Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hiking from urban Kowloon to green Sai Kung!

This view from the Kowloon hills gives a good idea of
 
 Go over to the other side of the Kowloon Hills and 
look northeastwards though -- and far more 
natural vistas will reveal themselves! :b
 
 Long time no see, Buffalo Hill!
 
In my first year of hiking in Hong Kong, more than 200 hikes ago now, I went on what I got to calling "the hike of hell" -- one which saw the group I was with go up 606-meter-high Buffalo Hill and then down it along a trail that I found nightmarishly steep, and also scarily narrow in parts.  
 
Re the latter: at one point while we were on the edge of the hill, I plunged my walking stick down on what I was thought was the firm ground on the right, only to feel it go through the vegetation and realize that there was NO firm ground there, only foliage!  Needless to say, that realization did not make me a happy camper (or hiker!) -- and later on, when we passed by the carcass of a dog further down, I truly got to worrying that I might actually fall off the hill and die!
 
Somehow, we all did make it down safely -- and, in my case, with just minor scrapes and injuries, notably some bruises on my thumbs and fingers (from gripping rocks and such while "butting it" at certain points during the descent).  Still, I trust that you, gentle reader, will find it understandable that for years afterwards, I stayed away from that part of Hong Kong (even while continuing to hike and explore the territory -- in fact, even more regularly over the next few years)!
 
Today though, I decided that it was time to venture once more into that part of the Big Lychee -- at least to Buffalo Pass (aka Ta She Lau Au), if not the top of Buffalo Hill.  More specifically, this afternoon's hike took my friend and I from Tsz Wan Shan up to Sha Tin Pass (like on a couple of Sundays ago on a hike that had us go up Lion Rock and Beacon Hill), then east- and northwards along parts of sections 5 and 4 of the Maclehose Trail (including Buffalo Pass) to Mau Ping, from where we trekked along what appeared to be an old village path to Tai Shui Tseng village (from where I've previously started my hikes along the Ma On Shan Country Trail and previously joined up to section 5 of the Maclehose Trail).
 
For days, the weather forecast for today had promised to be pretty good.  Still, I was shocked to see how high visibility was this morning -- according to the Hong Kong Observatory website, in fact, certain parts of Hong Kong had visibility as far as 50 kilometers!  Add to this afternoon's humidity levels being among the lowest in weeks and the temperature falling pleasantly in the 17 to 21 degrees Celsius range and I'd say that it really was as close to being perfect hiking weather as I've ever experienced!

Out on the trail, we frequently heard birds chirping and spotted a few bugs coming alive, including a beautiful silvery butterfly/moth.  Moreover, the air felt fresh and thoroughly refreshing, and I really couldn't feel like I could and should ask for more, really!  Granted that it wasn't as sunny today as during those bright blue sky summer days -- but it also wasn't as hot and humid... and considering the distance we covered this afternoon, and the trail that we were on having its share of ascents that could be measured by the hundreds of meters, that's a trade off I really was pretty happy to settle for! ;b

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Keeping the Umbrella Movement's flame alive at Admiralty and beyond

At first glance, there seems to be little indication that

The Lennon Wall now is bare but near it,
green Umbrella Movement art blooms

...and "angry Totoro" hangs (out) near a new 
"democracy library" and sitting out area for visitors

There's no longer a protest area right by Citic Tower but 
there's one close enough to be reflected in the building's windows!

There may not be any tents and protesters on the streets of Admiralty any more but don't think that there still aren't any tents and protesters to be found in the area.  And each time I've visited the area near the still-closed off Civic Square in the past two months or so, I've seen people keeping the Umbrella Movement alive

The detractors may scoff at how few people remain camped at Admiralty -- and that they are "only" occupying the sidewalks near the Legislative Council Building rather than the nearby streets, like was the case between September 28th and December 11th last year.  But as actions such as those which took place at Tuen Mun on February 8th, Sha Tin on  February 16th, and Lion Rock last Sunday (February 22) show, protests are taking place in different parts of Hong Kong-- and in more than one way too.  

On a personal note, I received news earlier this week that I'm now a registered voter in Hong Kong (to go with my having permanent residency here).  Thank you, Umbrella Movement, for making an active protester and now also voter out of me!  And thank you for making me feel encouraged -- and obliged -- to add my voice to those of the other Hong Kongers who don't want Hong Kong to become "just another Chinese city" and believe that the best way to ensure that this is so is by having a government that feels accountable to the majority rather minority of people living here.   

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An enjoyable visit to Osaka's Koyoshi Sushi

In this unassuming, graffitied building is
 
 A couple of the generously sized pieces of sushi
that I had as part of my omakase dinner there

The largest portion of anago sushi I have ever had in my life!

The incredibly sweet and lovely Mr and Mrs Yano 
behind the bar at Koyoshi Sushi :)
 
No, this blog has not turned into a food only blog -- but for the third entry running, I am indeed focusing a dinner experience to remember...with this particular one being the evening meal I had on the same day of my hike to the top of Kojima's Washu-zan.  
 
A few hours after Puppet Ponyo and I visited Kojima, we were in the big Kansai city of Osaka via one final stop in Okayama -- this time just to pick up the luggage I had left in the nice business hotel I stayed while using Okayama as my base for a few days.  After checking in to the somewhat surreal hotel near Osaka (train) Station that I was trying out for the first time, I decided to treat myself to an omakase sushi meal at yet another restaurant that Anthony Bourdain and his No Reservations TV show made me really, really want to eat at!
 
For those who want to do the same: let me warn you that Koyoshi Sushi is not easy to find -- even when one is armed with directions from the restaurant's Facebook page.  One reason is that it's in a part of the city which is full of restaurants.  Even bigger reasons are that its sign is very traditional (i.e., Japanese characters only on the modest, not brightly colored noren curtains at its entrance and two window shades) and that the small, brown- and gray-bricked building in which it's located is the opposite of being flashy!
 
And brace yourself to be surprised at how very small Koyoshi Sushi. Honestly, I gleaned from the No Reservations: Osaka episode that dining at this place would be on the intimate side but it makes most Hong Kong restaurant spaces look big, and ditto with Tsukiji's Sushi Dai -- for it seats just eight people in total and most definitely is not for the claustrophobic or, frankly, anyone on the overly large side (i.e., those of you who are this way would physically be uncomfortable in the place)!  In addition, upon sliding open the restaurant's door, you will find yourself just inches away from the sushi counter. 

My other shock upon entering Koyoshi Sushi was to discover that there were only two other diners in the restaurant.  (And I have to say: one reason why I ended up walking past Koyoshi Sushi at least three times before I recognised it was that there was no queue to get in there that evening!)  The difficulty of locating the place aside, I wonder whether some people are put off by it being stated on their Facebook page that: "We don't speak too much English. You may want to come with a Japanese friend."
 
Rest assured though that the words "biru kudasai" (beer please) followed by "omakase" accompanied with a smile will result in broad smiles appearing on the faces of Mr and Mrs Yano, followed by their bustling to accede to your requests.  Very quickly, a big bottle of beer and a small glass to pour the beer into appeared in front of me, and also slices of sushi that made use of some of the chunkiest cuts of fish and prawn that I had ever seen!
 
As I ate happily and emited involuntary sounds of pleasure, Mr and Mrs Yano got to smiling more, and more broadly.  After we established that they actually knew more English than they had initially let on and that I knew enough Japanese words that he could tell me what I was eating, he got to also asking me whether I'd prefer this or that (no, thank you to hotate (scallop); yes, please to getting a double portion of ikura (salmon roe) instead!) and chatting a bit about where I was from, how I heard about their restaurant, where else in Japan I had visited on this vacation, etc.
 
After 9 very substantial pieces of sushi (including melt-in-your-mouth otoro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail)) had been served and eaten, I indicated that I'd stop after just one more piece -- which turned out to be uni (sea urchin) that wasn't served in a huge heap but I understood why after I put it into my mouth: i.e., it was soooo very creamily rich tasting!

With some trepidation, I then asked for the bill -- and was served one more shock for the evening: as in, the amount was far less than I expected for an omakase sushi meal: 5,000 Yen.  And yes, that's still around HK$325 or US$42 -- but, in all honesty, I was expecting to pay about four times that amount and even had enough money with me for just in case the bill went up to 30,000 Yen!

To be sure: I've eaten better quality sushi -- in terms of the quality of the ingredients and also the cutting of the fish -- in a few other sushi-ya in Japan and Hong Kong. Also, there's a no frills, even working class, feel about Koyoshi Sushi -- that made it so that beer seemed a good choice of drink there rather than the sake I normally opt for when having sushi these days! At the same time though, there truly is plenty of heart about the place -- including in  the evident pride and satisfaction that Mr and Mrs Yano take with regards to what they serve their customers, and what actually felt like pleasure for them to be going about their business (something they've done so for some 50 years now and counting) and having people appreciate them doing so.
 
Consequently, I really enjoyed the time I spent at Koyoshi Sushi -- and would even say that it felt like a genuinely wonderful cultural exchange took place there along with my having had an agreeable meal.  Put another way: dinner at Mr and Mrs Yano's place makes for the kind of satisfying experience that makes me really love visiting Japan! :)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My third -- and probably final -- visit to Tenku RyuGin

The first dish I recently had at RyuGin --
and my favorite of the entire kaiseki meal I had there

 Wagyu ribeye sukiyaki with onsen tamago -- seriously, 
how simultaneously decadent and comfort food-ish can one get?!

 -196 degrees Celsius Mandarin organge candy mixed with
+99 degrees Celsisus Mandarin orange jam, and pop rocks! :D

Believe it or not: As much of a feast as the Korean fried chicken-heavy dinner at Chicken Hof & Soju was, it actually wasn't my most anticipated meal of of the first few days of this Chinese New Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram.  Instead, that accolade goes to the 10 course dinner that the blogger behind The Fragrant Harbour and I had at the Hong Kong branch of RyuGin (now known as Tenkyu RyuGin) on Saturday evening.

Since my dinner companion has already described the meal in detail over on her blog, I consider myself saved from doing so.  Still, I'll echo her statement re the smooth, rich and ultra umami-tasting ankimo (Monkfish liver) we were served as the first course tasting better than foie gras -- and I'd go further and state that if I had been given a few more servings of that in lieu of some of the other courses that made up our kaiseki meal that evening, I sure would have been a super happy camper!

Also delicious were the meal's second and third courses in our meal consisting, respectively, of chawan mushi topped with yuba -- which I first had in Nikko, where it's a specialty dish -- and uni (sea urchin), and simmered abalone with winter vegetables served with grated radish sauce.  And although I am not usually a fan of almonds, the almond ice cream with strawberry and sweet red beans covered with meringue concoction which was the the 10th and final course of the evening's dinner was a lovely way to end the meal.

Ironically, the worst course of this over HK$2,000 Japanese meal -- and yes, I paid for it! -- was the sashimi (course #5) -- and I'm not just saying this because none of my favorite sashimi (or sushi) ingredients were among the featured options.  Rather, it's that the hirame (flounder) was nothing special, and I actually had better geoduck and yellowtail this evening at Senryo - my favorite kaiten sushi chain here in Hong Kong -- than I did at RyuGin last Saturday night!

And while the charcoal grilled Alfonsino covered with roasted rice (course #6) and wagyru ribeye sukiyaki with onsen tamago (course #7) was pretty tasty, I have to confess to feeling somewhat disappointed upon seeing it on the menu -- for on my third visit to RyuGin, I expected to encounter innovation all the way rather than spy and be served familiar dishes once more.

At the same time, I do understand -- and accept -- the idea of a restaurant having signature dishes.  And in the case of RyuGin, it was cool to see another variation of the -196 degrees Celsius fruit candy and +99 degrees Celsius fruit jam combo.  Still, the fact of the matter is that I preferred the strawberry I had at my first ever meal at RyuGin -- and I think that one big part of the reason why I loved that so much more than the mango concoction I was served on my second visit and the mandarin orange I was served most recently is because it came with the element of surprise.

After my first visit to this high end dining establishment, I felt that only its high price would dissuade me from returning, at least sometime soon.  As it so happened, I was invited to go there for a second time free of charge -- but this time around, my dining companion and I decided to fork out the cash to treat ourselves.  

Maybe paying one's own way has something to do with my feeling that this time around, I didn't get so much for my money. (And looking back, it's interesting to note that while I came away from my previous dinners at RyuGin feeling super full and close to experiencing a taste overload, that wasn't the case this time around!) But I think it's also truly a case of my first dinner at RyuGin feeling special because of it coming across as incredibly innovative as well as genuinely delicious.   

In any event, it seems to be a matter of the law of diminishing returns with this restaurant.  Put another way: I was blown away by my first visit to RyuGin; still pretty ecstatic but a tad less impressed on my second visit; and on my third visit, filled with few regrets but also thinking that I've paid my final visit there -- or, at least, for a time so that the memories can fade and therefore make things feel really special there once more.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

KFC and more at the Hong Kong Island branch of Chicken Hof & Soju!

Two classic styles of Korean fried chicken -- dakgangjeong
 (with sweet and spicy sauce) and sauceless original

Korean fried chicken topped with lots of spring onions!

What happens when eating with foodies -- the food 
(in this case, a beautiful cheese egg roll) has to be
photographed before it can be cut up and consumed! ;b

Earlier today, I went on my second hike in four days -- and this despite the visibility being on the low side (as in I couldn't see the Kowloon Hills from the Central Piers) and the weather being on the muggy side (and rain pouring down while I was having my post-hike dinner).  Some people might think this excessive but I felt a need to get in some more calorie-burning exercise this afternoon on account of my having pigged out quite a bit in the first few days of this Chinese New Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram!

As an example, on the second day of this Chinese New Year, five friends and I went for a Korean fried chicken-heavy feast at the Hong Kong Island branch of the ultra popular dining and drinking establishment known both as Lee's Family Chicken and Chicken Hof & Soju. (For the record, on the front of the restaurant, "Lee Family" is written in Korean and Chinese characters (but not English), and "Chicken Hof & Soju" in English (but not Korean or Chinese)!).  

After twice trying -- but just not being patient enough to wait for hours -- to get into its original Tsim Sha Tsui branch, I was really excited to discover a few months back that the Hong Kong Island of Chicken Hof & Soju (as I'll henceforth refer to it in this blog post) takes reservations.  However, when one of my friends tried to make a dinner booking for the second day of Chinese New Year, he was told that this wouldn't be allowed -- because the restaurant doesn't take reservations on Friday nights!  Still, rather than give up on our Korean fried chicken Chinese New Year feast plans, we just decided to eat early to beat the crowd -- and were happy to find that we could walk straight into the place when we got there a little before 6pm!

The previous times I've eaten Korean fried chicken (including in South Korea with my mom, and at Fairyland with my mom and a friend), there weren't so many people in our party.  So I was really looking forward to trying a greater variety of KFC -- and I don't mean the fried chicken made according to a certain Kentucky colonel's recipe -- this time around!  

But because three of our party were trying it for the first time, we felt that we had to first go for the two classic styles -- the sauceless original (which both the blogger behind The Fragrant Harbour and I think Chicken Hof & Soju does better than Fairyland) and chicken with sweet and spicy sauce (which, after having had it twice now at Chicken Hof & Soju, I definitely think that Fairyland does better).  Still, this time around, we did go ahead and order a third style of KFC: the spring onion fried chicken -- which really is just original Korean fried chicken topped with spring onion...and yet, I really did feel that the spring onion addition truly does make the dish taste even better!! 
 
A friend who's never had Korean fried chicken asked me how it differs from other fried chicken.  I'd say that -- be it made and eaten at Fairyland or Chicken Hof & Soju, Hong Kong or South Korea itself -- Korean fried chicken is noticeably less greasy than other types of fried chicken, is not as thickly covered with batter, and has significantly juicier (and therefore tastier) meat.  

Although I would have happily continued the Korean chicken odyssey (in particular, I'd love to try to the cheese hot sauce chicken and rice cake dish that's also on the menu of Chicken Hof & Soju at some point), the majority of the group appeared chickened out after this.  So while we did order more dishes, they were all of the non-chicken variety -- and happily, they all were pretty good!

Actually, the very first dish we ordered that evening at Chicken Hof & Soju was some dried squid -- tougher than the Chinese and Japanese versions I've had, but good to chew on while waiting for everyone in our party to arrive.  Then after the chicken dishes, we went ahead and ordered a Korean kimchee pancake (that, when it came, we decided seemed more like pizza than any pancake we knew!), a soft egg tofu concoction (that tasted far better than it sounds and looks!), and a cheese egg roll (that seemed like a super thick egg omelette with a thin layer of cheese inside it)!

While I'd never go to Chicken Hof & Soju just to eat the non-chicken dishes, they weren't too bad at all -- especially compared to the salad that two friends and I had ordered on a previous visit and never ever will again.  In particular, I liked the kimchee pancake a lot -- and thought it really tasty when drizzled with the tangy sauce that came with it.

Also going well with all of the food was some alcohol -- of course!  While others in my party opted for maekgolli, I stuck to beer -- specifically, draft Asahi.  With advance apologies to fans of Korean alcohol: I don't think South Korean beer is as good as Japanese beer. And after trying maekgolli twice now, I still have not got a taste for what seems to me like an alcoholic cross between yoghurt and sour rice liquid!  Indeed, the two sips of maekgolli that I had were easily the worst part of the otherwise very enjoyable meal as far as I was concerned! ;b

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Pottinger Peak bonus addendum to a hike that also went along Dragon's Back!

I went up and down a number of peaks this afternoon,
including along Dragon's Back

The final hill I went up (and down) today, 
Pottinger Peak, also was the highest!

This 312-meter-high hill also had the fewest people on it --
due in no small part, I'm sure, to the way up it not being signposted!

"It's all relative" and "context is key" are among the two maxims I remember learning as an anthropology major at Beloit College. And those two maxims came to mind as I beheld, then made my way up, Pottinger Peak earlier today (the first day of Chinese New Year, more than by the way -- so Kung Hei Fatt Choi to this blog's readers!).

While some people will reckon that a 312-meter-high hill would be super easy to go up, what needs to be borne in mind is that I happened to come across a trail leading up it only after having gone up and down a number of other hills earlier in the day -- and Pottinger Peak also happened to be higher than all the rest of those hills I had been on!  

Thus it was that I hesitated a bit before deciding to go ahead and follow the path which, as with that for High West several miles to the west of Hong Kong Island, is surprisingly un-signposted (but is marked on the Countryside Series map for Hong Kong Island as a dotted -- i.e., "difficult/indistinct or seasonally overgrown" trail). Oh, and feeling tired upon thinking how intimidating the path looked, felt a need to consume the chocolate bar I had brought along to give me an energy boost before venturing up to the peak!

If truth be told, the top of Pottinger Peak is on the visually underwhelming side -- for while it does have a trigonometrical station and a signal station up on it, the very top has so much foliage on it that no views are to be had from there!  However, if one were to stand atop the ruin of an Artillery Observation Post close to the top of the hill on a clearer day than today, I could see that some nice views would be possible.

The satisfaction from scaling Pottinger Peak, then, came more from having one more peak to add to the list of Hong Kong hills I've now gone up.  The funny thing too is that I can't remember having seen the way up it when I was in the area several years back.  Thinking back, I can only surmise that at the time, I was so fixated on following signs along the Pottinger Peak Country Trail that it just didn't occur to me to try going along an un-signposted trail!

In my first year or so of hiking in Hong Kong, going along the kilometers of trail that took in the Dragon's Back also would have seemed like sufficient workout for the afternoon.  Today though, I didn't feel like a couple of hours of hiking was enough -- and when coupled with the Dragon's Back being too crowded (and consequently filled with the sound of people's voices) for my liking, I felt a need to continue hiking, and in quieter surroundings.

Thus it was that the post Dragon's Back section of the hike actually turned out to be the highlight of today's excursion for me.  And for the record, while I found too many people huddled near the trigonometrical station on 284-meter-high Shek O Peak (that's part of Dragon's Back) to be bothered to take a photo of it this time around, I did go ahead and take a snap of the trigonometrical station atop Pottinger Peak -- only to decide that there are better photos to share from today's hike than it! ;b

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Views from atop Kojima's Washu-zan (Photo-essay)

How does one follow up a wonderful day that took in a 17 kilometer bike ride across the Kibi Plain, sampling brews at at atmospheric Kurashiki microbrewery and a thoroughly delightful dinner at an Okayama izakaya?  By having another day packed with activity and scenic sights topped off by dinner at a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain enjoyed eating at when he visited Osaka, that's how!

Before leaving for Osaka though, I took some more advantage of the extremely good value JR Kansai Wide Area Pass to travel to Kojima, a town 25 kilometers to the south of Okayama, on whose edge lies 134-meter-high Washu-zan -- a hill from where one gets stupendous views of the 13.1-kilometer-long Seto-ohashi Bridge which links the islands of Honshu and Shikoku and the scenic surrounding area.  But while a bus takes one from Kojima train station partially up Washu-zan but to get to the top, or even its rest house and visitor center, involves a bit of a hike... ;b

Click on the photo to get an enlarged panoramic view
from near the top of Washu-zan

Washu-zan's visitor center (pictured above) was manned by 
a wonderful elderly gentleman who spoke fluent English and shared
lots of interesting factoids and stories about the surrounding area :)

At the visitor center, I also was loaned a walking stick 
to help me hike a bit more to Washu-zan's peak

I felt blessed to be atop Washu-zan on such a beautiful, high visibility day
-- something I no longer take for granted after years living in Hong Kong ;(

To the west beyond Washu-zan's peak lies the Honshu end of
the Seto-ohashi Bridge and a series of port areas

Shortly after I snapped this photo of Puppet Ponyo (at a viewpoint
known as Azumaya), I spun around upon hearing laughter behind me 
-- to find a senior hiker amused at my photographic antics ;D 

 As I made my way down Washu-zan, I spotted three people
who looked to have found a prime viewing spot on the hill :)

 For my part, I thought the views of the Seto-ohashi Bridge 
and Inland Sea from the path between the rest house
and the top of the hill often weren't half bad too! ;b