Kansai, 2007

In 2005 my mom, dad, and I went to Kansai together for about a week. Unfortunately, two days after we left Japan, our only camera was swiped by someone on the streets of Shanghai. My dad kept our camera hooked on his belt; when we were walking around one of the plazas at night, I asked for the camera so I could take pictures and poof! Gone. It was kind of a devastating moment–to have all your tangible memories vanish in an instant. The blatant truth of the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words” becomes that much more obvious now, in retrospect, when I draw nearly a complete blank on my trip to Kansai 8 years ago. In contrast, the moment I see pictures from Kanto in 2004, immediately I remember. Pushing front of the crowded windows of Tokyo Government Center, past the yelling of Chinese tourists and the chitter chatter of Japanese school children, scrambling to see if I can get a view of Mt. Fuji and being utterly disappointed to see it covered in clouds. The sounds, the smells, the cold of the blasting A/C.

Mom and I were determined to relive Kansai once more–like it was our first time–in 2007. The itinerary had changed in two years; I was slightly disappointed that we were no longer going to the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Kobe (明石海峡大橋), which has the longest central span of any suspension bridge in the world. But change is good, as I found out later on the trip.

Day 1: We land in Narita, since that’s where all big international flights in Japan go. If I remember anything from my first trip to Kansai, it was the first night’s dinner. One of those meals you don’t need pictures to remember, but I’m glad that I was able to repeat it again on this trip. Sounds crazy, but I still remember what the restaurant looks like; mostly empty parking lot, corner of the street, 2nd floor. A large, wooden structure. We sat down in booths. The food was what made it unforgettable: Niratama-gayu  にらたまがゆ). Just a guess at the name; I could be very much wrong.

niratamagayu

All it was was rice porridge served in a hot, clay pot. There were some leeks, enoki, shiitake, shredded carrots, something like Japanese yu choy in the pot. Nothing more. Paired on the side were some crispy seaweed strips, scallions, and one egg. It was absolutely one of the most basic dishes, but it somehow managed to be a simmering bowl of intensely flavorful rice porridge. And once the egg is cracked in–done. gone. sold. 

That’s really all you need to know about my first night back in Japan. If you’re interested in good accommodations around Tokyo, I highly recommend the Keio Plaza Hotel. I might be mistaken, but I believe our restaurant was close by; maybe a block or two down the street.

Sofitel Wanda Beijing, Beijing, 2012

Sofitel Wanda Beijing’s breakfast buffet is a show-stopper. I was flailing with excitement when I walked into the dining area. The first 10 minutes were spent admiring the pretty decorations, the fancy table arrangements, and the hundreds of different food choices.

sofitel beijing breakfast

beijing yogurt

A color wheel of 北京酸奶 [Beijing yogurts] with fresh fruit

It was almost impossible to stop myself from devouring the entire tray of croissants, but I managed to stick to one. My mom, on the other hand, snatched up 3 as fast as she could, and ran straight back to our table to gobble them down. Paris can eat its heart out because these were on point. Perfectly flaky on the outside, perfectly soft and dough-y on the inside. What made them over-the-top delicious was that they were fresh out of the oven, and I had to take care not to burn myself while eating it. The smoothie bar offered a choice of 6 different vegetables and 6 different fruits that you could mix and blend however you wanted to. I did an all-fruit mix and all-veggie mix, and grabbed another glass of the chef-chosen mixes on the side. So greedy. And the proof of Sofitel’s breakfast excellency is in the pudding. Or should I say yogurt? “北京酸奶” [Beijing suan nai]. Beijing yogurt is pretty famous in the Chinese community. It lived up to its reputation. Super fine and smooth and creamy. Tart, too, which I like. I had a glass of regular yogurt and one topped with kiwi. My mom took the one with blueberries. I’m actually craving some now that I’m writing this.

I really regret not stuffing my face there. While the acid reflux and nausea that follow the ingestion of incredible amounts of food is highly unpleasant, it would have been worth the discomfort. Some of the most amazing food I’ve had was at the breakfast buffet at the Sofitel Wanda Beijing, hands down.

sofitel beijing breakfast

The chawanmushi (top right) was heavenly! Never had better–the egg was so silky it was like, well, silken tofu. Golden velvet for my mouth.

pan fried bunTwo flights in two days. Complete exhaustion and sleep-deprivation, but totally worth it. Urumqi was a world different.While wandering through the buffet in search of good eats, my eyes latched onto something that I have yearned for years: pan-fried vegetable buns. “素生煎包” [su sheng jian bao]. (“素” meaning vegetarian.) There used to be one vegetarian restaurant in San Gabriel that made these, but it closed before I was even halfway through elementary school. My mom took me there often because their vegetarian pan-fried buns and soup dumplings (“小寵包” [xiao long bao]) were absolutely flawless. For over a decade, my family and I have not been able to find any place, any where that made these–not even in Taiwan, where vegetarianism is commonplace. I swiped 6 of the remaining buns in the basket and excitedly returned to our table to share them with my mom. Heaven in the form of soft, white bread with crunchy, golden bottoms, enveloping fresh, stir-fried mustard greens. I was Anton Ego taking his first bite of ratatouille–first-class time travel to my early childhood. If only we didn’t have a flight to catch at noon!

urumqi airport

Olympics on the Great Wall, Beijing, 2012

鸟巢 [niao cao].


I grew up on the Olympic Games. They were on my TV without fail every 2 years since I was a child. Citius. Altius. Fortius. I’ve been obsessed with them ever since, so I was particularly ecstatic about getting the chance to visit two of the most recognizable Olympic venues in recent history. Bird’s Nest. It is gargantuan. Magnificent is the most suitable English word, but I think Chinese does it better: “壯觀” [zuang guan]. It’s like spectacular, magnificent, and ginormous combined in a single word. When I saw the Bird’s Nest on TV, my initial reaction was, “that’s what they made?” Didn’t quite see the beauty of it. Being able to see the steel threading up close changed my mind.
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Breakfast in [北京] Beijing, 2012

I was in 5th grade when I first went to Beijing 10 years ago. Can’t say I remember much beyond begging and crying  to my dad at the steps of the Great Wall to not make me do the steep climb. Fond memories. My mom and I landed in Beijing on May 18 at 5:30am. Red-eye flight. Oof. Being a chronic insomniac only meant that I hadn’t slept for a day and a half. No big. The grand sight of Capital International Airport was a nice wake up call. It was…clean? And…new? And it took more time for me get a sip of water than to get through customs? This wasn’t the China I remembered: dirty, inefficient, stinky, broken.

beijing airportMy mom’s friend in Beijing graciously offered to take us on a day-tour. They were supposed to pick us up at the airport, but it turned out that they thought we were arriving the next day. Whoops! Luckily one of our tour guides was waiting at the airport to escort us back to our hotel. If the sight of the Beijing’s beautiful airport didn’t wake me up, riding the shuttle in China sure did. While there were dotted lines that suggested the existence of lanes, there was definitely no sense of order; every millimeter of the street was occupied by some vehicle–bike, motorcycle, bus, truck, car. It was an hour-long ordeal of constant swerving, spontaneous acceleration and breaking, incessant honking, and cutting off a herd of oncoming traffic despite a red light. I wanted to kiss the ground when we were released from the death cab.

The Sofitel Wanda Beijing was our hotel for the night–über swanky. Since 7am was too early for the hotel to provide us a room, we left our luggage with the concierge and studied the maps and railways of Beijing to pass the time until my mom’s friends could pick us up.

beijing fast foodOur first stop after they picked us up was a traditional Beijing breakfast joint, since none of the four of us had eaten breakfast. It was Panera-quality food at what was basically a McDonald’s joint. Food was laid out semi-cafeteria-style, except there were no lines to get the food and no lunch ladies waiting to ladle food onto a tray. Menus were overhead, read off when you ordered. You found a table, sat down, placed your order with a server, and waited for the food to be brought to you. Service was quick. I also thought it was super neat that there was a button for service complaints, another to call servers over, and one for food complaints. If only restaurants in the US had that!

Our hosts ordered a smorgasbord of culinary delights–about 15 dishes total. All of us were starving, so most of the food was inhaled before I had a chance to snap pictures of all the things we ate. But here’s what I did catch:
appetizers and noodles“小菜” [xiao cai] is what we started with. Literally translated to English, it’s “little vegetables”. Essentially, “小菜” is the word for appetizers in Chinese. Small so you have room for other things; it’s nothing at all like the “appetizers” at Cheesecake Factory, where a single appetizer is enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

From right to left: bitter melon salad, spicy tofu with cilantro, spicy green beans, and pickled radish. That golden stick in the top left corner? “油條” [you tiao]. The most pleasant-sounding name in English is “fried dough stick”–crunchy, greasy, and savory. What more could you ask for?

The “酸辣粉” [suan la feng] on the right was perhaps my favorite dish. What I wouldn’t give to have a bowl of it now~! A typical Sichuan dish: sour and spicy mung bean noodles. Sichuan spicy is different from other kinds of “spicy”; there’s a lot of fire from the chilis, but the peppercorns create this paralyzing and numbing heat that works its way into all the corners of your mouth. Almost an intoxicating feeling, although it is an acquired taste. And the noodles were so smooth that they just wriggled down your throat.

“白木耳湯” or “white fungus soup” is a dessert soup that usually comes at the end of a meal. Goji berries and red dates are common additions. White fungus soup is believed to have medicinal uses, e.g. reducing inflammation. Chinese women love this soup because the high collagen content supposedly whitens and firms skin. I like it simply because it is the perfect summer beverage: served cold.

dim sum and dessertThe conclusion to our very filling morning meal: dim sum. “饅頭” [man tou], or steamed buns, and “叶兒粑” [ge-er ba], which is a slightly sweet, sticky rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves. There were also fried eggs, noodles with chili oil, various soups, corn cakes, pumpkin congee…a smorgasbord of food I can’t fully recall anymore. Plates were wobbling precariously on the edges of our table. Paradise.

Taipei, 2006

We took the Shinkansen early in the morning back into Tokyo for our flight to Taiwan. I wasn’t anticipating returning to Taiwan all that much, since I was wary of our apartment. When my parents first took me back, our apartment was the dingiest, sketchiest, most frightening place to live. My grandfather had left it to my dad’s side of the family, in case any of us ever returned to Taiwan and needed a place to stay. It smelled of mildew and mold. Everywhere. The paint had peeled off most of the walls; the floorboards came up and were broken–even the cement underneath was slightly chipped. The couches were ripped; the stuffing was falling out. There was only one light per room: we navigated mostly in darkness. When I would walk to the kitchen for some water in the middle of the night, I could hear the light scratching of fast-working legs: cockroaches. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of their shadows cast against the walls from the dim light of the kitchen. Working lights flickered on and off sporadically, and gave of a snotty yellow glow. Dust covered every centimeter of the place. Shower tiles were broken; the bath tub was a disconcerting greenish huge. Mirrors were speckled with rust. And the water pressure in that house…awful. A schizophrenic water heater: showers would go from 50-degree water to 80-degrees within seconds. All I could do was jump in and out of the water, scrubbing furiously when it was at a transient medium. Not to mention the toilet. It took 3 flushes every time, just to get the toilet paper out, since the handle was so loose and on the verge of breaking. Perhaps the freakiest part of our place was a little doll that sat on one of the footrests by the large, antennae TV. Small, beady, glistening eyes. A smile. I don’t know, dolls scare me. Especially in run-down, dark places full of unexplainable knocking, dripping, and rustling at night.

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Matsushima, 2006

DIY

Last day of our Hokkaido trip! Very chill itinerary. We were taken to a small village–the name of which I’m not sure–full of cute DIY stores. From the windows, we could watch little Japanese grandmas firing iron teapots, making pottery, shaving down and hand-painting wooden horses and dolls, and teaching tourists how to back peanut crackers.

Since we didn’t have time to do the DIY options in each store, my mom and I chose to spend it baking crackers. They made the process very simple: get the batter, sprinkle in as many peanuts as you wanted, grab one of the iron paddles, put in the batter, and let it bake. The baking process and equipment was styled like a conveyor belt, which made it really efficient because 10 of us could be baking at one station at the same time.

diycookie

When you felt like your cracker was ready, you turned it over with large iron tongs. Then one of the grandmas would come over and help you take it out. And yay! You have a freshly-baked, crunchy peanut cracker. 🙂 When our time in the crafts village was up, we munched and lunched. It’s always daunting to have an enormous tray set down in front of you and then for a large pot to be put on your side. But the thing about Japanese meal sets is that they’re like French bistro food or Spanish tapas: a bunch of tiny, one-bite dishes.  Continue reading

Lake Tazawa, 2006

The time we spent at Lake Tazawa ‘田沢湖’ was one of the days I remember most clearly of all the days I spent in Japan. Absolutely one of the places I would recommend to visit. The sparkling blue waters were so clear, and the colours would vary in hue with the fluctuations of sunlight and cloud cover. Purple mountains in the background accented the periwinkle lake. Such a sweet, serene image. Pictures don’t do the lake justice–at least mine don’t.

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Ohmygosh don’t even get me started on our meal. Even my mom reminisces about it from time to time. It certainly wasn’t anything extravagant by any means. Merely a simple but incredibly well-done meal. The restaurant location was impeccable. We had a full view of the lake through glass walls. It was perhaps the only one by the lake, actually. Quaint and very clean, like pretty much everything in Japan is. Our meal began as it always did: with a small garden salad. I cannot stress how delicious those salads are. For weeks in college where I eat salad every day, it can get to be pretty unbearable. But in Japan it’s a true pleasure every time. Not since then has the difference between eating actual fresh produce and supermarket “fresh” produce been more apparent. The best part was yet to come–the pasta! Pasta in Japan may sound like a sham, some fake, wannabe food (like crab rangoon and general gau’s chicken in Americanized Chinese restaurants).

tazawalunch

Yet it was undeniably one of the best pastas I’ve ever had. Perfectly creamy alfredo sauce, spaghetti cooked al dente, tomatoes off the vine, and earthy, crisp vegetables. Divineeee. Irreplaceable; nowhere else in the world would that pasta dish taste just as good. And I can attest to this because Hokkaido is hugely famous for its high-quality agriculture and dairy products. Best milk I’ve ever had? Hokkaido. Eggs? Hokkaido. Fruits? Hokkaido. Lunch was topped off with a simple fruit plate of strawberries, oranges, and honeydew. Unbeatable.

The rest is kind of just history at this point. We visited the Morioka, 盛岡, Village to visit their local, handicrafts stores–which was cool, but less memorable. Part of that was also the Bukeyashiki, 武家屋敷, Museum of old Samurai weapons and armour, things like that.

samurai

Oh, but what was awesome was the Shion Hotel we stayed at. Gorgeous lake views just like the night before! Also another hot spring hotel, which was mind blowing because hot spring hotels are ridiculously expensive–high-end ones like ours would be $600/night if we booked it ourselves and weren’t on a tour. Hotels in Japan also charge by head, and not room, so we were doing it right. Our tour was particularly lucky since it was the flagship tour–the first one they were doing for Hokkaido and the tip of Honshu , so we got all the perks of being guinea pigs. It’s never a bad choice to end your day bathing in hot springs by the lakeside. Never. And like all Japan tours run by Signet, the night before your last night in Japan includes karaoke for the entire group! Funsies.

tazawahotel

Lakeview from our room! 🙂 And a cornucopia of foods for dinner.

Lake Towada, 2006

Day 6 came so quickly; it felt like we had just landed but we were already 60% done with our stay in Japan! We left early in the morning to catch the to ride the train through the Seikan Tunnel ‘青函海底隧道’–the longest underwater tunnel in the world–to Aomori ‘青森’. Train breakfast bento is surprisingly delicious.

seikanlunch

Picked vegetables, fried tofu, lotus root, white rice, and fresh fruits for dessert.

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Hakodate, 2006

Day five in Hokkaido included a trip through Noboribetsu and an overnight stay in Hakodate, a seaside town. We started off the day by taking the Usuzan Ropeway over Lake Toya to view Mt. Showa-shinzan. 北海道有珠郡壮瞥町昭和新山. Man, what a mouthful of Japanese!

Mt. Showa-shinzan is a volcanic lava dome next to the stratovolcano Mt. Usu.

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Sapporo, 2006

The next day we made a trip up to Okurayama, the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The Winter Sport Museum was a blast; they had a station for each of the more popular Olympic sports, where you could try the sport out. Figure skating, speed skating, curling, biathalon, and cross-country skiing are a few of the ones I remember. None of them were easy. Working through each station was probably the equivalent of doing a circuit at the gym. It’s funny thinking back on that now, since I scoffed at the speed skating section when I first saw it. My initial thought was, “Who actually watches this sport?! It looks so silly! And how hard can it be if you’re just skating in circles?” The irony is probably most apparent to me since little did I know that 6 years later, I would fall in love with the sport and start short track speed skating. But that’s a different story.

sapporo

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