Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dim Sum in Tung Chung

Before heading home from our one week family vacation in Japan, it was time for a brief couple of nights in Hong Kong.  We frequent Hong Kong for two reasons: 1) We usually patronize Cathay Pacific, so it's a mandatory stop.  On flights back home Manila, it's always an option if we want to stopover or stay longer in Hong Kong.  2) I love Hong Kong and I can never get enough of this city.

Two nights in Hong Kong allowed for a full day to catch up with my best friend in his new place in Tung Chung.  Tung Chung is located relatively close to the Hong Kong International Airport.  For those of you who enjoy bargain shopping, there is a nice outlet mall with imported brand names located right at the MTR stop.

Before checking out his new pad, we walked around the outlet mall for something to eat.  After a week of Japanese food, I was ready for some dim sum.  So Federal Palace was the perfect place.  Even though we were only 2 people, I still wanted to enjoy some classic Cantonese bites while in Hong Kong.  I left the ordering to the local, and I just requested ordering plates I don't always get.  My love for constantly trying new things.

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show, check out my Flickr album: Tung Chung Dim Sum

Friday, July 20, 2012

Street Eating around Kobe

The last of my Japan updates, and I'm ending it with an afternoon full of street eats in Kobe.  I went into Kobe only knowing about the beef and the sweets.  The few hours spent in the streets of the downtown were a pleasant surprise.  I learned more about Japan's past walking through the Memorial Park and their dedication and passion to rebuild their country.  They have that love of country, and it's reflective in Kobe - how the city has maintained its pristine order, it's so clean!

Their love of country is reflective in their standard for food.  You can find the highest quality of food in the most ordinary places - groceries, department stores, shopping arcades, and street vendors.  Some of my favorite snacks were the street eats in Kobe.  The savories and the sweets, one after the next.  Grilled mochi, kakuni burger (aka, pork belly buns), crab croquettes, gaufres, waffles, cake rolls, parfaits.  I haven't had that much sugar in one day in a long time.  It was all so worth it to taste those treats made just in Kobe.

My favorite part about traveling is discovering the local specialties, the pride of the city or town.  In Kobe, there are so many specialties to show off.  What a city!  It's definitely worth checking out if you enjoy food, and make sure your stomach is empty so you can fully enjoy every bite the city has to offer.

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Kobe Street Eats

And that concludes my Japan trip! Hope you enjoyed my perspective of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. Until the next trip!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

History & Remembrance at the Port of Kobe

After an early afternoon full of street snacks, lunch, and an overdose of sweets, I was in need of a brief food break (which lasted 30 minutes).

A quick stroll through the Port of Kobe is a perfect break and a leisurely stroll to get to know more about the city.  The waterfront is a destination where you'll find the Memorial Park and various other tourist attractions, like a ferris wheel.

The Memorial Park is a remembrance dedicated to the city of Kobe and the surrounding areas affected by the 1995 earthquake that devastated Japan.  It destroyed nearly 250,000 homes and buildings and took the lives of over 40,000.  It was a tragic loss for Japan and for Kobe.

This port park shows the evidence of the devastation, with remnants of the rubble.  There is also a display of photos of the restoration process.  Japan has suffered from a number of life-altering earthquakes.  Yet, with every occurrence they have poured their hearts out into restoring their cities and their lives.  It is so evident in Kobe how hard work and dedication renewed the city.  Seventeen years later it is still so orderly and pristine.  Japan amazes me in so many ways..

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Port of Kobe

Monday, July 16, 2012

An Afternoon in Downtown Kobe

We're food tripping around Japan.  We've already re-visited Tokyo, and spent an afternoon and evening around downtown Osaka.  So what's next?

A 20-minute train ride to.. Kobe!  The land of beef, breads, baked goods, and sweets.

From the Kobe train station, we crossed a couple streets and headed to Kobe's shopping arcade full of local shops, restaurants, and cafes.  We didn't go here to shop for clothes, we came here to shop to fill our stomachs.  I definitely had a sugar rush all day from all the sweets I tasted.  What a great sugar rush, too.  There are so many sweets unique to Kobe.

Just parellel to the arcade street is the Chinatown.  I typically don't check out all the Chinatowns in the cities I visit, but this one is worth walking through.  It is the CLEANEST.  For me, that made it even more fun to frequently stop at the stalls and constantly nibble on all the local treats.  I wish every Chinatown was like this.

 More on the street eats at the end of the week..

Here are pictures of the journey to Kobe, the sights of the arcade, and Chinatown.
If you can't see the slide show, check out my Flickr album: Kobe Day Trip - Arcade

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Matsusaka Beef Experience in Osaka

After reading the NY Times 36 Hours in Osaka article, we were convinced to spend a couple nights in Osaka.  The paragraph that reeled us in to Osaka wrote, "Kobe is not the only place in Japan pampering its cattle. In fact, an arguably more delectable steak comes from the massaged, beer-sipping, black-haired variety in Matsusaka, about two hours east of Osaka." It went on to talk about a yakiniku restaurant serving the beef where you can grill yourself at your table.

Matsusakagyu Yakiniku was one of the most memorable meals, ever.  We tasted 7 of the 12 cuts of beef.  Every cut of beef would melt so gently and so beautifully on my tongue.  This is seriously one of the best tasting cuts of beef I've ever tasted.  It was an epic night to savor.

If I were a cow, I'd love to be a Japanese cow.. A Matsusaka cow.  A life of massages and beer!  That is the life.

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Matsusakagyu Osaka

Friday, July 13, 2012

Dinner with Bread at Kobeya Kitchen in Osaka

An early evening of walking around Osaka Station's department stores left me hungry for a filling dinner.  Like all Japanese department stores, there are a number of restaurants on the upper floors.  So after walking around the restaurant floors and getting even hungrier, we decided on a Japanese steak restaurant.  Unfortunately, after a few dishes the service just got worse and worse.  So we ended that meal early in search of a different restaurant.

With only 10 minutes before restaurant closing, we were welcomed into Kobeya Kitchen.  The menu's pictures of hamburg steak were too tempting not to try.  Kobeya Kitchen is a bakery with several outlets of bread shops and restaurants serving their breads.  Kobe is a port city which was heavily influenced by Europe in the past, as a result the locals eat more bread than rice.

The menu is full of choices that can all be eaten with bread.  It's a filling dinner when you order a bread basket, which allows you to get unlimited bread for a limited time.  The selections you choose are served piping hot as each roll and slice is warmed in the oven.

The hamburg steak was the perfect order to fill my hungry stomach.  And after 5 rolls and slices of bread to sop up the sauce, and a glass of cold draft beer, I was completely satisfied.  The next time I'm in Japan and come across another Kobeya Kitchen, I'm definitely stopping to eat.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Kobeya Kitchen Osaka

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Department Store Snacking in Osaka

Just like in Tokyo, one of our main attractions in Osaka was the department store food halls.  It's easy to think that the same branding of department stores will pretty much have the same kind of food halls.  Not at all!

In Osaka, the Daimaru and Mitsukoshi Isetan department stores seemed even bigger and better than some of the ones we just saw in Tokyo.  They have sweets and savories from Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto - a lot of goodies that we didn't see and taste in Tokyo.

In reading about Osaka, the city likes to be the "anti-Tokyo."  For example, in Tokyo you stand on the left side of the escalator, and over take on the right.  In Osaka, it's the complete opposite.  So it's easy to spot a visitor from Tokyo if you're in Osaka.  (And if you stand in the middle and block the way, it's obvious you're a tourist.)

With that spirit of rivalry and competition, Osaka's department store food halls really make an effort to compete on the same level as the best in Tokyo.

A little side story: After taking one of the pictures (of the Belgian beer) I was told that I was not allowed to take pictures because I tried to frame the picture of the beer with a little background.  In the department stores, the Japanese are seriously strict about the no picture policy.  I guess you have to go for yourselves to see all the amazingness I'm talking about..

Here are some pictures of the snacks I had at the food halls and some that I took home to enjoy.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Osaka Department Store Eats

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Shinsaibashi & Dotonbori Sights in Osaka

In our Japan itinerary, we set aside an afternoon and night to explore downtown Osaka.  The main attractions for us were Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori streets.  If it's your first time in Osaka, this must be in your itinerary, too.

Shinsaibashi-Suji Shopping Street is the famous shopping area in Osaka.  It's a roofed arcade that runs about a third of a mile (600 meters) long.  The covered arcade is a great way to familiarize yourself with Osaka's shopping and eating culture.  There are so many restaurants, cafes, and snack stops with Japanese, imported, and local-Osaka treats.

Further down the street is Dotonbori street - famous for local eats including okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus-battered balls).  The street is filled with so many signs and lights.  It's best to go at night to enjoy it all.  Plus, there are so many side streets to pop into and get lost. It was fun to discover hidden gems of restaurants and bars filling these streets.

Here are pictures of sights along the walkway of Shinsaibashi and through Dotonbori and its side streets.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Osaka Arcade and Doutonburi Eats

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

St. Regis Hotel in Osaka

Like all of my trips with my parents, one of the highlights of a destination is the hotel.  Clean, comfortable, and almost always conveniently located.  The St. Regis Hotel in Osaka was just that.  It opened in 2010, so it still had a relatively new feel.  The location is ideal, too, as it's situated right where the local shopping arcade starts.  So it's a leisurely walk into the heart of downtown Osaka.

The hotel has its luxury perks, like a butler per floor who is one telephone call away.  And, a pillow menu with 11 kinds of pillows to choose.  However, compared to other 5-star hotels, I was surprised there was no turn-down service.  It's a nice convenience to come back to a room with fresh towels and a fluffed-up bed at the end of the day.  I noticed details like that made a difference between this hotel and other 5-star hotels, especially around Asia.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed my 2 nights here in Osaka, and I definitely see myself going back in the future - both to this city and to this hotel.

If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: St Regis Osaka

Monday, July 09, 2012

Train Tripping around Japan

My past trips to Japan were focused in Tokyo.  There's so much to do in the city and with just a few days it's hard to go anywhere else.  But, in the past couple of years, we've been doing more research (thanks to great travel articles online in the NY Times and our favorite food magazines, like Saveur and Food & Wine), and have tailored more of our trips to include at least 2 cities.

After days of research, we found a great 36 Hours article in the Times on Osaka.  It talked about specialty beef as good as Kobe beef and a relatively new luxury hotel.  Beef and a new hotel?  Our itinerary was made - 2 nights in Osaka, including a day trip to Kobe.  All by train, the easiest way to get around Japan.

The train and subway systems in Japan are the most convenient way to get around the cities and the country.  Prior to arriving in Japan, we ordered a Japan Rail (JR) Pass which allows tourists unlimited rides on all trains.  It's something you can get at your local authorized offices.

Depending on the train schedule, you can get to Osaka from Tokyo between 2-3 hours.  Be sure to pick up bento boxes at the station.  It's a great meal to enjoy during the ride.  The boxes I chose were so quality - way better than a lot of mid-level restaurants in the states, and for the same price.

I was so impressed when I arrived in Osaka.  I didn't set any expectations and I didn't do too much research (it's sometimes nice to be surprised when you arrive in a new city).  All I knew was that Osaka was a city filled with great eats.  It's so true.

In this coming week, I'll have posts about the hotel, the local eats, the department store munchies, and a couple of memorable restaurant meals.

For now, here are some pictures from the train rides to and from Tokyo and Osaka.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Osaka Train Ride

Friday, July 06, 2012

Non-stop eating at Mitsukoshi Ginza

Our main destination in Japan was exploring the food halls of the department stores, namely Mitsukoshi, Daimaru, and Takashimaya.  Mitsukoshi and Daimaru are a couple of the better quality ones, and it really shows in the brands and products they house.

For most of our early mornings and afternoons, we nibbled on sweets and savories around the food halls (which don't have tables or counters to eat.  You have to discreetly step aside like a tourist to eat it right then and there, go up to the designated tables and benches (at Mitsukoshi Ginza it's on the 9th floor), or take it back to your hotel to enjoy later).  All that nibbling really just made us hungry for a real meal.  The top floors of these department stores all have sit down restaurants with a large variety of cuisines.  Japanese, European, Chinese, Thai, Korean, etc.

Mitsukoshi Ginza was one of our highlights for food halls and their upper floor restaurants.  On the 2nd floor, we were repeat customers at Laduree for macarons.  I could eat boxes and boxes of their pistachio and caramel macarons.  So chewy and packed with intense flavor.

On the 9th floor, you can bring up food from the food halls and enjoy them on their tables inside and out on the garden patio.  Or, you can also take a break at the Minori Cafe.  Towards the end of the trip, my feet and legs needed a rest, so a Kirin and coffee break was perfectly refreshing out on the garden patio.

For sit-down restaurants, the upper floors have a fun variety.  There are so many options that you want to go back to try almost all of them out.  For one lunch, I squeezed in 2 meals.  The first was at Hakone Akatsuki for fresh handmade soba.  On display behind a glass window, an old soba master constantly rolls and cuts the noodles with such passion and precision.  Immediately following this first course, I went for some Japanese style pizza at Maestro Ks.  Japanese style uses their own flour for more chewiness and with their unique toppings.  This is the best pizza I've encountered around the world, but unfortunately (a huge unfortunately), the service was so rude the second time around (telling the empty restaurant was fully committed at 5pm when all we wanted was a couple pizza pies).  Why give money to a place that doesn't want to serve you?

For our final dinner, we feasted on more tonkatsu at Tonkatsu Japanese Apricot, a mid-to-higher end katsu chain.  These breaded cutlets were some of the fluffiest, flakiest, and crispiest we've tasted.  The "toro" tonkatsu is a bit too excessive with fat, but the special cut and regular cut were far above average.

If I had more time, or even just more room in my stomach, I wanted to try out a couple more places on the 11th floor - okonomiyaki and hamburg steak.  Next time!

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Mitsukoshi Ginza Eats

Thursday, July 05, 2012

9 years later, back at Katsukura

There are some foods that are just exceptionally better in their home country.  Burgers in the U.S., tapas in Spain, Mexican food in California (while not the "home country", Hispanics are becoming a real majority - and thereby influencing the state with their cuisine), lechon in the Philippines, xiao long bao in Taiwan and China, and tonkatsu in Japan.  Tonkatsu!  I've been dreaming about this meal since my last trip to Tokyo in 2003.  That's the last time I've had great, or even good, katsu in a restaurant.

Tonkatsu is panko breaded and deep fried pork cutlet.  So many people try to emulate this Japanese dish, but I've only had memorable katsu in Japan, never in the states or here in Manila (although, I gotta admit my dad does a pretty great job of it at home).  In 2003, my family found a tonkatsu restaurant at Takashimaya Times Square in Shibuya area in Tokyo.  This restaurant had a nature-themed atmosphere  with greenery and almost a teahouse feel.  The whole katsu experience was unlike any I've had before that.  It was the first time I grinded roasted sesame seeds for my katsu sauce, and we had unlimited cabbage and rice, too.  The katsu had flaky and crusty bread crumbs that perfectly crunched and melted with the bites of pork.  Despite our limited number of days, I wanted to eat here for both lunch and dinner.  I couldn't get enough.  It's the marker I've placed all these years as my standard of how good tonkatsu should taste.

Nine years forward, and we're back at Takashimaya Times Square.  Back at Katsukura.  Would it be just as good, just as great?  After a long day of flying and a subway commute with more walking than I cared for on a hungry stomach, I was seated in Katsukura.  The restaurant itself has changed - it's more minimalist with all that natural decor gone.  Just dark wood tables, benches, and seats.  It sort of lost some of it's charm.  This chain has expanded over the years and has opted to become a mid-level katsu restaurant.  We went there twice in 2 nights and realized this place has lost its consistency.  The first night was just as delectable as I remember.  I ordered the special cut of pork which was flaky, crunchy around that buttery pork.  Plus, I had another favorite - crab croquette.  So creamy with real crab meat inside a crunchy batter.  The second night, I ordered the regular cut of pork, as did others at my table.  Some were great, but some had gristle and excess fat.  The quality in choosing pork cutlets lacked.  Although, the crab croquette was just as excellent.  Consistency is so important, especially to keep repeat customers.  After this night, we realized that while the katsu was still better than those we've had in Manila or in the states, we needed to go around Tokyo to find more katsu places instead.

The downside of this realization: the place I fondly remembered to have to best katsu doesn't really have the best katsu anymore.  The upside of all this - we got to go around Tokyo eating more katsu!

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Katsukura

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Main Event in Tokyo - Department Store Food Halls!

The main destination for all our trips to Japan - department stores.  I'm talking about the higher end department stores like Isetan, Mitsukoshi, Daimaru, and even Takashimaya, and so on.  And we don't go here to shop, not for clothes or accessories anyways.

We go for the food halls.  B1, B2, and lower.  They are our museums.  We didn't even go to any museums this trip.  It was all just about the food.  Japanese department store food halls are some of the best, if not the best, in the world.  There are sweets, savories, snacks, meals, a grocery.. it's all Japanese and Japanese-influenced/perfected European foods.

I was so fascinated with how the Japanese take a European product that's already tasty, and they make it tastier and perfect.  Take the macaron, for instance; I fell in love with Laduree and Pierre Herme macarons in Paris, and it's somehow even tastier in Japan - the same product and the same branding.  The same goes for all the other pastries like croissants, and even the breads.  I love Japanese-Italian pastas and pizzas, too, that are so distinctly Japanese influenced with a little sweetness in the pastas and a little tastier chewiness in the pizzas.

The only negative is that you can't take pictures.. for paranoia of copycats.  Gah!  My brother tried a few times and always got caught.  But, it's ok to take pictures of the food you purchase, just so long as the department store isn't in the background (as I got caught doing in Osaka).

Aside from food halls in department stores, the main train stations, like the Tokyo Station, also have an impressive spread of food sections with a high quality variety.  It's a great place to grab a bento box before taking a train trip, or for a lunch stop or snack.

These food halls clearly show that the Japanese love good quality food, they expect a high quality and have high standards, and they really know how to eat so well.

Place your cursor above "Notes" below to read the captions for each photo.
If you can't see the slide show here, check out my Flickr album: Tokyo Dept Store and Train Station Eats

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Restful Nights at the Peninsula Tokyo

When my family reminisces about our past trips, we always talk about the food and the hotel - the convenient location, the service, and the clean luxury.  I love it when hotels make you feel like you're home with extra pampered service.

After days of research and scrolling through numerous Trip Advisor pictures, we chose a reputable hotel near Ginza, Peninsula Tokyo.  We've stayed at Peninsula Bangkok and Peninsula Shanghai in the past and are repeat customers because of their top notch service - their top notch Asian service and attention to detail.  Peninsula Tokyo is no exception.

If you frequent the newer Peninsula hotels around Asia, you'll notice that the floor plans are all replicated, with the local wood finishes as their unique factor.  While I love traveling and discovering new sights and tastes, it's also really nice to rest with a little bit of familiarity.

If you can't see the slideshow, check out my Flickr album: Peninsula Tokyo

Monday, July 02, 2012

Back in Tokyo after 9 years

My first memory of traveling in Asia goes back about 20 years when my family toured Tokyo in the early 90s.  I'm passionate about travelling and food because of my family's influence.  It's what we do best as a family - travel together and eat well together.  Every trip and every vacation has always been food centric.  Japan has some of my earliest and my favorite food and travel memories.  The last time I was in Tokyo was in 2003, 9 years ago.  (Fun little fact - at that time we stayed at the new Park Hyatt in Shibuya and saw Sofia Coppola walking through the lobby.  Turned out she was doing pre-production research for "Lost in Translation."..Yeah, it's been that long since we've been to Japan..)

This trip was a highly anticipated reunion with one of my favorite food cities.  Tokyo is just as I remember, and even more tasty now that I was pairing cold beer with every meal.  I'm in love with Japanese beer.  Sapporo, Asahi, and Kirin are the first beers I remember drinking.  They are all so much better on tap in Japan!  It's the freshness, the chill, AND the creamy frothy head.  Every glass of beer was perfect.

Aside from Tokyo, we also toured through Osaka and Kobe.  There are so many food destinations in Japan.  Every area has their own specialty.  This trip was like our re-starting point into discovering more of the country.  

This week I'm featuring Tokyo, next week will be Osaka, and the following week will show are day trip to Kobe.  To start it off, here are some tourist shots of the infrastructure, night lights, and scenes around Tokyo.
If you can't see the slideshow here, check out my Flickr album: Around Tokyo