-jacks! Crispy and spicy/sweet but not very satisfying! We also spotted a poster boasting that during his visit to the area to promote the movie 'Inception', Leonardo Dicaprio had visited a refreshment stand!

Once we reached Ginkaku-ji we were pleased we had made the effort to continue. The fading sun made it all the more beautiful and the uphill walk provided a wonderful view of the gardens. The garden area itself was so well maintained, you felt like you were in a movie set for a Japanese Royal Palace.

We waited in line to take the bus back to Gion and as the sun set we splashed out on a can of beer from the 7/11 and sat down by the river. We weren't the only cheap skates I assure you! It was rather atmospheric as about a hundred bats started to come out and fly above us which was pretty cool. We walked about the area watching the people going about their business and no one stopped to gawp unabashed, as in Korea!

Was it time to eat again! Well by nine o'clock we had found what seemed to be one of the smallest bar and grills known to man. Wewere pretty amazed by the menu, a traditional skewer restaurant, but the offal on offer was a little out there... adam's apple anyone?

I had a few skewers of tuna and octopus, asparagus and a whole mini fish (wow I am getting adventurous), and Tom naturally went for tongue, stomache and diaphram. We had a sake or two and chatted with the two other people who could fit into the place. Both worked in the bar and were drinking in there on their night off!
Sounds like another country I know. Well after a handful of skewers each and two or three drinks the bill came to a total including tax of 92,000yen, 90pound or 180,000won!!!!!! Gob smacked silence. We left and took the train back to Osaka glad that we had bought return tickets in advance. Time to find a cash machine!

Kyoto - Kiyomizudera and Teapot Lane.

Our second day in Japan and we set off on the short 30 minute train ride between Osaka and the old capital Kyoto. The train cost around 7,000 return per person and was a nice journey.
We headed straight to the tourist info at the train station where we were faced with a bustle of people busily chatting about the many sites to see. We were beckoned by an adorable old man who spoke perfect English. He began to show us a well rehearsed loot of parafinalia which included maps and bus routes and nature trails and temples galore. We had the awful task of curbing his sincere enthusiasm as we told him we only had one day in Kyoto. He was clearly very exasperated and felt we could not possibly manage to do everything he wanted us to. He advised we focus on one area and we expressed an interest in the Gion district. This area has a few gorgeous temples, great quaint shopping lanes and a famous nightlife where if you are lucky you may bump into a Geisha.

We hopped on a bus for a 10 minute ride and then set off on the Gion walking tour. The first thing I saw was a group of women wearing beautiful kimonos. I'm not really sure if this was their normal attire or if it was a special occassion but there were a surprising number of women wearing them over the short time we visited.

We stopped at a deceivingly spacious restaurant which we found walking up towards the Kiyomizudera Temple within the Higashiyama District. The restaurant looked like a wooden house from the street with no real signage but there were entrance drapes hanging down and a small menu next to it. We would have missed it, had it not been for the woman standing on the street directing us inside.
We ordered the lunch specials. There was a menu filled with lunch sets. I went for tempura and conga eel which Tom seemed to think was very adventurous of me. I didn't realise at the time that conga eels can grow to huge lengths but to me it was just like a strong tasting fish. Tom had a chicken and rice dish. They came with a burnt tasting noodle soup and a huge protion of rice. Although the food is a little pricey, you certainly get your fill! We were also served cold water infused with rice tea. Very refreshing on a hot day.

We headed up to the temple walking down the quaintly named 'Teapot Lane', which sold pottery and various other souvenirs. 

Finally we arrived at the foot of the temple set into the mountains. We were approached by two very shy students who said they were volunteering as tour guides, free of charge, in order to practice their English. I was naturally a little suspicious (India has jaded me), but they were the sweetest kids and they were great at giving us the inside info even though most of it was read from the pamphlet. There were a few miscommunications. You can see in the picture, there is a large drop off the side of the balcony which the boy told me people used to jump from in order to test their bravery. It was a life lesson; risks must be taken in order to suceed. I understood that the people jumped into the trees and survived, but he said many people died!! Still not too sure about that one. Why would people do that? As soon as one died, no one else would have a go!

Our trusty guides.

There was also a water fountain sprouting three different streams, Otowa Waterfall. The water is divided into three separate streams and visitors drink from one of the three (after waiting in a long line). Each stream's water is said to have a different benefit, one is health, one career and the last beauty. But drinking from all three streams is greedy. We watched but didn't want to subject our guides to waiting in line. I would have chosen health.....or beauty... no maybe I didn't do it because I couldn't choose!

We were very fortunate to have their assistance and it was far more interesting visiting the temple with them. Their opinions on Korea were even more interesting as Koreans certainly have opinions about the Japanese. We continued back down the hill as guided by the walking tour info and luckily walked past a whole host of shops offering free snack samples. Mainly thin rice pancakes  filled with bean paste, chocolate and other more exotic (undecipherable) fillings. We were also handed rather a lot of green tea samples!

We continued along the walk taking in the atmosphere and free samples, while enjoying the sunshine! 

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Takoyaki & Okonomiyaki

The second installment in the tale of our trip to Japan over Chuseok (Korean National Holiday).

So after our rather large lunch, we had already spent 30 quid despite our initial intentions to find a cheaper options and save ourselves for the evening. This was proving difficult so we took some down time and headed over to The Blarney Stone, an Irish pub on a side street off Shinsaibashi shopping mall. The Blarney Stone is a very typical pub, bar stools covered with robust and stain proof carpet material and a huge projector screen was in place for the England v. Argentina rugby match. Tom couldn't possibly miss the action despite our current exciting location, but I didn't begrudge him. I was pretty knocked out from the heat and walking about. There was a promotion out front, a free shot incentive for anyone wearing a team shirt and I surmised it was a foreigner haunt rather than a Japanese local. But where else would we find the rugby match? We stayed for the duration of the game, had a few beers and were subjected to the taunts of the rest of the patrons who all seemed to be supporting Argentina. That just gave us all the more satisfaction when our team won! We were the only two celebrating so I felt a longing pride for my homeland!

We asked the Kiwi bar tender if he had any good restaurant recommendations, but all he said was, 'why not stay here'. The food was the usual pub grub and we didn't come to Japan to sample more of that so we moved on.

We headed back towards the river and crossed south where we found a wealth of food vendors and exuberant restaurants to tempt us. There was too much choice and variety! Although most of it seemed a little pricey, I know I keep coming back to that point but my one gripe with Japan is its damn expense!
We found a nice little Takoyaki stand to sample the famous Osaka street food. Takoyaki is a batter ball, filled with sliced octopus, almost like a fried dumpling and served with takoyaki or soy sauce. We went for the plain version. It was delicious and incredibly hot having just left the moulding grill. It was fun to try something so different and the appearance of all the huge protruding dragons and octopus along the street brought a level of ridiculousness while eating this snack. It was only a snack though, so we continued our search.

The second food we wanted to sample was the okonomiyaki. ''Okonomi'' meaning what you like, and ''yaki'' meaning fried. It was a strange feeling walking around the busy streets. In India we were used to touts approaching with the hard sell, not taking no for an answer. In Japan however, we were approached by a few vendors but when we told them we were looking for okonomiyaki, they young salesmen pointed us to a competing restaurant, one man said it was his favorite! How refreshing, a bit of honesty and guidance! I liked Japan more and more!

So after walking through the arcade, past a lonely wandering bear which only presented itself as another example of Japan's quirky spirit, we walked down some stairs to a small grill café where we ordered a seafood okonomiyaki and waited patiently, observing the other patrons so we could figure out what we were supposed to do when the food came out. We are used to Koreans pretty much taking over the bbq whenever we show our foreign faces, as though we can't figure out how to do it without constant supervision. But when the waitress brought out the ready made seafood, vegetable and what seemed to be eggy pancake, she only advised we put on some teriyaki sauce and mayo which we did and we cut the patty with the spatula and tucked in.

It was rather small and not so different from a regular savoury pancake. I actually prefer the Korean Pajeon. I did however like the sentiment of the hot plate and sharing the food. The taste was a rather comforting hotchpotch of bubble and squeak without potato and with added seafood. It had a re-fried left overs element which isn't as bad as it sounds, and anyway what is wrong with eating left overs!

We took a nice walk along the river and through the Dotonbori area, then called it a night. It was a lovely city walk if ever there was one, filled with the spirit of bright lights, happy faces and full bellies.

I think this sums up the expense of Japan, but neglects to tell you that you will also lose you health because of all the food you will be eating!

And so concludes our fist day in Osaka. Mainly eating and browsing shops, but that seems to be the running theme that allows Osaka to function! Next….. Kyoto.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Intro to Osaka- eat until you drop!

We arrived in Osaka around 12pm on Saturday morning happy in the knowledge that we had 5 days break from school and no where to be. We had taken a very relaxed and pleasant flight from Gimhae airport to Kansai and then hopped on a fast train into Osaka central. The train journey was very smooth and I was surprised by the endless houses and bicycles. It was striking how different Korea and Japan really are. A train in Korea would reveal green mountain after green mountain followed by a flurry of very similar purpose built apartment buildings, the tell tale sign of a rapidly developed country.... followed by mountain after mountain. Perhaps a small farm or temple in amongst.

Japan however seemed to have a sprinkling of suburbs, much like England. Smaller communities steadily joined together as they roll into one huge area of the wider city. But still there were more and more bicycles, each one shiny and new, lovingly ridden by their owners and carefully stored in little sheds or porches.

After arriving in Osaka, we walked from Namba train station up the incredible covered shopping street Shinsaibashi. There were ridiculous shops filled with bright displays, elegant and funky fashion, chunky boyish boots and expensive gourmet cakes. It was a feast for the eyes!

Osaka is famously the city to visit if you want to eat until you drop! I am not in the least surprised. Walking through the wide busy streets, it became apparent that food was very important in this place.  A hot spot for in-your-face food, literally. You couldn't possible just walk by some of the restaurants in this city. They had humongous artistic displays protruding out the face of the building. There were boats, dragons, angry looking chefs, crabs, and the famous Osaka octopus!

On that afternoon we were so overwhelmed we didn't really know where to start! We were pretty taken aback by the tourist prices, it certainly was not cheap. On a positive note there were no annoying scouts pestering tourists, you could wander around at your leisure and choose a restaurant based on merit, price or artistic force! We wandered though some of the back streets and lanes, and were struck by the sheer volume of Italian restaurants, coffee shops and continental cuisine.

We could have taken our pick of classy cake joints or pasta. We settled for a tiny cafe style self serve cafeteria, mainly because we were on a budget and didn't want to blow all our money on our first meal. The food was still delicious and the women were incredibly friendly and helpful. They were a couple of the only people we spoke to who didn't speak English, however they made every effort to ensure we were comfortable.


Miso soup, cold noodle salad

So with full bellies we set off to explore the streets, before the England v Argentina rugby game.... but that is for another time.

Borrowdale Tea Bread

My Dad recently went on a little weekend holiday to Teesdale. He sampled some traditional Tea Bread and sent me the recipe from the back of a National Trust postcard.
Traditionally, it is best served with butter and/or a slice of crumbly cheese. I had to make do with the only cheese available to me, Costco sharp cheddar. Once baked, it is best eaten the following day after it has had time to mature and crisp on the outside. If wrapped and stored correctly it can last some time.

Borrowdale Tea Bread

275ml / half pint hot tea
110g / 4oz raisins
110g / 4oz currants
110g / 4oz dark soft brown sugar
1 egg
225g/ self raising wholemeal (or white) flour

1. Pour tea over fruit and leave to soak overnight.
2. Next day, beat sugar and eggs together, then stir in flour and fruit.
3. Add enough of the tea soaking mixture to make a soft mixture.
4. Pour mixture into a greased and lined 19x10x5cm / 1lb loaf tin and bake for 45 mins @ 180C / 350F / gas 4 or until cooked.
5. Turn out of the tin and cool on rack.
6. To serve, cut slices, spread with butter and add a slice of cheese.

Unfortunately Korea is not a great country for purchasing bakery tools so I couldn't find a loaf tin. Instead, I fashioned a tin out of a deep pan dish and used greaseproof paper to box in the batter. That is why the shape is a little irregular.

Oh well, when something tastes this good it doesn't matter what shape it is!

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Cooking in Korean - Coconut Rocher and Chocolate Lollipop Making

I'm still buzzing from the fun I had this morning at our first cooking class in Korean! Luckily my Korean teacher Helen agreed to come along for the first class so she could translate, take part and generally take an interest as always. She is a wonderful lady.
There were eight foreigners in total, plus Helen. There were also three or four Koreans taking part in the class. I think they were a little overwhelmed at the start but they were very friendly and after class they said we made their experience very special which was lovely. We purposely chose a simple class for our first attempt just in case there were any communication problems. But the cookery school in Shinsegae Masan was very clean and professional. We foreigners were very much welcomed in and taken care of.

Our teachers


The first half of our lesson consisted of a tutorial in chocolate tempering which is the correct method of heating and cooling melted chocolate in order to make chocolate lollipops. I am sure you have sometimes seen chocolate shapes appear to have a thin white coating and this occurs when the chocolate has been heated or cooled too quickly or to the incorrect temperature. It's a very technical process and one which was obviously deemed too technical for us to actually carry out. We were a little disappointed that this was a tutorial section and we could not attempt it ourselves. Oh well, we have the info.

We used dark, white and green tea flavoured chocolate in piping bags and formed our own lollipops. We cooled them and later wrapped them in decorative gift bags. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately there was no dark chocolate left for my teddies as some students had been eating the chocolate from the bag! But I managed to form a heart with the green tea chocolate and fill the rest of my bear with white. I was quite pleased. The others seemed to bleed into each other, but I was pretty happy with my first attempt as a chocolatier. I have a new found respect for Thornton's. The teacher seemed very impressed with Leslie!

Steven and I

Leslie and her finished products
Next we began the Coconut Rocher. Not something I have ever even heard of to be honest but they were so simple to make. If you are familiar with Ferrero Rocher they are similar in that they are small and circular, but ours contained no chocolate.
We mixed an egg white with sugar, added some almond flour and shredded coconut with a dash or rum kept under the safe keeping of the teacher, and then moulded the mixture into balls. I laughed because mine seemed a little rough but it actually made them crispier. We baked them in the oven and my god they were good!

My finished coconut rocher

Roll on class number two!!