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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Chinese New Year flowers hike :)

It's not Chinese New Year yet but the
Chinese New Year flowers are in bloom! :)

Lest it be clear, I'm talking about whole clumps
of Chinese New Year flowers being already in bloom!

(Machilus chekiangensis) also caught the eye on a gray day ;b

The two friends I normally go hiking with were not available to go out with today but I had an urge to go out into the countryside this afternoon that was so strong, I also wasn't put off by today hardly being optimal hiking weather (and indeed, it was drizzling when I stepped out of my apartment building).  

Giving the conditions today, I decided to go to a part of the Hong Kong countryside which I figured would see a number of other people out hiking today -- one not all that far away from the city.  While last week I opted to head up to the Kowloon hills, I decided to remain on Hong Kong Island this week and explore a section of its countryside that I have passed through at the tail end of hikes but not bothered to wander about on its own.

Dwarfed by nearby hills (such as 436-meter-high Mount Butler and 424-meter-high Siu Ma Shan), 200-meter-high Braemar Hill also comes with the taint of having been the location of the high profile double murders that are depicted in Herman Yau's From the Queen to the Chief Executive.  But I personally tend to think of the area more as where Sir Cecil's Ride winds confusingly and sometimes seems to doubleback upon itself, and -- after today -- the home to the Po Luen Path whose name appears on a number of signposts but on none of the official Hong Kong countryside maps that I've seen!

While I eschewed going along the Po Luen Path the first time I saw a sign for it, curiosity got the better of me the second, third and fourth time I saw signs for it!  A couple of times, the trail led me to areas where good views would be had if visibility were higher than it was today.  A couple of other times, the trail led me to the edge of Tai Tam Country Park (Quarry Bay Extension) -- but not yet prepared to end my hike at those points, I backtracked into the country park once more.

Although visibility was not optimal, I really enjoyed today's hike.  It helped that it was unseasonably warm this afternoon to the point that I didn't feel a need for a jacket or turtleneck sweater for much of the hike.  Even better was my coming across several eye-catching clumps of red that helped ensure that it wasn't all just green, brown and gray around me!

Many of these clumps of red were of the young leaves of the Chekiang Machilus that, from a distance, can fool one into thinking they are flowers.  A surprising percentage of the red also came by way of Chinese New Year flowers -- which I look forward to spotting around Chinese New Year each year but have never seen in such abundance before as I did today! 

Some time back, deforestation -- along with their popularity as Chinese New Year decorations in family homes -- threatened to make these wild flowers extinct.  And up to today's hike (which will go down in my memory as the Chinese New Year flowers hike), I looked upon the sight of these flowers as on the rare side.  But not anymore, it seems -- and if this indeed so, long may this be the case! :) 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Movie characters, politics and plushies at the Lunar New Year Fair

Frozen's Olaf, a fan, and a Minion among 
the crowd at Victoria Park this afternoon

 Anti 689 (and wife) items for sale at the same venue!

   Hello Kitty balloons and sheep plushies are, 
of course, a given at the Lunar New Year Fair ;b

February 14th may be Valentine's Day but more importantly to a fair few people is this year's falling just five days before the first day of the new lunar year of the sheep (or goat or ram -- since, in Chinese, the same word is used for all of them!).  And thus it was that hundreds, if not thousands, of people headed over today to check out the Lunar New Year Fairs (AKA Chinese New Year Flower Markets) held in 15 locations throughout Hong Kong.

Like in previous years, I chose to go to the largest of these markets -- the one at Victoria Park. And as on my previous visits, I saw lots of flowers (what people traditionally go to buy at these markets), good luck items, plushies and balloons on sale at the festive fair.  And as with at least one other time that I've been to these markets, I passed by a stall operated by/on behalf of the Tiananmen Mothers.

Political-themed items were particularly noticeable this year thanks to the Umbrella Movement/Revolution not being a thing of the past like the authorities wish to have people think -- and they weren't on sale only at the stalls manned by political parties such as the League of Social Democrats, Civic Passion, the Democratic Party and the Civic Party either.  

At the same time, I have to say that there appeared to be a lot more Frozen-themed items and Hello Kittys on sale at Victoria Park today.  And while I also spotted a number of Totoros at the Chinese New Year market, none of them were carrying yellow umbrellas -- unlike those I spotted last year at Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok.  

I have to admit to having hoped to see -- and buy -- a balloon or inflatable Baymax (from Big Hero 6) at the Lunar New Year Fair.  But all I saw there as far as Baymax items go was one measly plushie!  (Message to Baymax toy producers and sellers: he's referred to as "balloon man" by another character in the movie.  Hello?  Shouldn't that be a strong hint that people would want to have Baymax balloons or inflatables???!!!  So...any chance of getting stocks of those before the markets close in the wee hours of the first day of Chinese New Year?)

Much more clued in are those who have figured out that Shaun the Sheep would be pretty popular at at this year's fairs -- on account of the upcoming Lunar New Year being that of the sheep (or goat or ram) and the Shaun the Sheep Movie going to be released in cinemas on the first day of Chinese New Year.  And while 12 Golden Ducks items may not fare so well at the fair, fair play to those behind this Chinese New Year movie (and its promotion) for having a dedicated stall in Victoria Park this year! :b

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dinner at an izakaya without an English name and menu

The most delicious liver ever may well be ankimo 
(monkfish liver) served in the traditional Japanese style!

Another dish I love - tsubugai (whelk) sashimi

Somen - arguably the least well known type of Japanese noodles

A small but delicious plate of assorted tempura

After going on a 17 kilometer bike ride on the Kibi Plain earlier in the day and sampling some craft beers at a Furashiki microbrewery, I figured I needed to top my birthday last year off with a nice dinner.  Although I was tempted to head back to the Kurashiki izakaya where I had a pretty good dinner the night before, I elected to try some place different -- and after heading back to Okayama, I walked around an area near my hotel there that looked to have a variety of dining establishments about before deciding to go into an izakaya with no English name and no English menu.

More than one person has asked me how I manage to get around in Japan -- and do such as have the variety of food that I do -- despite not being fluent in Japanese.  My reply often is that there's more English -- and people who understand some modicum of English -- in Japan than many people who have never visited the Land of the Rising Sun may realize.  But it's also true that the further one goes away from the larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, the more likely it is that one is going to have to use some Japanese -- along with sign language! -- to communicate.  

One Japanese word I find wonderful to know is "sumimasen".  It can mean "please" (as in when you wish to draw the attention of a waiter or waitress) as well as "excuse me" (useful when you wish to do such as get people to make space for when you want to get out of a train).  Another useful word -- particularly in restaurant settings -- is "moriawase" (which means assorted).

In Japan, many restaurants specialise in only one type of food -- say, yakitori, sushi or tempura.  If you're willing to take a chance, when you go into those kinds of restaurant and don't have the vocabulary to specifically order what you want, say to the person taking your order "moriawase, kudasai" (assorted, please -- and yes, kudasai is another Japanese word for "please").  

Izakaya, on the other hand, are Japanese dining (and drinking) establishments which have a variety of foods on offer.  I've come across some izakaya with English on their menus.  More often, I've come across izakaya with wonderful picture menus!  And such was the case for the Okayama izakaya which proved to be a great place to have my birthday dinner!!

As it so happens though, I actually knew how to order everything I had there (i.e., the dishes pictured above) in Japanese -- this as a result of my having eaten thousands of Japanese meals over the years (and my making a point to try to remember the names of dishes and ingredients that I liked and figured I'd want to order and eat again in the future)!  

And, of course, I also knew how to order in Japanese what I wanted to drink that evening: a big glass of draft beer (nama biru - dai!) and a smaller glass of nihonshu (what sake is known as in Japan) -- with my feeling particularly chuffed to discover that Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo was on the menu there, as it is at Senryo and Sake Bar Ginn over here in Hong Kong.

As luck would have it, midway through my meal, a Japanese salaryman came into the restaurant and opted, like I had, to sit at the counter.  Tickled to see him order the same sake as me and also the ankimo, I told him "good choice" -- and that's how we got to talking.  At first, he told me he didn't know much English but, as often is the case with Japanese people, the more he drank, the more English language ability he was able to exhibit!

Thus it was that my birthday dinner turned out to have all the key ingredients for a memorable meal -- delicious food, enjoyable drinks, and friendly company to chat and joke with! ;b

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sampling microbrewed beer in Kurashiki

The bar area at Kurashiki Mugishukan looks inviting
but also intimidating to beer geeks who can't read Japanese!

I ended up settling down there to have a couple of (small) glasses
of beer and a read of copies of the bilingual Japan Beer Times :b

Even without going on a 17-kilometer-long bicycle ride, I often already am thirsting to have some nama biru (draft beer) when I'm in Japan.  But after completing my Kibi Plain bike excursion, I had a specific place in mind to go slake my thirst -- the bar of a microbrewery in nearby Kurashiki which had been closed when I visited that town the previous day but I knew was open on the other days of the week!

Upon entering the premises of Kurashiki Mugishukan, I found more than I bargained for.  On the negative side, it happened to be one of those places in Japan without an English menu or anyone on the premises who was comfortable speaking English.  More happily however, I discovered that the microbrewery had plenty of beers on tap, including those from other microbreweries in the region.  Also, that even while the bartender (who happened to be the only other person around pretty much the whole time that I was there) couldn't speak English, he still could identify and state different beer styles such as "pilsner", "IPA" and "bock"!

The first beer that I tried was a German style brownish looking house beer from the microbrewery.  The second was another German style brown beer known as Tsuyama Draft from Okayama's Tago Brewery Company.  If truth be told though, neither of these craft beers were particularly memorable and all that successful at quenching my thirst -- this not least since they were served in glasses that were on the small and also expensive side!

Funnily enough, probably the highlight of my visit to Kurashiki Mugishukan was coming across copies of the Japan Beer Times there.  Although certain of the copies had cover pictures that got me thinking I definitely was not a member of the publication's target audience, I still did enjoy reading many of its articles -- and ended up going through every single one of the eight or so different copies of the publication that were lying about in the bar area! 

I think it can be safely said that the big four breweries of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory still rule for the most part in Japan.  At the same time though, I've tasted my share of enjoyable Japanese microbrews in Japan and also Hong Kong (including the beers of Kagua and Hitachino). And even while I have to admit to being very happy to drink the nama biru of the big four in Japan -- which, it has to be said, does taste quite a bit better when imbibed within their home country -- I did come away from my visit to Kurashiki Mugishukan determined to sample even more Japanese craft beers when the chances presented themselves! ;b

Monday, February 9, 2015

Bird watching at Hong Kong Wetland Park

Close-up shot of... anyone want to tell me 
what kind of bird this is?!

This bird I can identify as an Eurasian Curlew :)

Another feathered beauty spotted this afternoon

At one point over the course of yesterday's hike, I told my hiking friend that one reason why I haven't opted thus far to get a smart phone is because I spend so much time staring at a screen already -- this because I regularly do so at work during office hours and also for several hours at home daily.  

On a similar vein, having taken a day off from work today (because I've had a particularly exhausting last couple of work weeks), I decided to use my eyes in a different way from usual -- in other words, I decided to stay away from a computer (screen) for much of the day -- and exercise my eyes by using them to view things from a different distance, etc. than I usually do over the course of my regular work day.  More specifically, I decided to head off to the Hong Kong Wetland Park (for my fourth visit ever) to do some birdwatching!

On account of Hong Kong being a temporary home for many of migratory birds (that tend to spend their winters here but other times of the year elsewhere), I figured that this winter day would be a good day to head over to to the Tin Shui Wai area facility.  And thus it proved -- despite a few loud kids and adults (the majority of whom spoke Mandarin rather than Cantonese or any other language) often threatening to scare the birds away with their loud voices.

And yes, I know that the Hong Kong Wetland Park has its share of critics.  But the indoor exhibits area --  with their sad animals, including turtles and a mousedeer, that I can't think would be better off if free in the wild -- aside, I reckon that it can make for a pleasant visit, especially in winter; this not least since there are a surprisingly large number of birds viewable from the park's official hides, particularly if you've equipped with a camera that has a 30X zoom, like mine does! ;b

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hiking up to Sha Tin Pass and then Lion Rock and Beacon Hill too!

Guess where this photo was taken!

Congratulations, you're correct if your answer
was "the top of Lion Rock"! ;b

As this view from the area to the west of the top of Beacon Hill 
(which Lion Rock in the distance) shows, my hiking friend 
and I went on quite the hike earlier today!

For various reasons (including my mother coming over to visit me in Hong Kong and last Sunday being when a pro-democracy rally took place), I've not gone hiking since New Year's Day this year.  And after the terrible trail fiasco of January 1st, I opted to go along an established trail today -- albeit one which sections which I went on for the first time, and with a detour or so along the way. 
Also, rather than begin our hike at the official start of Section 5 of the Maclehose Trail, my friend and I opted instead to join it at Sha Tin Pass, from where we got to from a trail that very conveniently connected directly from the bus station in Tsz Wan Shan that we got off the bus.  This way, we bypassed one peak in 583-meter-high Tate's Cairn but after adding a detour up to the top of 495-meter-high Lion Rock to the route that also included a pull up Beacon Hill and then down again to the end of the hike via a section of the Eagle's Nest Nature Trail, I think it can be safely stated that it still was one doozy of a hike that we went on today!
Although visibility was not the greatest today, it still was pretty nice day for hiking -- and from the large numbers of fellow hikers we saw on the trail this afternoon, particularly at Sha Tin Pass and at the top of Lion Rock, many people agreed that this was the case!  And so enjoyable overall was today's hike that my friend and I got to talking, even before we got to Beacon Hill, about wanting to go on this trail again -- or at least part of it -- in the summer, when there's usually much higher visibility.

At the same time though, we had to admit that this is a part of Hong Kong that -- despite being so close to very high density urban sections of the territory -- is actually not all that easy to get to.  A case in point: despite the trail from Tsz Wan Shan being the shortest and most direct of the four trails leading up to Sha Tin Pass that I've now tried going on, it also involves the steepest ascent -- with pretty much zero "warm up" opportunities before going all the way up, up, up there! ;b