Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 10: Spent the day at Tokyo. Night flight back to LCCT, Malaysia.

Well it is Day 10, our last day in Japan. Originally we have not had anything planned for the day, leaving it open....

The night before we had a discussion on what we should do today....I suggested we go to Tokyo Disneyland, but my dear suggested we go to watch the Sumo match.

The decision wasn't that simple.... but in the end we decided to go watch Sumo :(

Sumo matches only run during the season, and each season only runs for 2 weeks. There are 6 seasons in year, and fortunately we were in the right place and right time to see one... Yes, Disneyland would still be there the next time we visit.... :(

In the morning, we had planned to visit the Harajuku area as it was the same JR stop as the one to visit the Meiji Shrine. Once we exited Harajuku JR Station, we could see one of the main street where those who enjoy to play dress-up or Costume Play (Cosplay) gather on Sundays. They would dress in their favourite manga, anime or computer game characters. Unfortunately when we visited on Monday, there was NOT a single person in costume.... NOT ONE.... so sad... No photography opportunity for me. Instead it is a street with shops that sell costumes, clothing and other accessories. We walked around, hoping to catch someone in costume.... but I guess, even these Superheros need a day job...

Here we are at the Torii gate, which is the entrance to the Meiji grounds. The Meiji Shrine was built to Commemorate the late Emperor Meiji and his wife. The entrance is a few minutes walk from the JR station. Once you enter the Meiji grounds, you'll be surrounded by lots of trees, almost like a reserve forest. The path leading to the Meiji Shrine is about 10-15 minutes walk. Once you are 2-3 minutes into the grounds, you forget that you are in the middle of a huge city. Cooling, calm, quiet.... a tranquil feeling you'll get while taking a stroll towards the Meiji Shrine.

Once we arrive at the Shrine, there is a big court yard, with small buildings surrounding it. You'll be able to buy your good luck charms, like those that we saw earlier at the other Temples that we had visited. There was a huge trees in the middle of the court yard, and surrounding it, was these wooden planks (like small wooden notes) that people leave behind, sort of like a wish or blessing. Overall the visit was a quick visit, just to soak up the atmosphere. Lots of locals visit too, to pay their respect. There were lots of other supporting buildings in the Meiji grounds, but those we didn't visit. They had buildings for sports, meetings rooms and other stuff.

The next stop for us is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Deck. Located at 45th Floor, about 200 meters above ground, it is one of the best observation deck to visit in Tokyo. And the best part..... it is FREE! There are the North and South tower. There was a queue for the lift to go to the observation deck. There were probably about 50 people in front of us, some were locals, and others were tourist like us. The queue move pretty quick, with a lift coming every few minutes to pick up more guests. About 15 minutes we waited for the lift, in the same time went through some security checks.

The view from the observation deck was breathtaking. On a clear day, you'll be able to view the city skyline as well as the Mount Fuji from this very deck. We could see the very faint Mount Fuji, but unfortunately the camera was not able to capture that on.

You can see from the photos that Tokyo's skyline is really dense. And you can see, hundreds if not thousands of buildings from where we are standing. The view from up here, it really gives you the feel that Tokyo is one of the world's busiest and most dense place to stay or work. When you are done admiring the skyline, you can visit the shops setup at the 45th floor, selling touristy stuff.

The last stop of the day is to visit the Sumo Championship. You can find their schedule and other information at their Official Grand Sumo page. I'll write more about the details about your Sumo Championship outing in a separate post.

Our Sumo match ended at about 6pm. When trying to catch the subway back, it was seriously crowded. After waiting at least 2 trains, we managed to board one... it was so PACKED in the train that, we were literally packed like sardines.... I couldn't move my arms ... and it was so packed that, you'll have difficulty breathing... you would NOT have any room to move or maneuver. And when the train stops, its not like you can give way for them to leave, you are literally pushed out as they leave.... so, you'll have to quickly break-away and run back to the train before it gets filled up again... what an experience....

We decided to return to the same place for dinner, to our Spicy Tsukemen place. Tsuekemen post here.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel to pick up our baggaged before heading to the airport.

The journey to the airport was a short one.... but it sure felt like eternity. 10 days has just passed, like light speed, but the last 2 hours.... seems like the slowest one ever... Sad that we would have to leave Japan.... sad that we would not be able to enjoy authentic Japanese food.... sad that we couldn't spend a few more days on the slopes snowboarding.... sad that we couldn't wonder around Tokyo city.....

Spicy Tsukemen (Spicy Dipping Noodles)

This is one of those meals that we tried without any recommendation or reviews. We just walked around the streets of Tokyo, looking for something interesting to eat. But we did tell ourselves, no more Sushi, no more Yakitori.... no Ramen.....

Then we found this place in the Shinjuku area! Most the restaurants nearby looks very commercialise, and we were hoping to eat some local food, something that we have not tried before... something authentically Japanese... The menu on the outside looks really simple (like only a few items), so we took a peep inside. It was quite crowded, so we decided to give it a ago!

Tsuekemen (dipping noodles) or Spicy Tsukemen (spicy dipping noodles).... with a menu like that, it wasn't too difficult to decide. But from what we noticed in the shops, everybody had the Spicy Tsukemen....

We decided to order the Large set (since its the same price as Medium set) and share. The noodles are served cold in a separate bowl from the Spicy soup. We had to study it a little from all the other locals on how they consume the Tsukemen (SOP)

Remember: Whenever in doubt, just follow the crowd!

Here they have some stuff written in English, obviously for tourist like us to look and try to understand why the noodles are so perfect in texture (chewy and crunchy but not being tough or rubbery).

So according to the instructions, the noodles is served cold, to retain its taste and texture. To eat the Tsukemen, you'll take a serve with your chopsticks and dip it into the Soup and consume. With the first bite, you'll realise that the noodles are truly perfect in texture and taste. The noodles looks like Ramen, but its texture and the taste is so different.

The Spicy soup is very thick in texture, so when you dip your noodles in, it will coat it properly. I can't really describe how it taste, as I have never tasted anything similar to it. All I can say is that, it is tasty, spicy and thick, a little like Curry soup, but without the curry flavour taste.

After you have finished your noodles, you'll pour in some of the provided chicken broth into the left-over spicy soup, which has thicken a little with all the dipping and drink it like a soup!

Here we have a photo of the menu, it was very simple, with only option to choose whether u want spicy or non spicy, in which size, and the side orders.

We tried the Gyoza, it was good. Like I always say, any Gyoza made from pork is always better than those chicken ones in Malaysia!

Here we have some spiced been sprouts side dish. It was a little spicy and had a little vinegar to give it a tangy spicy taste, a little like pickle vegi...

The Spicy Tsukemen was so good and unique, we had to go back there a second time, the next night.... we knew what was at stake, as we probably would never get to taste anything like this ever again....

The 2nd night we ordered with different toppings, like the bamboo shoots, roast pork and soft boiled eggs. One other thing that you'll get to eat alot when you are in Japan is their perfectly cooked soft boiled eggs... with the yolk, semi-cooked, yet still very moist.... absolutely brilliant!

I have marked the location of where we ate in the location link below.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sushi Dai, Tsukiji Market

By recommendation by one of our friends (their blog post here), we went in search of the famous Sushi Dai, with hour long queues.

Unfortunately, after going in circles and with no Internet access (no Google Maps), we asked a few locals. Instead they lead us to another Sushi Dai shop. Honestly, I don't know how to read Kanji or Chinese and have got no idea what it says. At least it is a Sushi Restaurant.

Well, they had some set menu priced at ¥1000/set or ¥1500/set. We decided to order both the sets and see what is the difference.

Tables are all setup for set lunch. Restaurant is small, sitting only about 10 people around the sushi bar and another 2 smaller rooms for small groups.
When you order set meal, the Sushi Chef will decide and make you 10 pieces of sushi. It is up to him to decide what he should make and serve you. Can you see the ginger sitting on the wedding ledge? That is the same place where all your sushi will be served.

Here are our basic 10 piece set that was delivered. There was a tamago, squid and prawn. The rest are raw fish. Honestly, I couldn't differentiate between all the raw fishes. But all the sushi provided was extremely fresh. It didn't have any fishy smell.

Nobody in the shop spoke a single world of English, not to mention, there was no menu in English either. But the Sushi Chef did make it clear to us that, you're only allowed to use soya sauces on raw items, not cooked! Also, when you request for wasabi, they'll all give you like a look. They probably find it insulting, as the chef knows best and had put just the right amount in each sushi.

Here is the extra 3 pieces if you ordered the ¥1500/set. Honestly... I had no idea what it was. One of it is probably squid, but the other two I had no idea. Really sad that we don't even know exactly what is each piece about.

Here are the 2 Sushi Chef doing what they do best. Their service was quick, with each serving you whatever sushi they were preparing. As more people came in, they just served what has been prepared, and continue to make more.

Overall the experience was great. It was different from the last Sushi Train shop that we visited at Kutchan. Over here, the main theme is all about the freshness of their sushi.

Day 9: Spent the day at Tokyo. Overnight at Tokyo.

TOKYO... we are finally here...

Our First stopped is the Sensoji Temple. We bought the daily ticket ( ¥1000/adult) for the Metro and Toei Line (Subway) which allowed us to use all of the Tokyo Subway for the day.

We had to take the Subway to the Asakusa stop. Right outside the station, you'll see lots of people gathering outside the entrance to the Sensoji Temple. Some were Japanese, while others were tourist like us.

After you enter the entrance, you'll see a whole stretch of shops selling food, souvenirs and other local things. We bought some clothing (Kimono style robes) as well as other Japanese souvenirs. We had earlier bought Japanese souvenirs from a wholesale shop, saving us easily 30-50% off the retail price here. Will post it in another post. While the Mrs was busy shopping, I was as usual, hungry and tried more local food.

In the area foyer area outside the Sensoji Temple, there was a large gathering of locals, visiting the temple as it was a famous place of worship. We tourist was also there to soak up the atmosphere and capture for photos as a reminder of their trip to Japan. Like the shrine we visited in Sapporo, we are suppose to cleanse our self before entering the Temple. There were also places where you could buy tokens or charms. Some were burnt, while other were used like lucky charms.

Directly next to the Sensoji Temple, there was a Shrine known as Asakusa Shrine. We paid our respect at the Sensoji Temple and Asukusa Shrine before heading off.

By recommendation from our friends Jeremy and Shirlene who were also in Japan about 2 weeks prior to us, they told us we had to try the famous Sushi Dai (their blog post here). We were walking around the area that they had marked on their Map, but couldn't find the shop. After a few rounds of the area, we decided to ask the locals, and they directed us here. This is also called a "Sushi Dai". Maybe its a general term given or something to these type of restaurant. I will post a separate post on our Sushi lunch.

We then headed off to the famous Tsukiji Market which was round the corner. No we didn't manage to see the famous fish auction that normally happens at like 5AM. We just had a walk through the area to soak up the atmosphere. Most of the stalls were already closed by the time we were there. We were hoping to see those gigantic frozen tuna or something, but nope.... not of those sort.

You can catch a glimpse of what really goes on at my friends blog. He had the opportunity of visiting the actual auction and have some beautiful photos to go with it.

The next stop, Tokyo Imperial Palace. Situated in the middle of the city, the area surrounding the Imperial Palace is like a huge park. All around the Imperial Palace ground is modern high rise buildings.

 The place is huge, and just walking to the entrance of the palace is probably close to 1km away...
Beautiful city skyline could be seen at the outside of the Imperial Palace grounds. A huge park, with city as the background right in the centre of Tokyo city, one of the busiest city in the world!

Here is supposedly the entrance to the Imperial Palace. There is a bridge across a moat to the Imperial Palace ground.

And on the far end, above the hill, it seems to be the actual palace. Can't confirm it, but it sure looks like it as its the highest point.

By now, my legs feel like a tonne of bricks. I have been walking non-stop the whole day, and yes our tourist activity is finally over.... Now take me to Tokyo city, and let's do some window shopping!

We roam the streets of Tokyo, like a kampung boy in a big city. The place is really dense, with lot's of shopping centre to visit in a small area. Everything seems to be built upwards.

We had no idea what to try for dinner tonight, so we randomly walked and decided to try this place. Purely random.

It is called Tsukemen (dipping noodles). Basically its cold noodles that you dip into hot spicy soup and then you eat. Read our full detailed posts here.

Day 8: Spent the morning at Kushiro looking for Tancho (Japanese Crane). Afternoon flight to Haneda. Overnight at Tokyo.

Mission: To view the Japanese Crane (Tancho)
Difficulty: High
Success Rate: Low

It will be an intense day for us. We had taken a 4 hour train ride the day before to Kushiro, a small fishing village famous only for 2 things... a fishing village and a place where you might see the Japanese Crane or better know in Japanese as Tancho.

The day before we had gathered some intelligence from the local Tourist centre as well as the hotel which is the best site to visit, with the highest probability of seeing one of these Japanese Crane (Tancho). Their opinions were mixed, but they did tell us what was the best time to go... late mornings is the recommended sighting times.

You could see the list of location where you might see these Cranes here.

Our schedule was tight, and we only had the morning for our mission. Our flight back to Tokyo was scheduled at 3:20pm. Originally we had planned to visit two seperate location, hoping to catch a glimpse of these Tanchos.  But due to the latest intel that we received, it is best that we arrive at our target location late morning.

We spent the morning walking around the small town of Kushiro. Everywhere we walked, we were reminded that this is the place to visit if you wanted to see the Tancho. Posters, man-hole covers, even the street lamps had the Crane design.

Our hotel was situated next to the river, opposite the Kushiro Fisherman's Wharf (Moo). We spend a few minutes walking along the river bank capturing these stunning photos. The weather was great, nice and sunny. The town was simple, like one of those small neglected towns. It didn't feel very commercialise.

We went to the Kushiro Fisherman's Wharf (Moo) hoping to get some local fresh sushi for breakfast, unfortunately it was nothing like the Hakodate market that we had visited. It was a very small and simple market. The ground floor area was probably half wet market and another half selling food and some touristy stuff. The rest of the building was also a let down, with of an interest or anything commercial to see. If you wanted a little history about the Kushiro, or more knowledge about the Fishing industry, you may walk through some of these exhibits setup on the upper floors.

We headed over to the bus station early. We didn't want to miss the bus, as their bus schedule had like a 2 hour cycle. Please check this site for local bus schedule (Use the Google Translator). Since we had already picked our destination, we had used this bus line to get to our destination.

Our scheduled departure time from the Kushiro Station (Next to the JR Station) is at 10:25AM, arriving at our destination Tsurumidai (鶴見台) by 11:18AM. And we had to depart Tsurumidai at 12:08 heading back to back to Kushiro. Schedule was really tight. We could NOT afford to miss the bus, or have the bus breakdown on us.

Our bus ride to our destination was a long one. We had to go through all town area followed by the outskirts before arriving at what looked like a huge flat lands (wetlands). Our ride felt like eternity. Filled with anticipation, we don't know what will do if we do miss the sighting of the Tanchos.

Fortunately, we did see one of these Japanese Crane walking as our bus passed a field. Not only were we excited but another Japanese couple on the bus too was equally excited. I just realised that some of these Japanese visitors probably travelled hundreds of miles too, like us to see these great Japanese Crane.

Mission Accomplished?

NO, Eelin was not satisfied of just catching a glimpse of these birds. We travelled so far, from Sapporo, to this corner of Hokaido just to catch a glimpse? Boy would we be dissapointed if we only had a glimpse....

As we near our destination, our hearts began to beat faster. Filled with anticipation, we kept a lookout throughout the open land, but not a crane in sight....

When we finally arrived at our destination, we saw a field filled with Tanchos. Easily 50 of them, roaming the field, feeding on grains the locals had left for them. Lots of Japenese were at the fence with their Zoom lense trying to capture these Majestic Birds at its very best, in Nature.

Mission Accomplished!

It was a beautiful sight. We could see these Japanese cranes feeding. Some were flying in, while others flew away.

For the first time on the trip, I actually regreted not bringing along a 70-200mm F2.8 L lens.... then again I don't own one, but I can't imagine carrying that monster all around Japan... a little too heavy. We were able to capture some of these close-up photos with the Canon G9, which had a slightly longer reach than my 17-55mm lens (28-80 equivalent).

Here Eelin capture these birds as they flew away. These cranes being huge birds, needed a long runway to take off. They have to run for a few meters before gaining enough speed for the take off... like a little clumsy bird....

Here is a photo that we captured as it flew over us from across the street. Just magnificent.... the birds had a wing span of about 2 meters long!

Here we have a photo about the history of the Tancho. You may click on the image above to view and read it in higher resolution. Summary below:-

The Tancho is also known as a bird of good omen. The crane is about 5 feet tall with a wing span of 6 feet weighing about 7-12kgs. By about 1910, people thought that this birds have been extinct due to indiscriminate hunting. However in the 1924, they discovered 20 Tanchos living in the Kushiro Marsh. The government together with the locals decided to start a protection operation as well as provide food to these Cranes during the severe winters, where food for both the birds and humans were scarce. Today, there are more than 600 Tanchos living in the area.

For anyone who visits Hokkaido in winter, we would recommend them to take the trip to Kushiro to see these majestic and beautiful Japanese Cranes (Tancho).

It is time to head back now. Our time at Tsurumidai only lasted us 50 minutes. But the journey to get here from Sapporo was a long but worthwhile one.

When we arrived at our hotel, we quickly got our bags and headed for Kushiro Fisherman's Wharf (Moo) across the street. The shuttle Bus service from Moo to the airport was synchronized, meaning that the bus service only ran if there was a scheduled flight. The bus was scheduled to leave Moo about 1.5 hours before the flight scheduled time.

Our flight arrived at Haneda at about 5PM. Since it was Sunday, we got a special weekend pass (¥500/adult) that allowed us to head to our destination without pay too much.

We decided to stay at Shinjuku area as it was quite centralised. We checked in a Hotel Sunroute Takadanobaba Hotel. It was situated 2 minutes away from the Takadanobaba JR Station.

You can get a map of the Tokyo Subway map (Toei Line & Tokyo Metro Line) here.
And also the JR Train map here.

Please note that the JR and Subway are run by different companies. Even the subway is ran by at least 3 companies, but they do have a pass that allows you to share and use all of their subway services as a group.

We wondered around the area near our Hotel looking for a meal. And also in the smaller shopping district around our hotel.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Yakitori at Toraya Oyaji, Kushiro, Japan

This placed was recommended by the receptionist at the Hotel. They gave us a brochure and off we went. The location was probably a few minutes walk, right behind our La Vista Hotel, Kushiro.

Honestly I am not too sure, but from the label from the Menu, I believe the place is called Toraya Oyagi.... either that, or it is the owner's name.

The place is small, with main dining area sitting about 20 persons at most. But little did I realised, they also had a whole floor of dining area upstairs. Sitting at the dining area here next to the cook, gives you the full on experience on how Japanese dines.

Our host for the night must have been the owner... why? because he has a cute symbol of his face with his head gear (Logo) on the menu as well as their uniform.

Everything grilled is cooked right there in the centre of the room. The room wasn't very smokey, but the smells of all the cooking does get into your clothing's (or hair).

We ordered a grilled fish. It was on the dry side if you asked me. The fish was not juicy at all when you put your chopsticks through it. Another thing about this fish is that, it had many tiny bones in it (soft enough to eat).

We we ordered a salad topped with crabstick... yes these are real crab meat from enlarged crab legs.... not those coloured man made crab sticks....

What are these you may asked? It is tofu... It is served cold. To eat it, you take a toothpick and prick on it. The balloon will then burst leaving the tofu in its shape... like a tiny round marble...

Here are our host started to prepare some Yakitori. No, not everything is for us. No we couldn't eat like 30 sticks of pork & chicken...

I am sorry but we were too busy having a few beers and our dinner that we forget to capture the rest of the dinner.

Overall the dining experience was excellent. The host and the staff, even though they didn't speak any English still managed to entertain us with their gestures.

Food was average, ambience was great, price was expensive....
surprisingly even the soup that they had served us when we first walked in was charged!

You could click on the location link below, I have marked the restaurant on the map.