Saturday, October 1, 2016

In celebration of Sake Day! :b

Sasagin's Narita-san can be counted on for 
a generous pour of sake! ;b

A photogenic selection of sake's on offer at Sake Beya Masu

I'm writing this blog entry before I head over to Sake Bar Ginn later this evening to celebrate Sake Day.  Since the closest thing in my life to the bar in Cheers putting on an "all you can drink and eat" (for 3 hours or so) event tonight, I know that I won't be home until after midnight -- and definitely won't be in the mood to do any writing afterwards!

In honor of this annual event held in tribute of that wonderful alcoholic rice beverage that the Japanese actually know as nihonshu (since sake is the generic word for alcohol in Japanese), here's going ahead and confessing that even while I do regularly imbibe quite a bit of sake at Sake Bar Ginn, nihonshu is something I like to drink at a number of other establishments too (and I don't just mean Sasagin, the Tokyo sake bar where I had my first major sake revelation either!). 

This is on account of, among other things, my thinking that Japanese food goes great with alcohol; and if I were to get even more specific, I'd say that sushi (and sashimi) and nihonshu go particularly well together (whereas beer would be my drink of choice when eating something like kushiage).  Consequently, I hardly ever have a sushi (and sashimi) meal without also drinking some sake; this even when I've gone and had sushi for breakfast over at Tokyo's Tsukiji market  

Now, as one might expect of someone who's favorite food in the world is sushi, the food's the main thing at most of the sushi meals I eat.  But at Uehara last Sunday, I truly believe that the omakase meal we had was made extra special by the friend I was with having decided to share a bottle of the Huchu Homare brewery's exquisite Wataribune junmai daiginjo, one of those sake that's so delicate and pure that it can taste like slightly sweet and alcoholic spring water of the highest order!   

In addition, in recent years, a couple of restaurants have opened in Hong Kong that not only offer sake pairing dinners but it'd seem silly to go eat there if you don't intend to drink any nihonshu.  Ironically, on the two occasions thus far that I've been to the more celebrated Godenya, the food-- notably a seriously amazing shirako mini pie -- has stolen the show.  (Hence my thrill at having made the acquaintance of Godenya's chef and spent time hanging out with him at this year's Lan Kwai Fong Beer and Music Festival!)

On the other hand, on both of my visits thus far to Sake Beya Masu, the selection of sake made by the establishment's owner, Louis Ho, couldn't help but overshadow the food to some extent on account of it being pretty impeccable; something that's not too surprising when you realize that he's a certified sake samurai, and the Hong Kong importer of -- among other sake -- the exquisite Wataribune junmai daiginjo along with its noticeably less delicate but also still very fine (as well as significantly more affordable) junmai ginjo.

Actually, the most amazing thing about Louis' sake selection is not that all of the nihonshu on the menu at Sake Beya Masu are quality tipples but that they really do go very well with the food served.  In fact, I can vouch from experience that the sake he selected actually taste better when paired with the particular food chosen than when drank on their own; with the ones I tried tasting too strong or less balanced when I've had glasses of them without eating any food! :O

Friday, September 30, 2016

Shin Godzilla is not your usual monster, or monster movie! (film review)

The Hong Kong poster for the Japanese film known as 
 Godzilla Resurgence in some other territories, including the USA

Shin Godzilla (Japan, 2016)
- Shinji Higuchi, co-director and Hideaki Anno, co-director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara

It's not like most other monster movies.  Based on that asssessment cum assurance from a friend, I decided to go check out the 29th film from Japan -- and the 31st in total (since that giant creature also has appeared in two Hollywood movies, including the 2014 blockbuster bearing its name) -- since 1954 in which Godzilla has top billing.

Far talkier and serious than expected, the first ever Godzilla movie I've seen from start to finish often comes across as more political point-making drama than action blockbuster.  After a Japanese coast guard boat is mysteriously destroyed in Tokyo Bay and Tokyo Bay-Aqua Line combination bridge-tunnel is severely damaged, Japanese government officials get to realizing that they've got a major disaster on their hands.  But rather than spring immediately and efficiently into action, they wade at a deathly slow pace through a series of meetings where bureaucracy and "face saving" impulses tend to prevail at the expense of productive action.

Amidst a tangle of fearful as well as colorless administrators who appear to prioritize etiquette, precedence and procedure above all else, mid-level cabinet official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) stands out for his straight-talking and willingness to consider seemingly wild possibilities when provided with evidence that they are indeed valid and actually true.  But while he manages to muster a team of like-minded individuals who are able to think outside the box from among his countrymen (and at least one woman (Mikako Ichikawa)), it's really only after US special envoy Kayoko Ann Peterson (Satomi Ishihara) enters the picture that the efforts to deal with this giant monster -- known as Gojira to the Japanese but Godzilla to Americans (as noted at one point in the film) -- really get going; and this despite it already having amply demonstrated early on how utterly destructive it is!

As unlikely as it may seem, the most interesting aspects of Shin Godzilla may well be its illuminating highlighting of certain uniquely as well as distinctively Japanese political procedures and perspectives.  Among these are the accepted roles and limitations of the Japan Self-Defense Force (which has far more experience in disaster relief efforts than in the firing of any weapons in anger), and the "brotherly" relationship it has with the USA by way of the US-Japan Security Treaty in which Japan is very much cast as the lesser, weaker sibling.  In addition, it's easy to draw damning parallels between the frustratingly inept governmental administration depicted in this Toho production with those who were frequently found wanting when Japan's Tohoku region was beset by earthquakes, tsunami and then a nuclear disaster in March 2011.

Still, whenever the king of kaiju appears in the frame, it often is the case that the havoc it wreaks is pretty mind-blowing!  For with only a fraction of the budget of Hollywood blockbusters, special effects wizard Shinji Higuchi and Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno have managed to create a number of spectacular scenes featuring an 118.5-meter-tall monster that is the largest Godzilla to date that are utterly believable in terms of its incredible power(s).

Ironically, the least convincing element in Shin Godzilla is not the titular mythical creature but, instead, the actress playing the US special envoy.  Kayoko Ann Peterson's Japanese physical features may have been explained away by her being Japanese-American (with a grandmother who had been born in Japan and lived there for a time).  But shouldn't it have been possible to find another actress at least as capable as Satomi Ishihara, yet fluent enough in English to be able to speak it with a convincing American accent?    

I suppose the idea was -- and excuse is -- that Shin Godzilla's primarily meant for domestic consumption.  But surely the filmmakers must have known that this offering was destined to play in many other countries on Godzilla being, well, big -- heck, gigantic even -- in many territories rather than just the Land of the Rising Sun (and kaiju eiga)?!

My rating for this film: 7.0

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A super delicious dim sum lunch at Lung King Heen

The best baked barbecued pork buns I've ever had!
 
 These baked whole abalone puffs with diced chicken
were super scrumptious too :)
 
And while it doesn't look all that pretty, do trust me when I tell you 
that this truffle and wild mushroom dumpling tasted heavenly ;b
 
Whenever I hear or read raves about Tim Ho Wan's baked barbecued pork buns, I tend to feel rather bemused.  Because, in all honesty, I think they're okay but not all that super special.  And before anyone suggests it: no, it's not a case of familiarity breeding contempt since one of this budget priced dim sum restaurant chain's Michelin starred outlets is located in my neighborhood.  (For the record: I do go there fairly regularly but my favorite items on its menu are actually the har gow (shrimp dumplings) and the pork liver cheong fan (steamed rice noodle rolls).)
 
Rather, I think one big reason why I don't get the Tim Ho Wan baked barbecued pork bun hype is that I had already tasted ones that were so much better at a number of other Hong Kong restaurants, notably at the Sun Hung Kai Centre branch of Victoria City Seafood Restaurant, before I ate my first baked barbecued pork bun at this dim sum chain founded by a chef who famously previously worked at Lung King Heen, the first Chinese restaurant in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars.  And Lung King Heen it was where I went for lunch one Saturday earlier this month, and had what I reckon is the best baked barbecued pork bun I've ever eaten! 
 
Actually, I would go as far as to state that this restaurant at the Four Seasons in Hong Kong is where I had the best dim sum meal of my life thus far.  Having gone with eight other people (all of whom most definitely are foodies), our table was able to order and sample a wider variety of dishes than would be the case if our party was smaller in size.  And amazingly, nothing we ate (be it steamed rice rolls with tofu sheets, steamed lobster and scallop dumplings, pan fried turnip cake, Chiu Chow dumplings, etc.) disappointed, bar for -- if I were to be ultra critical -- the serviceable but, well, hardly exciting crispy spring rolls which I get the feeling wouldn't have been ordered if our party had not included Westerners.
 
At the same time, three dishes absolutely stood out for me.  One was the truffle and wild mushroom dumpling, whose truffle component I could smell through the delicate dumpling skin and was wonderfully meaty and rich tasting, yet never overwhelming.  The second was the baked whole abalone puffs with diced chicken, whose pastry was surprisingly as well as incredibly buttery -- like something you'd get at a top class Western bakery rather than what one would expect to come across at a dim sum lunch. 
 
As for the third: you guessed it -- it was the baked barbecued pork buns!  Sweet, yet savory, with wonderful textures, perhaps the secret lies in their actually also having pine nuts along with the usual ingredients found in this item!  It is absolutely at the top of my list of dishes to order when I next go to Lung King Heen for dim sum: which, sadly, isn't all that soon since its weekend lunch reservations have to be made months in advance!

On a Michelin star note: I've also had dim sum at two Michelin starred Tin Lung Heen over on Kowloonside at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.  And while some of Ting Lung Heen's dishes may win in terms of looks, there really is no contest when it comes to taste.  Put another way: the judgements of the Hong Kong Michelin Guide inspectors has sometimes been called into question (including by myself with regards to its apparent low estimation of many of my favorite restaurants).  But I totally agree that Lung King Heen is at a level -- sometimes, even more than one level -- above every other place that I've had dim sum at; and this coming from someone who has had dim sum at scores, if not hundreds, of places over the course of her life!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Two years on from the commencement of the Umbrella Movement

Umbrella Movement goals succinctly laid out

The Umbrella Movement = Hong Kong 
as its most civil and civilized?

Two years ago today, I returned from a wonderful Japan trip (during which I did such as cycle across the wonderfully scenic and peaceful Kibi Plain on my birthday) to find Hong Kong in turmoil.  In the early afternoon, I had gone over to Admiralty to initially not do much more than meet up with a friend to collect something -- my beloved Hello Kitty plush which she had washed for me, actually! -- from her and have a late lunch together.  

But as we made our way out of the mall where we had dined, we noticed that the nearby street seemed unusually empty of vehicular traffic.  Being the inquiring folks that we are, we decided to go over to find out what was going on -- and soon came across what looked like regular folks doing such as putting barricades on the streets as well as walking right in the middle of normally vehicle-filled roads.  

While we went and tried out the experience of walking on thoroughfares that are normally reserved only for cars and similar vehicles for a bit, my feeling at the time was that we -- and the people around us -- were actually behaving in a pretty foolhardy fashion.  And even though I had done my share of protesting and demonstrating on such as June 4th and July 1st prior to what turned out to be the dawn of the Umbrella Movement, I actually was inclined to think that the particular pro-democracy protests that the likes of Benny Tai and Joshua Wong had called for didn't seem that well thought out and, consequently, worth supporting.

But later in the day, the police fired an unprecedented amount of tear gas into the crowd of demonstrators who had assembled at Admiralty as well as used pepper spray and baton charges on them. Rather than achieve their aim of scaring the demonstrators and dispersing the crowd, the uniformed force that used to be known as "Hong Kong's finest" -- but saw their reputation tarnished through a number of brutal acts over the course of the Umbrella Movement -- ended up actually making people more determined to stand up for their beliefs and actually got many other folks so furious and indignant by their use of what was commonly seen as a seriously unnecessary amount of force.

As I told my friend after learning about what had transpired at Admiralty in the late afternoon, I actually felt like I wanted to rush back there in the evening; so enraged did I feel as well as determined to do my bit to ensure that Hong Kong ground would not have the blood of protestors shed on it like it had happened at Beijing in the summer of 1989.  Because of such as work commitments, however, I actually didn't return to Admiralty until October 1st -- when a few friends and I went and visited, and walked along, "Occupied" spaces in Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok as well as Admiralty.    

A few days later, I sat down on a road in Hong Kong for the first time ever.  Looking back, it seems almost ridiculous that I was so scared that I'd immediately be apprehended by the long arm of the law, attract negative attention, maybe even be spat at or physically assaulted by angry people against the Umbrella Movement and what it represented (and still represents).  Instead, I was largely left alone, with my thoughts and such -- and the few strangers who came over to me actually did so to thank me for my actions and did things like ask me if I needed any water or food while I was there!

After some 15 minutes or so had passed by, a few other people came over and also sat down to "occupy" that section of road.  Like me, they looked like regular folks, as did those who had come over to thank me for my actions and offer me water and food (and, for that matter, the vast majority of people I'd see at the "Occupy" sites over the next few days and weeks).  And there and then, the conviction took hold in me that there were -- and continue to be, two years on -- lots and lots and lots of Hong Kong people who truly love Hong Kong, want genuine universal suffrage for its denizens and support the Umbrella Movement!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Along one of my "go to" hiking trails on a hot and humid day (Photo-essay)

The very first time I visited Mui Wo, it was years before I moved to Hong Kong -- and I only went there to catch a bus up to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha.  Little did I know then of the charm that greater Mui Wo possesses -- and also that it's the starting and end point for various cool hiking trails, including ones that lead to or from Discovery Bay (either via Lo Fu Tau or the Trappist Monastery), Sunset Peak (via Pak Kung Au), the South Lantau Country Trail (ditto!), Tai Ho Wan (via A Po Long), and Pui O (either via a coastal route or a hillier section of the Lantau Trail). 

Because of the delicious offerings available at more than one Mui Wo eatery, I usually prefer to end a hike in that coastal Lantau town rather than start off from there: with one exception.  As it so happens though, the nine kilometer length Section 12 of the Lantau Trail really is significantly easier when done in reverse due to there being lots of steep steps leading up from near Shap Long Kau Tsuen.  Am every time I see them, I'm so glad I'm actually walking down rather than up them; this particularly since in recent years, I tend to earmark this particular trail to go on in the hot and humid summer months! ;b

A full hill stream can sound as well as look cool :)
 
The afternoon that two friends and I went on this trail, the sky 
was a hazy gray but the vegetation was a rich green
 
 I'm almost always rewarded with sightingss of 

This intriguing bug resembles a beetle from the back...
 
...but a grasshopper from the front! :O
 
The kind of out of the way place I love seeing and passing by 
but must admit to never wanting to stay in ;S

At the same time, Pui O beach that afternoon was 
far too crowded to be a place that I'd like to hang out at  
 
Instead, I was far happier to keep my distance and go hiking 
on a scenic trail which few people still actually opt to
venture along -- at least on hot and humid days... ;)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pedestrian precinct(s) in Hong Kong this past Sunday

The scene in Hong Kong's Central District yesterday afternoon
 
How nice to see a road bereft of cars -- and where
people can safely walk -- in the middle of the city!
 
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to go check out the 200 meters of Des Veoux Road Central which was going to be car-free for what I mistakenly had thought would be the whole day.  But even though I got to Central too late to see that car-free scheme being effected, I got to belatedly discovering that sections of nearby Chater Road and Ice House Street are regularly turned into a pedestrian precinct between 7am and 12midnight on Sundays and public holidays -- and thereby got to see stretches of road that were car-free after all!
 
With a carnival-esque atmosphere in effect, the scenes I came across did get me thinking of the car-free spaces of Occupy Hong Kong early on during the Umbrella Movement.  But upon looking closer, it became very apparent that pretty much all the people I saw sitting on the street, dining out al fresco and chatting away with friends, dancing and even doing some flag-waving (to music) were female and Filipina -- and that almost everyone else other than me who were taking photos of the scenes they had come across in the middle of Central were tourists!
 
For those who not aware of this: there are hundreds of thousands of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong; the vast majority of whom are female and hail either from the Philippines or Indonesia.  Over the years, the Filipinas have congregated in Central on their days off (Sundays and public holidays) whereas the Indonesians look to meet up with friends and hang out in Causeway Bay, particularly Victoria Park and its surrounding areas.

When Occupy Hong Kong resulted in sections of Central as well as Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok being closed off to vehicular traffic in late 2014, jokes were often cracked about how the city's foreign domestic helpers and Umbrella Movement participants had joined forces, and it sometimes being hard to tell where the politically "occupied" spaces and those "occupied" as a matter of course by women who habitually hung out in public spaces on their days off began and ended.  
 
Something else I remember about the Umbrella Movement was, as just one example of its civility, protesters having made a point to stay off the grass of the Cenotaph.  And it was lovely to see that the people hanging out in the vicinity yesterday -- this time for purposes of enjoyment rather than political action -- were giving that memorial space the respect it's due too. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Taking part in a beach cleanup at Chi Ma Wan once again

Not a sight one wants to see in the sea

 A crab at home on the beach despite the ample trash strewn about it

Some benevolent souls (were) willing to commit time and effort to make 
this little section of Hong Kong a cleaner and more beautiful place

The portends were not good early on for the beach clean-up I went on yesterday.  First, only half of the people who were signed up for the event the day before turned up at the meeting point in the morning.  Then, as we walked from the ferry pier at Chi Ma Wan to the nearby beach which the group has been cleaning on the last Saturday of each month for the past few months, I spotted a large, clearly dead fish floating in the nearby waters.  And, as has been the case each time I've gone on a beach cleanup, the seriously polluted sight that greeted our group as we got close to the beach was one capable of shocking and getting hearts sinking. 

But upon setting foot onto the trash-strewn beach, my spirits were lifted by the sight of crabs scurrying about on the sand and butterflies and dragonflies deigning to flit about the place.  Put another way: this part of Hong Kong may have been disgustingly dirty but the resilience of nature made it so that there was plenty of life still left in it.

Even more heartening still was how much of a difference a band of just eight individuals were able to make in just a few hours.  And not only did the beach look a good deal cleaner when we decided to call it a day but this time around but we also had gone about undertaking the additional task of separating the collected trash into recyclable plastics, glass and metal vis a vis items which couldn't be recycled (which actually still consisted of a lot of plastic along with styrofoam, both of which fish and other creatures are liable to fatally ingest) this time around.

Something else that also gives me hope in humanity is that half of our group yesterday consisted of repeat volunteers who have been taking part in beach cleanups for more than a year now.  And while there are lots of people who join us to clean the beaches just once and then never return, I actually do remain optimistic that more folks (including a couple of members of yesterday's group) will feel inspired and/or duty-bound to join us again some time. :)