Friday, November 30, 2018

Seongsan sunset and twilight views

Sun setting behind Hallasan
Twilight view from the balcony of my Seongsan hotel window
In the hour after the sunset, South Korea's 
highest mountain loomed really large over the landscape
Shortly after arriving in Takayama by way of the Hida Limited Express from Nagoya last month, I was unexpectedly treated to a beautiful sunset sky show by Mother NatureIn Jeju earlier this month, I got more of an advance warning that I would get to see another beautiful sunset when, as my party of four were walking back to our hotel after our black pork feast, we noticed that the sun was casting long shadows and turning the western part of the sky a reddish orange.  
Hurrying over to the edge of the lagoon in front of our hotel, I managed to snap one shot of the setting sun before it vanished behind Hallasan (which, more than incidentally, was considerably further away from Seongsan than it looks courtesy of it being really pretty massive!).  Having learnt over the years by way of viewing sunsets at the likes of Tai Mei Tuk and Matsue that the sky show doesn't immediately end after the sun vanishes over the horizon, I tarried a while to enjoy the golden hour displays -- and, even after finally retreating to my hotel room because the temperatures fell pretty dramatically once the sun set, I still couldn't resist spending a few minutes checking out the views from my hotel room balcony.
For my troubles, I was rewarded with the kind of views that one feels very lucky to be able to observe; this even though the sun does set every day!  And okay, it might seem weird to segue into the following but I once was asked which of the five senses I feel least able to do without -- to which I pretty immediately replied that it would be sight.  Without it, I really think I would feel lost -- when venturing outside my home but also within it -- as well as be deprived of being able to enjoy two leisure pursuits I enjoy so very much: reading, and watching movies.  
I also would be unable to appreciate so much of nature's beauty; be they in the form of cool flora or fauna, and also amazing sky shows courtesy of the rising and setting sun.  So, truly, I am grateful that I do indeed have vision in my eyes -- and also am grateful that I have been able to see so much of the planet's beauty over the years. :)          

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Jeju meetup, with "bonus" shocks and culinary revelations!

Quite the spread for four people, right? ;b
Local custom dictates that the meat needed to be cut up 
(using scissors!) into bite-sized pieces before we dug into it! ;D

Less than a month after I got back to Hong Kong from my most recent Japan trip (which saw me spending time in Nagoya, Inuyama, Takayama and Hida-Furakawa), I was off again -- this time with my mother in tow -- to meet up in Jeju, South Korea, with the two friends I had an Okinawa rendezvous with some six years ago.  My mother had met this mother-daughter pair when we went off together for a Hakone holiday (that included two nights at the wonderful Gora Kansuiro) a couple of years ago and we all had clicked so well that we didn't only end up hanging out together some more in Tokyo but my mother also got to suggesting that the four of us should meet up again in Jeju some time. 

With our different schedules plus the four of us living in different parts of the world (Vermont, USA, for one of my friends, Tokyo for the other, Malaysia in the case of my mother and Hong Kong for me), it's not surprising that our Jeju trip took some time to plan and come into being.  But it really did happen eventually and the four of us were reunited at the airport when my mother and I flew in and were met by our two friends (who had arrived the previous day and done such as rent a car for us to drive around in for all but our final day on the island).
From the airport, we headed straight to the first hotel that we'd be staying in on Jeju.  Located in Seongsan, over on the eastern side of the island, it would require what to me would qualify as a long distance drive but what my friend who was driving had said wasn't all that far as far as she was concerned.  
A few minutes into our car journey, we received quite the shock when what my mother had thought was the sound of a train horn in the distance turned out to have been made by the driver of the car behind us who was so upset by our being in the way of his being able to make a turn that he got out of his car to pound on one of our car's windows!  As I later remarked to the people in the car, it made for quite the dramatic welcome to Jeju but perhaps we should have expected this sort of aggressive behavior in view of what we've seen of Korean people in Korean movies and TV dramas!
Speaking of K-dramas: that's the main reason why my mother and one of my friends had wanted to go to Jeju!  And we did indeed visit a few spots on the island which had been locations for Korean TV dramas.  For my part though, Jeju's primary attraction came by way of its specialty foods.  And when we sat down to our first meal together on the island, we all got a very good feeling that we'd be eating super well during our stay in this part of South Korea!
After checking in to our hotel, we went in search of a place that was open on a Sunday and came across a restaurant which served up Jeju black pig.  Following the waitress's recommendation that we get two dinner sets, we had our second shock of the day when we saw the large amount of meat as vegetables (to wrap the meat in and such) well as banchan (side dishes) -- which included a few varieties of kimchi but also less traditionally Korean delicacies like a sizzling creamed corn concoction! -- brought to our table.  On the other hand, being veteran consumers of Korean food, we didn't bat an eyelid when the waitress came over with a pair of large scissors and started cutting up the portions of pork that had been cooking on the grill into bite-sized chunks!
Although we all had not thought that we could do so, we ended up finishing up every bit of the meat we had been served.  All in all, I think it's less a testament to our appetites and more to how very tasty the Jeju black pig really is.  And for the record: yes, I most definitely would concur with those who say that it's the wagyu of pork and might even go so far as to say that it's the best pork I've ever had in my life!   And while one would expect the pork at a Jeju black pig specialist restaurant to be good, the pork at our hotel's breakfast buffet the one day we decided to try it was pretty fabulous too, making what otherwise would have been a rather average hotel breakfast buffet spread into something very enjoyable indeed! ;b

Monday, November 26, 2018

Project Gutenberg is a genuinely entertaining money-maker! (Film review)

I love spending a couple of hours in the afternoon
watching an entertaining movie on a big screen :) 
Project Gutenberg (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2018)
- Felix Chong, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu, Liu Kai Chi
There are Hong Kong movie fanboys and fangirls who don't need a reason to see this movie beyond Chow Yun Fat being its first-billed star.  I know second-billed Aaron Kwok also has his share of devotees.  If anything, however, the Cantopop singer-actor being in this crime thriller's cast caused me to delay checking out Project Guttenberg for as long as I did.  And, in truth, it was my curiosity to see what kind of Chinese-language film could be a box office hit both in Mainland China and Hong Kong that finally got me into a theater to view this offering on a big screen.
Set in the 1990s, this visually stylish effort can feel at times like it's harking back to Hong Kong cinema's late 20th century glory days: most notably by giving a showy role to Chow Yun Fat that allows him to unleash the charisma and even certain action movie moves which he has not had much opportunity to display in his more recent film appearances.  At the same time though, this movie possesses the kind of substantial budget that Hong Kong filmmakers of yore could only dream of; which allows for the assembling of a quality cast (some of whom, Jack Kao and Alex Fong Chung Sun among them, can create memorable characters with just a few lines and minutes of screentime) and a story that unfolds in places as far flung as Canada, Poland and South East Asia's Golden Triangle along with Hong Kong. 
Lest there be any doubt: Chow Yun Fat owns every scene of this film that he is in.  Early on, however, it's Aaron Kwok who has the limelight in scenes that see his Lee Man character in a hell hole of a prison in Thailand before being extradited to Hong Kong, where he sets to telling a story that began in Canada a number of years earlier. 
A technically gifted artist who nonetheless was unable to sell any of his original works, Lee Man discovers one day that he has a gift for copying famous works of art.  His pursuit of this avenue for him to make use of his talents leads him to become part of a counterfeiting ring as well as part ways with Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu), the woman he loves and -- he gets to bitterly recognizing -- is a far bigger artistic talent than him.  It also got him coming across like a cat in danger of having used up almost all of its nine lives after a number of twists in his life tale that included his being one of just two survivors of the gang that successfully produced thousands of perfect replicas of the US$100 bill before the majority of its members perished in a shootout in the suite of a Hong Kong luxury hotel.
A movie with a non-linear narrative structure that can frustrate some viewers (including those who see too much of a resemblance between it and The Usual Suspects), Project Gutenberg is one of those cinematic offerings that relies to a significant degree on the goodwill of those who watch it and their willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Its complicated -- some might say convoluted -- story unfolds at a good pace and, despite being quite a bit lengthier than the average Hong Kong movie at 130 minutes, the film never over-stayed its welcome as far as this particular (re)viewer was concerned.
In addition to it being an entertaining watch, I reckon one reason why Project Gutenberg fared so well at the Hong Kong box office is that this Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese co-production has a lot more Hong Kong actors and actresses in significant roles than Mainland Chinese ones.  I also appreciate the way Felix Chong and Co managed to fashion a finale that was able to satisfy the Mainland Chinese censors but still surprise rather than be entirely predictable and, actually, be quite the moving affair.

My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Beach clean-up at the Cheung Chau beach which sees the most trash washed ashore

The Cheung Chau beach that has the misfortune to be 

Beach clean-up in progress at Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) yesterday

A couple of weeks after Typhoon Mangkhut struck, the beach clean-up group I organize went and worked on Cheung Chau's Tai Kwai Wan one Saturday.  After ascertaining that the typhoon debris had been cleared so that the path to our usual beach clean-up spot was open once more though, we returned to Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) over on the other side of the island, where the currents look to bring over far more trash than any of the other Cheung Chau beaches I've been on.

The sight that greeted my party of eleven last month was expectedly horrific, with large amounts of trash strewn all over the beach and also higher up it and the rocks in the surrounding area than I had previously seen.  Still, I reckon we made a good dent of the trash on the beach on a day when the sun shone so brightly that I ended up getting sunburned (but didn't realize it until later in the day when a couple of friends remarked that I was looking on the red side and I saw that it was indeed so!).

So it was quite a bit of a shock to return yesterday and see trash strewn on a good swathe of Tung Wan Tsai once more; and this especially so since there hadn't been any typhoon or even major storm occur in the past month.  Making our task feel truly Sisyphean, more trash kept on being washed ashore by the waves as my group (smaller this time around than the previous month but supplemented by a Cheung Chau resident who happened on us at the beach!) went about picking up bits of trash that ranged from the pretty sizable to small but still recognizably plastic and, in fact, after we decided to call it a day to head off for lunch.

Whereas I previously would make a point to pick up glass shards as well as plastic items, I tend to focus these days on getting as much plastic and styrofoam off the beach (and back into the water courtesy of the tides).  One reason is that I've seen how plastic -- even those that appear on the solid side at first -- and styrofoam can break up into tiny pieces that are frustratingly difficult to sort from sand and also am super aware that those plastic microparticles get eaten by so many fish.  And then there are all those plastic bags that, when floating in the water, resemble the jellyfish that a number of marine creatures (including whales and sea turtles) feed on.     

Something else that was in abundance on the beach (including half buried in the sand and often hard to dig out) yesterday, and which I also have come to abhor, are ghost nets.  Truly, I find it difficult to understand how the fishing community can be so irresponsible and uncaring of the sea when its very health is so important to their livelihood.  And yet, time and time again, I see evidence of this at beach clean-ups and can only wonder what it will take to make these people wake up and see that they are contributing to the depletion of what they are able to catch and make money from doing so.

On a positive note, I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of times now that a stranger or two walking on to this pretty secluded beach, that's some distance -- and a hike away -- from the famous Cheung Chau sights, and seeing our beach clean-up in progress has stopped to help out.  Of course there also have been those folks who've blithely strolled past up without so much as a word or even those who've come up close to find out what we were picking up and then walked off after discovering that it was only trash!  But I take heart in the existence of the more good-hearted folks I've seen at Tung Wan Tsai -- and also those who sign up to work on what can seem like a futile task (and more than once too, as was the case with everyone who did so for yesterday's beach clean-up)!    

Friday, November 23, 2018

Napping Kid irritates far more than it intrigues (Film review)

Not your usual movie advertisement in Yau Ma Tei

Napping Kid (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Amos Why, director-scriptwriter
- Starring: Ng Siu Hin, David Siu, Cecilia So, Michael Wong

Close to four years after making his directorial debut with the charming Dot 2 Dot, Amos Why's highly anticipated sophomore effort made it into local cinemas.  Made with a bigger budget (of approximately US$1 million) and greater ambition than that which actually was my favorite Hong Kong movie of 2014, Napping Kid also sees the director-scriptwriter turning from straight drama to a complex crime mystery with political undertones. 

An adaptation of Hong Kong-born, Canada-based writer Mannshin's award-winning same-titled novel, Napping Kid sees police detective inspector Tong Fu (David Siu) being approached by his ex-wife (Candy Cheung), on behalf of her boss (Michael Wong), to investigate an attempted blackmailing involving her investment bank's confidential report-financial analysis of a Chinese IT company.  After being told of the attempted blackmailer's surprisingly modest ransom request, Tong Fu decides that he needs to figure out what's behind the attempted blackmailer's actions as well as his/her identity.  

Thus begins an investigation that sees a number of the bank's employees -- including his wife, IT expert Dylan (Ng Siu Hin), junior analyst (Cecilia So) -- that sees them confined together in a hotel suite, put under surveillance and denied the use of their mobile phones.  For some reason that never was explained in the film, however, Dylan's notebook computer never was taken away from him.  And as pretty much any person would expect, he proceeded to make full use of it, including to do such as send and receive messages to the apparent criminal mastermind behind the whole affair.   

That major improbability bugged me for much of the time that I was viewing the movie -- and I know that I was not alone in this regard from conversations I've had with a number of people who have also viewed Napping Kid ((including a couple of scriptwriter friends and one who's a professional film critic).  I suppose that apologists for the film could chalk it down to the police officers assigned to monitor the suspects being bad at their job -- so bad, in fact, that one of the other suspects also managed to sneak in someone else's mobile phone into the hotel suite and use it a number of times -- but surely that would be too convenient a way to explain away what is in effect a pretty major plot hole (which resolved in this way would then get one asking why such a big deal was made then of the need to effectively sequester the suspects)?

If only this was my major problem with Napping Kid's story but the fact of the matter is that I found too many problems with it to want to list.  Adding to my gripes with the movie is its poor -- to the point of irritating -- use of background music and an editing style that looked to have been designed to complicate and confuse viewers in order to hide the lack of logic of much of the plot and script.  

At the end of the day, perhaps the greatest mystery of all for many viewers may well be why Napping Kid has received such positive reviews from certain critics.  My own findings lead me to the conclusion that this stems in large part from there being a lot of goodwill for the film's director and also sympathy for his good intentions (including with regards to local socio-political matters).  

For my part, I hope that Amos Why's filmmaking career will not come to a premature end as a result of this offering that just is not a very good movie and, deservedly to my mind, doesn't look like it will be able to break even, never mind make a profit, at the box office.  For one thing, he showed with Dot 2 Dot that he can make a good, wonderful even, movie.  For another, even with Napping Kid, he showed how good he is at getting much out of his actors and actresses (a good number of whom managed to make their characters feel like real people rather than one-dimensional character types) and I continue to appreciate how much Hong Kong itself is very much a character in his movies.

My rating for the film: 5.0   

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A super rarified dining experience at Ryotei Susaki

Not the most obvious looking restaurant frontage!

Its interior looks like that of a ryokan 
but it's actually a ryotei

The (entire) room that I -- and I alone -- occupied 
over the course of my dinner at Ryotei Susaki!

The first course (featuring salmon roe, chestnut, river fish, tofu, 
sweet potato and a whole, solid egg yolk) looked like this; 
the rest of the meal I'll leave to your imagination! ;b

Some ten or so blog posts ago, I wrote about having feasted on Hida beef at Hida-Takayama (or just plain Takayama), including at a multi-course dinner at an "old school" ryotei.  Today, I'd like to more specifically discuss the ryotei in question in the context of my dinner there being the kind of dining experience that I've only ever had in Japan -- and totalling just a handful in my life so far.

It's not just that Ryotei Susaki serves the kind of meals that many people would describe as kaiseki but which its purveyors describe as Sowaryu Honzen ryori.  Rather, it's also the setting in which the meal I had at this Takayama fine dining establishment was served: with the diner (if dining alone) or his/her party being allocated an entire room for the duration a meal; and that room inevitably having a tatami floor, a tokonoma (alcove) within which can be found a hanging scroll and ceramic work for the diner to look and appreciate from time to time during the meal, along with a beautifully landscaped garden visible through glass doors/windows.  

The first time I had this kind of rarified dining experience, I must admit to having been totally unprepared for it.  My mother and I were visiting the Kyushu temple town of Dazaifu, which I had read was home to a fantastic tofu specialist restaurant along with a super popular Tenmangu shrine and an ancient temple with beautiful Zen gardens.  After visiting the Tenmangu shrine, we decided to go to the Dazaifu branch of Ume-No-Hana for a lunch that turned out to be one of the most memorable -- as well as lengthiest (lasting circa three hours!) and fanciest -- I've ever had.   

Looking back, I'm amazed that we managed to get into that kaiseki restaurant as walk-in customers.  Knowing better these days, I sought to make an advance reservation in person at Ryotei Susaki soon after I arrived in Takayama -- only to discover that this dining establishment's very discrete premises was well nigh impossible to find in the dark (which had fallen less than an hour after I arrived in that mountain town)!

As it transpired, I had major problems locating the oldest ryotei in all of Gifu prefecture even during the day the next day.  In fact, I actually walked past its building -- which, like the restaurant itself, dates back to the 18th century! -- several times both during daylight and in the dark before I finally found the place -- and even then, it was after getting detailed information as to its location from a staffer at the third Takayama tourist office I visited (and also the one closest to the ryotei)! 

After having successfully made my booking, I duly made my way through super quiet and dark Takayama streets to the ryotei on the appointed evening.  At the lobby of the restaurant, I was met by a friendly kimono-clad woman who led me through the carpeted corridor of the ryotei to a large private room with a single table and chair in it that I quickly got to realizing was reserved for me alone for the duration of my meal!        

If my assigned waitress hadn't been so friendly, I think I wouldn't have felt as comfortable as I did dining at Ryotei Susaki.  Even so, I must admit to thinking that it's preferable to have at least one companion while dining at this kind of place, for the same reason that I have about preferring to stay at a traditional ryokan: that is, the service can so attentive as well as superb that it can actually feel rather overwhelming!

Funny but true: Early on during my dinner that evening, I wondered if there were a hidden camera in the room that enabled the staff to see when I had finished with each course as the next course was carried in by the waitress with such great timing!  Of course, I got to realizing after a while that that was not indeed the case.  Still, my harboring that thought for a time is a measure of how the staff seemed so able to anticipate my needs.  

Pretty much impeccable in every way, the staff treated this diner like an honored guest and Very Important Person.  And while I surely was not this storied establishment's sole customer of the evening, the service provided sometimes made me feel like this was so on top of my never having caught sight nor heard any sounds indicating that there were other customers in the ryotei the entire time that I was there! ;b 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Critter spottings in Takayama and Inuyama! (Photo-essay)

In yesterday's blog post, I wrote about having seen bear warning (or, in Japanese English, "bear attention") signs and also having come across snakes thrice already in Japan.  Happily, however, I didn't spot any bears or snakes about in the hills above Takayama or any other part of the country on my most recent trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.  

At the same time though, I was happy to have caught sight of some other interesting fauna -- and flora too -- this time around; and this despite my not having ventured as deep into the countryside as I had done on previous visits to the country (like when I went biking on the Kibi Plain, exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of Iwami Ginzan or hiking in Togakushi)! :)

Small but pretty, blue butterfly spotted in the grounds of one of the 
Another small -- but different shaped -- butterfly spotted,
this time atop a bright yellow flower
I also spotted bees doing their bit to pollinate the flowers
A different-colored damselfly from the ones I usually see in Hong Kong 
 What appears to be the Japanese cousin of Hong Kong's (giant)
An exotic looking bird on a tree overlooking Lake Iruka,
the Inuyama reservoir bordering one side of the Museum Meiji-Mura
More members of the same bird species whose loud cawing
I heard before I actually caught sight of them!
Sorry, but I can't resist including this photo of Puppet Ponyo 
posing with a realistic looking cat figurine found in the 
Kusakabe Mingeikan, a historic Takayama townhouse :b

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Par for the course while venturing along a walking course in Japan?

"Bear" is not a word one wants to see on a sign in the woods! :O
A horde of schoolchildren tripping along the trail
A stretch of trail I wondered whether one could pass

On my first visit to Gifu prefecture a few years ago, I spent time in the picturesque village of Ogimachi over in Shirakawa-go.  Among the more memorable experiences of that visit was my spotting a snake for the first time ever in Japan.  Arguably just as memorable was a Japanese friend I told of this occurrence telling me that, in her home country, this was seen as a portend of good luck.

To be honest, I not completely convinced that this is true, or even if she was just telling me that to comfort me!  In any case, since then, I've come across more of these reptiles on two more occasions in the Land of the Rising Sun (including the largest snake I've seen in the wild to date while hiking down Bitchu-Takahashi's Mount Gagyu) along with skinks and other wild critters that many visitors to Japan, the vast majority of whom tend to stay in the urban areas of the country, never do.

Although I do like making critter spottings when out in the countryside, I must admit to not being a great fan of snakes and also not caring to encounter any bears in the wilds of Japan!  Happily, I've yet to come across the latter over the course of my travels in Nippon for even the sighting of bear warning signs (along with those for snakes) can stress me out some!

While I did end up enjoying trekking along Takayama's Higashiyama Walking Course, the portends actually weren't great early on since I came across a "bear attention" sign close to the trail head in Shirayama Park!  In retrospect, I should have expected for there to be bears in the area since Yamanosachi Uribuoya's Masato Wakidani had told me that he hunted bears as well as deer and wild boar in the mountains near Takayama.  Somehow though, I hadn't expected that the range of those animals could be so close to town!

Something else that I hadn't thought to expect was that the area would be one where schoolkids would be taken out on an excursion.  But a horde of excited schoolkids being herded along by their teachers was precisely what I came across just a few minutes after I passed by the "bear attention" sign!  And even while a part of me reasoned that the safest part of the woods probably would be where the school party was (since any bears would undoubtedly want to stay away from the loud noise emanating from the otherwise pretty well-behaved children), I still was glad when the school group went a different way from me at a point when the trail we were on forked into two.  

As it so happened, the direction I was going led me through a section of trail whose side looked to have been rendered dangerous by a recent landslide.  But just as I was mulling whether it was safe to pass along, another person came by and blithely went along it.  And, after doing so and seeing what lay in store for me further along the Higashiyama Walking Course, I'm so glad that I didn't get put off going on it by the triple threat of bears, school parties and dodgy sections of trail! :)  

Monday, November 12, 2018

Takayama's Higashiyama Walking Course takes one to temples and shrines galore! (Photo-essay)

Before I visited the mountain town of Hida-Takayama (or just plain Takayama), I had heard that it was known as the Little Kyoto of the Mountains/the Japanese Alps/Hida/Gifu.  To be honest though, I think that Kamakura deserves the "Little Kyoto" label more and, if anything, Takayama -- with its traditional wooden houses in the old part of town, some of them still private residences while others housed interesting shops and eateries -- reminded me more of Naramachi

But if there were a section of Takayama which would call to mind Kyoto, it'd be the temple- and shrine-filled town outskirts which I passed through while going along Takayama's 5.5 kilometer Higashiyama Walking Course.  Takayama's Higashiyama is far less full of tourists -- or any other folks, for that matter -- than Kyoto's Higashiyama (for the record, Higashiyama means  "Eastern Hill(s)/Mountain(s)" in Japanese).  So while its buildings are less physically impressive, the area's quiet feel more than compensates in terms of making it an attractive space to spend time exploring... :)

Tree trunk, bell and bell tower in a corner of
the Shorenji temple grounds
Superstitious folks thinking of going along Takayama's Higashiyama
Walking Course should be aware that it takes people right through,
not just along, a couple of temple graveyards! 
Puppet Ponyo posing near the Bentendo of Dairyuji 
that's Takayama's closest equivalent to  

The kind of temple that would have charged for admission into its grounds 
if it were situated in Kyoto or Kamakura but didn't in Takayama
Peek into the main halls of the temples and you'll get
rewarded with beautiful visuals like this :b
If I didn't know better, I'd easily imagine that this image 
had been taken in Kyoto (or Kamakura)! :)
Daioji's two-storey, 18th century Sanmon Gate was the 
most impressive structure of its kind that I saw in Takayama
 Looking downhill towards the town center from 
just within the grounds of Higashiyama Shinmeijinja

Sunday, November 11, 2018

An enjoyable evening at a local Takayama izakaya

An izakaya that doesn't look super foreigner friendly from the outside

Despite it looking to the contrary, an English menu is available! :)

An eggplant dish offered there that may not have looked 
the greatest but actually was super delicious! :b

Check out eateries and bars on side streets rather than main roads.  That's one of the pieces of advice I give to visitors to Hong Kong who tell me they want to eat in non-touristy places.  And that same 'rule' is one I often follow when visiting Japan with great results, like the wild game eatery I came across on my second night in Takayama and a nearby izakaya without any English on its outside that I decided to check out the following evening.        

If truth be told, I would have hesitated to enter Wada if it hadn't been highly recommended in my copy of The Rough Guide to Japan since not only was there no English menu apparent on its exterior but also no pictures that I could use as a guide.  But upon finding my way to it and sniffing the great smells that were emanating from within it, I walked in without any hesitation and was happy to snag a counter seat from where I could see and smell a cook grilling all sorts of goodies as well as commanding the front space of the very local and noticeably non-chain izakaya.

Upon ordering a glass of nama biiru (draft beer) to start things off, I was intrigued to find a beer robot go to work on pouring my beer in a corner of the otherwise pretty old school-looking izakaya.  Similarly intrigued by me were the people seated on either side of me at the counter: on my right, a Filipina woman who, after I got into conversation with her, told me that she had lived in Japan for some two decades and was visiting Takayama from Nagano with her Japanese boyfriend; and on my left, a Takayama couple who told me they were truck drivers and were most eager to give me recommendations as to what to order at a place which they regularly frequented.

Although I was provided with an English menu upon my request, I decided to trust my new truck driver pals and let them order a couple of dishes for me.  The first one that arrived in front of me, grilled naso (eggplant) topped with miso, egg and spring onions, was incredibly yummy.  The second one was too but the order of grilled tonton (pork knuckle) was so substantial that I insisted that the fellow who had recommended it to me also had to help me finish it!

If the ice hadn't already been broken some time before, it truly was after that -- and we ended up trying each others' drinks and food and having an altogether pretty social time together, much like my experience at Matsuki Sushi on my first evening in town!  What with my having encountered friendly fellow diners on three consecutive nights in three quite different Takayama dining establishments and also the wonderful ticketing office staffer at Takayama Jinya who presented me with a lovely Funassyi note, I got to thinking that this mountain town may well be the friendliest place in all of Japan!  

It's a measure of how much I enjoyed the company of my fellow diners at Wada as well as the food on offer that I managed to have a good time there despite it being one of those dining-drinking establishments where smoking (still) is allowed.  In fact, for much of my meal, I found myself sitting in between diners who were smoking away like chimneys: one of whom asked if I minded (upon which I had no heart to tell him that I actually did; and it also helped that he was vaping more than smoking smoking for the most part); another of whom didn't even think to ask if I -- or anyone else, for that matter -- had a problem with his lighting up for pretty much the entire time that he was in the izakaya! :O

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On the nihonshu trail in Takayama and Hida-Furukawa :)

A well-stocked liquor store in Hida-Furukawa
The greenest sugidama I've seen to date!
Sake tasting in Takayama
In the years since my first memorable night at Sasagin back in the summer of 2012, I've become quite the fan of the Japanese tipple known as sake to much of the world but more specifically as nihonshu in Japanese (since sake is the generic word for "alcohol" in the native language of the residents of the Land of the Rising Sun).  These days, my favorite bar in Hong Kong specialize in nihonshu and this very Japanese alcoholic drink has become my drink of choice when eating a variety of foods (most of them Japanese but I've also found that nihonshu pairs very well with certain cheeses!). 
While I still do have a taste for (good) beers, I do drink more nihonshu than beer these days both in Hong Kong and Japan.  And, increasingly on my Japan visits, I like to track down specialist nihonshu bars, keep a look out for particular brands of sake to drink (including a few that I've yet to find in Hong Kong) and have even made a pilgrimage to my favorite sake brewery far up in the mountains of Yamaguchi prefecture!  
In addition, certain towns being known for having sake breweries most certainly adds to their attraction for me -- and while it really is true that my primary reason for wanting to go to Obuse actually was not sake, I was perfectly happy to visit its sake breweries when I was in that picturesque town!  By a similar token, I was attracted to Takayama for more than it being home to six (or seven?) sake breweries.  Still, I did make a point while there to visit a good number of them and taste at least one of the varieties of nihonshu which they brewed!  
Strolling around that Hida mountain town, I saw a number of liquor stores, all of them looking well-stocked with nihonshu, and got the distinct sense from them as well as the existence of the sake breweries, that Takayama's quite the nihonshu town.  If truth be told though, the only locally brewed sake there that I cared for was that from the Funasaka Sake Brewery (which also is home to a nice restaurant where I had a delicious Hida beef set lunch).  And I didn't have much hope that the quality of the sake brewed in nearby -- and smaller -- Hida-Furukawa would be any better until a chance meeting with a fellow nihonshu enthusiast at Yamanosachi Uribuoya, the wild game specialist eatery that I dined at one evening in Takayama.  
Hirakawa-san, a Sapporo man on his third visit to Takayama, told me of his having visited Hida-Furukawa earlier that day and decided that the Watanabe Sake Brewery there produced his favorite sake in the region.  Intrigued by his high praise of their nihonshu, I decided to head to that neighboring town the next day -- and I really would like to thank him for his recommendation.  Let's put it this way: I liked the junmai daiginjo I tasted at the brewery so much that I ended up coming away with a bottle of it that I've managed to safely transport back to Hong Kong!

For the record: that's only the second bottle of sake I've ever transported back to Hong Kong, and only the first that I've bought in Japan.  (The first was given to me by the Asahi Shuzo's brewery's CEO when I visited his brewery!)  And I have not yet drank it because I've been told that it's actually too fresh to be in optimal condition.  Come January 2019 though, I'll be opening that bottle and sharing it with my friends -- and when I do so, I'll definitely think fondly of Hida-Furukawa but also Takayama, where I got the recommendation to go to check out the sake brewed in Hida-Furukawa! :b