Bien Etre Patisserie

I don’t really like rainy days. It’s hard to walk around, public transport is incredibly crowded and I’m never wearing the right shoes. However, after looking at these photos it seems fitting that we would stumble through the back entrance of Bien Etre Patisserie still shaking off our umbrellas and dodging the steady rain outside.

Although it is sandwiched between Shibuya and Shinjuku, Yoyogi is very much a residential neighbourhood. Situated up a very steep incline, Bien Etre Patisserie is a store that you have to seek out. Just as well, seeing as it only has a handful of small tables.

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Next to the counter is an assortment of cakes, cookies and teas all ready for you to take home or gift a lucky someone. The cakes in the refrigerated counter are equally colourful and salivating.  However, Bien Etre Patisserie’s most famous dessert is never on display. The only clue you have is a tiny little handwritten placard on top of the cake display.

That’s right, Bien Etre Patisserie’s true calling card is their beautiful seasonal parfaits. The parfait for June was Hibiscus and American cherry with a caramel sauce. Fresh pastry cream, tempered chocolates, herbs and a generous amount of biscuit crumbs met with the slightly sour and bitter sorbet and caramel sauce to make each bite interesting. If I lived in Japan I would try to come back regularly to try all their monthly parfaits.

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The berry cake didn’t reach the same fantastic highs as the parfait. However, the tart and sweet berries and soft cake was a nice light way to continue my sugar high.

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Hibiscus tea was tart with just a hint of sweetness. It really helped keep me alert as the rain poured down outside and the gentle sounds of people tidying up in the kitchen made its way into the cafe. Chamomile tea was on the other end of the spectrum entirely. Sweet and soothing I would have happily fallen asleep drinking this.

Tabelog
Website

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Jiyugaoka

Jiyugaoka is described as a place where every day feels like the weekend. No, that doesn’t mean that there are party goers and revellers around all day and night. Instead, it’s perennially filled with young couples and families on dates and people slowly enjoying their day.

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Jiyugaoka is also a hotbed for some of the most highly ranked cake stores in all of Tokyo according to tabelog. As soon as we got out of the station we made a beeline for Patisserie Paris S’eveille. 

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Patisserie Paris S’eveille is well known for their chocolate cakes so I couldn’t go past ordering this decadent chocolate slice for breakfast. The fig and chocolate cake is what dreams are made of. Usually, I’m not the biggest fan of rich and heavy desserts but this was probably my favourite of the cakes we tried. The cake was dense and moist and the chocolate ganache sandwiched chopped up bits of fig adding to the fruitiness of the dark chocolate.

The berry cake was a much lighter affair. Hidden inside the light fluffy centre were even more berries. I could have cried at just how sweet the raspberries were. These two cakes actually complimented each other perfectly, as the fruity taste of the dark chocolate naturally fed into the berries of the lighter cake.

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We didn’t go all the way to one of Tokyo’s best bakeries to only get two slices of cake. This beautiful eclair looks like a perfect little garden with the green choux and edible flower petals. This was probably the weakest of all the cakes we tried. The pistachio flavour was perfectly pleasant and the fruit exquisite but as I find is often the case with eclairs I found it a touch too soggy.

Cakes aside there is also a sizeable assortment of bread, pastries and biscuits ready for take away and eat in. Whilst we were savouring our sweet breakfast, a small group of French mothers and their children came in to partake in some sweet pastries and croissants on what looked like a regular mummy date. If nothing else, I feel like having French natives come and partake in these baked goods must attest to their quality.

Mont St Clair, m.koide and Bloom’s were also on my list of cake stores to check out. Sadly I only managed to walk past half of them and peek into the windows because I was already too full!

 

Potato Cream Cafe is probably one of the cutest and carby-est (that’s not a word, but I’m going to use it anyway) holes in the wall anywhere in the world. The potato wreath decoration speaks to me (and probably all other potato lovers) on a spiritual level. As the name suggests this quaint store sells nothing but potatoes. Mashed potatoes to be precise.

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For the most part Potato Cream seems to do takeaway business. However, there is a small counter where you can stand and enjoy your mash! There are 5 toppings to choose from, and you can make it a set with some toasty baguettes as well. I picked the fresh tomato and Ryan had a more adventurous mince lamb. The mash was a little different to what I’m used to. It was smoother and more watery than the creamy and buttery mash I make for myself. However, it worked here since most of the flavour came from the toppings and the soft mild mash just padded things out to make each mouthful smooth and easy to eat.

 

Jiyugaoka is sometimes called the Europe of Tokyo. I’m guessing the reason for this lies with La Vita, a tiny little block of shops that has a mini canal and gondola in it. Sadly on the day, I went the water was drained and the gondola covered, making for a bit of a sad sight. Therefore, there are no photos. On the other hand, I might have audibly gasped when I laid eyes on Puppily Hills. I had a quick peek into this store, and it was everything I imagined and more. The most pampered dog was having a bit of a groom and photoshoot in clothes that cost more than some of mine!

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Don’t think that Jiyugaoka is just trendy cafes and cute stores though. Kumano Shrine
appears almost out of nowhere, hinting at a history beyond the Jiyugaoka that you can see now. Being the idiots that we are, we actually spent more time horsing around on the slightly run down playground equipment in the park leading up the shrine than actually at the shrine!

Playing around on see-saws that are too small is thirsty work! Luckily, one of the most charming traditional Japanese tea houses was just a stone’s throw away. Aside from a small menu outside, there is nothing to indicate that Kosoan is anything but another residence.

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Walk up the path and into the garden and soon you’ll see groups of people lounging on the tatami, contemplating their matcha and chit chatting away. I desperately wanted a seat by the window, so that I could enjoy the pretty garden and slight breeze, but alas they were all full so we settled for a spot in the middle of the room. We were given the menu, which is in Japanese only with a few Japanese sweet options.

 

Despite the warmth of the day, I couldn’t go past a traditional matcha. This was served with a cute little-cubed wagashi. The matcha was smooth with just enough bitterness and the right temperature to drink almost all of it straight away. Ryan’s first anmitsu was a bit of a revelation for him. Fresh fruit, crisp kanten and chewy mochi coated liberally with kuromitsu syrup is always an absolute winner. I wish more places served this back home because it really is the perfect summer snack, especially when topped liberally with soft-serve (which was also an option here!)

 

Simply, Jiyugaoka is the perfect place to simply stroll around. If you get too far from the station, it quickly starts getting residential, but a few more twists and turns back and you’re bound to stumble upon an adorable zakka store or charming homeware and food mega stores like Today’s Special.

Maybe my tastes are changing as I get older but Jiyugaoka is one my favourite suburbs in Tokyo. I love the cute homeware stores, stylish cafes, open streets and leisurely people. I can easily see why so many Tokyoites want to make this charming neighbourhood their home. If you’ve got a few days in Tokyo and are in for a bit of a change of pace away from the crowds this is the place to go.

Links

Paris S’eveille
Potato Cream
Kosoan

Kasai Rinkai Park

I know it’s pretty obvious given the name of this blog, but I really love Ferris Wheels. I’ve also already admitted that I am a tragic for the manga Honey and Clover. The Diamond and Flowers Ferris Wheel at Kasai Rinkai Park combines both of these loves into one giant… diamond and flower wheel?

Honestly, I’m not too sure who would be that interested in a giant Ferris Wheel in reclaimed parkland. Especially when the next stop on the train is Disneyland bound. However, with one day left on our Japan Rail Pass but tuckered out from all the travelling a visit the giant Ferris Wheel that featured in Honey and Clover was about all we could manage.

The park is actually only around 20 minutes by train from Tokyo station. We made sure to pick up some dessert first before hopping on the train. We were looking forward to having a picnic next to the Ferris Wheel, but somewhat surprisingly there weren’t all that many options once we arrived at Kasai Rinkai park train station. We made do with some of the more unusual McDonald’s items and the limited selection from a nearby convenience store and settled in for some lunch and extended lounging around.

Once the second tallest Ferris Wheel in the world, and currently the second tallest in Japan, the views from the top of the Diamond and Flowers Ferris Wheel span across all of Tokyo. On clear days it is possible to spot Mt Fuji. It was a touch too bright and smoky to see much beyond the immediate cityscape, but I still enjoyed spotting the bright red of Tokyo tower and looking over all the revellers and attractions at Disney.

The 17 minutes actually passed by incredibly quickly, and I was tempted to go for another round especially since there was hardly anyone riding the wheel. In the interests of saving a bit of money and doing a bit more exploring, we decided to walk around the park instead.

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Along the way, we encountered families picnicking, groups training for sports events and a few joggers. Some clever people had also set up the perfect tends and bbq spots for the hot and windy weather. At the end of the park is a man-made beach that’s a bit more stone than sand which we didn’t entirely get to. The park also has a large aquarium, seabird sanctuary and an observatory.  If you were so inclined I think that it would be easy to make a day of visiting the park and all its attractions.

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All C’s cafe

Did you notice that there’s a lot of tasty things that start with the letter C. For example, cake, cookie, chocolate, coffee, crepe and cafe? The people behind All C’s cafe were smart enough to pick up on this and run with it.

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Located on the second floor of a fairly non-descript building in Koenji, All C’s cafe also brings another C word to mind: Cute. The interior looks like the candy covered house in Hansel and Gretal bought to life. Every corner is covered in cute candy decor. You don’t need to go on this adventure alone either because there’s also plenty of cuddly bear friends. I named my new friend Alberto, even though I’m sure he already has a name.

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Ryan’s chai latte is one of the cutest drinks I have ever seen. The smiley boy surrounded by frothy milk was almost much too cute to drink. Ryan showed much more fortitude than I did, and tucked right in. It was pleasantly spicy, sweet and milky.

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For some reason, it seems like my standard tea order in Japan was almost always apple tea. This cup was so large it almost seemed like a bowl. Although it came with sugar, the fragrant apple lent the tea enough sweetness already.

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After some deliberation, we settled on the pudding trio. I was a little disappointed to see that they were using frozen fruit on the fruits pudding. However, this feeling quickly faded when I tasted the actual pudding. It was shockingly smooth, silky and just eggy enough to be full of comforting flavour, but not too much so that it tasted like scrambled eggs. My favourite was the slightly bitter walnut and shortbread topped pudding. The caramel was slightly more bitter and the crunchy biscuit and nuts provided a really good contrast to the soft pudding.

All C’s cafe also offers cookie decorating classes and party plans. I have a feeling that if I lived in the area I would be tempted to check them out! For now, I think it suffices to say that no matter where you are in Japan it’s possible to stumble into a cute corner like this one!

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Website

Aoyama Flower Market Tea House

Aoyama Flower Market Tea House could be the most photogenic cafe in all of Tokyo. As the name would suggest Aoyama Flower market is actually a florist. They have locations all over Japan, but the tea houses are found only in Tokyo.  Every surface is adorned with fresh seasonal flowers that change weekly.

Aoyama

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From the outside, the original Aoyama Flower Market Tea House looks like any other florist. The only way you can tell that it’s a cafe is from the line of Japanese girls waiting to get in. I’ve heard that the line can be somewhat excruciating, but I was determined to wait it out and see this cafe for myself. Perhaps it was because we visited on a weekday, but a short but very warm 20-minute wait later we were promptly seated.

 

The weekly theme was delphiniums. Each table had at least one cute little pot next to or on the table itself.

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I felt like something light so the  Tea House Salad was my choice. Initially, I thought that the entire sprigs of herbs would be too overpowering, but after making my way through this plate I found the whole thing very well balanced. The creamy but tangy dressing really brought everything together. I do still question the inclusion of the biscuit pieces in the otherwise fresh salad.

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Ryan loves sandwiches. The Roast beef sandwich on the lunch menu jumped out at him. Perhaps it’s because western style sandwiches tend to be meatier and more substantial but Ryan wasn’t all that impressed with the actual sandwich. Instead, he really enjoyed the carrot salad on the side! No mean feat considering Ryan isn’t usually one to order salads.

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Vacation tea tasted of tropical fruits. Although no sweeteners were added I found that the fruity flavour didn’t need anything else to bring out the flavour. I can imagine myself sipping this iced or hot, leisurely by the beach in a tropical country. The Iced House Tea helped cool us down on a hot day but otherwise wasn’t as remarkable as the other drinks.

 

 

 

Flower Parfait is the piece de la resistance of the whole cafe in my opinion. Delicately flavoured rose jelly sits atop crunchy biscuits and granola. The top is liberally sprinkled with even more flowers and a scoop of ice cream plopped on top. This struck the golden ratio for parfaits. Each mouthful was a contrast of textures, flavours and temperatures. The somewhat unusual addition of jelly really made it stand out.

Akasaka

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Unusually for Japan, Aoyama Flower Market tea house in Akasaka has an abundance of alfresco seating. When the weather is good you can lounge around outside, in amongst the beautiful flora and watch businessmen and trendy Tokyoites pass on by. Whereas the Aoyama location is dominated by girls chatting, I feel like this could be the right place to go on a date. The almost European feeling outdoor seating and hushed interior warmed softly by a couple of street lights and recycled lamps are positively romantic.

Unlike Aoyama, this location also has a couple of more substantial dinner offerings and a dinner menu that offers a main, drink, mini dessert and a small bag of flowers to take home!

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Farm Bowl or perhaps more accurately translated as a field bowl. I would describe this as a healthier version of taco rice. Spiced minced beef with tomatoes is placed on top of a generous serving of rice. The real stand out of this dish was actually the vegetable leafs! They tasted incredibly fresh and provided a crisp and refreshing bite when mixed with everything else.

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Vegetable gratin or more literally, baked pasta. Ryan was super happy with this dish because it was covered in delicious melted cheese, which can sometimes be a bit of a rare commodity in Japan.

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One of the most popular choices at Aoyama Flower Market Tea House is the French toast. The Mini French toast is a good way to try it without having a whole serve. Although the small size doesn’t have the same fruits and flowers scattered atop the dish, the actual French toast is still a winner. It’s soft, slightly eggy and sweet enough even without lashings of syrup.

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Mini shortcake is much more normal as far as desserts go. The cherry on top was delicious as was the cream, but I expected a little more from the cake. It was soft and easy to eat but was a little bit bland.

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Fresh Herb Tea is one of the signature drinks at all the tea houses. To my understanding, it’s really just a combination of herbs steeped in hot water. I was a little surprised at just how much the minty lemongrass taste came through. Ryan had another tropical tasting tea with mango flavours. This was also another great choice.

As part of the dinner set menu, we got to take home a small bunch of seasonal flowers. I was so happy to get a cute bag of hydrangeas, as they really encapsulate the rainy season and are some of my favourite flowers. It was a real shame that we were flying back home the next day and couldn’t take them with us! I passed them on to the girls at the hotel reception desk instead, and they were very thankful!

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The decor and menu of both cafes are different enough to warrant a visit to both locations. However, if I had to pick just one I would recommend Akasaka. The late hours and spacious outdoor seating mean that you probably won’t have to wait in line for a table. The lack of other people also made for a much more subdued and relaxing atmosphere.

Tokyo has no shortage of themed cafes and restaurants. After going to a few you’ll see a trend. The more overt the theme is, the worse the food. In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting much from Aoyama Flower Market Tea House culinary wise, thinking that it would be more about the pretty decor. However, the food was almost as beautiful and tasty as the flowers were gorgeous.

English Website

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Japan Travel Diary 2017 2 weeks in Tokyo

Tokyo

Sometimes I find it difficult to describe Tokyo. What is the real Tokyo? Is it the crowds scrambling across the road in Shibuya? The carefully tended gardens of the Imperial gardens? The frantic energy of shop girls as sales season descends upon Harajuku? The moments of reverie found in the temples and shrines dotted everywhere? Or the uniform steps of salary men and women making their way to and from work?

Although Tokyo is commonly known as a city that never sleeps, to me it is also a city of dreams. I think that I am so enraptured by this metropolis because it is all of these things that I love, all at once. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences and I will be among the first to tell people that Japan has its fair share of seedy and downright disturbing. Even then, Tokyo has an almost electrifying magnetic pull. I know that it won’t be too long before I return again.

It took me a few visits to Japan before I eventually got to my favourite places in Tokyo. Even then I am still constantly discovering new suburbs, restaurants, and shops that I can’t help but effusively gush over.

I won’t be writing a day by day run down of my two weeks in Tokyo. Instead, this post is just the start of a long list of places that I visited and enjoyed. It’s a little haphazard, but do check back as I hope to update often.

To do 
One Piece Tokyo Tower
Imperial Gardens and Palace
Kasai Rinkai Park
Tsukiji markets
Ghibli Museum
Temari no ouchi cat cafe
Koenji
Jiyugaoka
Shimokitazawa

To eat

Sweets 
Hidemi Sugino
Echire
Berry Parlour (cafe comme ca)
Patisserie Paris S’eveille
Kosoan
Patisserie Dominique Ansel
Salon Bake and Tea
Takano Fruits parlour
Pierre Herme
Patisserie Bien-etre
Parfait run down

Fine Dining 
Jimbocho Den
Le Sputnik
L’effervescence
La Table de Joël Robuchon
Beige by Alan Ducasse

Cafes
All C’s cafe
Potato Cream cafe
Aoyama flower market tea house (Aoyama / Akasaka)
Tolo Bakery and Cafe
Salon Ginza Sabou
Cafe du Lievre

Casual Eateries 
Sushi Midori
Sushi Zanmai
Sushi Dai
Yutaka
French Curry Spoon
Soup Curry
Seirinkan
Fuunji
Ginza Kagari
Ramen Afuri

Drinks 
Sakurai tea house

If you have any recommendations please let me know! I can’t wait to discover your version of Tokyo as well.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017: Nagoya

When I told my friends about my Japan itinerary half were puzzled by the seemingly random zig-zag I was making around the country. Whereas the other half commented that I was visiting all the places with good food. I think that throwing Nagoya into the mix definitely made people think that this was just one big foodie trip! With that in mind, I made it my goal to eat as many regional dishes otherwise known as, meibutsu as I possibly could.

Nagoya Day 19

After a few weeks of travel, we decided to sleep in and have a late start. It was already roughly a 35-minute journey from our apartment to Tokyo station. By the time we finally arrived at Nagoya station it was already lunchtime!

On the train ride, I spent my energies describing the foods that my friend Steph had taken me to eat whilst we were both on exchange. Visions of Miso katsu, tebasaki wings, noodles and hitsumabushi flashing through my mind, I looked up where to eat and consulted with Steph via line.

Misokatsu yabaton was an obvious choice. It was conveniently located in Nagoya station but there are branches all over the city. There are a couple of nonpork-based dishes, but I think almost everyone was there for the signature miso katsudon. A thick sweet and salty miso sauce is liberally poured over freshly fried pork cutlets. Ryan decided to compare the miso sauce with a simpler Worcester. The consensus was that the miso sauce was much better. The red miso was jam-packed with umami flavour and made it so easy to finish my rather generous bowl of rice.

As we’ve previously established, Ryan loves trains. Especially Japanese trains. It seemed like a given that we would visit SCMAGLEV and railway park while in Nagoya. The closest station: Kinjofuto is fittingly, a bit of a train ride out of the city centre.

The actual station is in a newly developed area right on the port. The bright blue sea and even brighter sky prompted me to rummage around in my bag for the camera. It was at this moment that I realised I had left it behind in the restaurant! You’ll have to excuse the lack of photos because of this.

At this point, I decided to head right back to Nagoya station to see if I could find the camera! I urged Ryan to head on into the museum without me. I figured that I would find the camera and celebrate with some shopping. Alternatively, I wouldn’t find the camera and instead, spend some time talking to station attendants and the restaurant staff and then try to lift my spirits with some retail therapy.

With considerable relief, the restaurant had found and kept the camera for sake keeping. After shooting a quick message to Ryan I went off on my merry way to do a spot of shopping. Violet Blue was surprisingly fruitful. I picked up several accessories before walking over to Osu Street.

Osu Street is a pretty typical Japanese shoutengai. In many ways, that means that it is less glitzy than the shopping malls and almost all about street-level shops. There were a few rather charming furniture and nic-nac stores and generally more of a bohemian fashion vibe. The biggest point of difference for this shoutengai is just how many food options there were! Contrary to usual Japanese etiquette people weren’t hesitating to eat whilst walking. At the end of the shops, there’s a rather impressive temple as well.

With a spring in my step, I made my way over to Sakae. Whereas Osu street is more traditional, Sakae is the true downtown of Nagoya. The wide boulevards and streets are blocked off from cars on weekends. Strolling across the wide streets and into an array of department stores may not be for everyone, but there’s a little bit of everything here, from shopping, restaurants and even a small amusement park. Sakae Nova was my favourite building if only for the Jane Marple and Innocent World stores. I arranged to meet Ryan here while I window shopped my heart out.

By Ryan’s account, SCMAGLEV and railway park was amazing. He was particularly taken with the large-scale dioramas that showed a full days worth of train networks in Tokyo and Nagoya. He also highly recommends trying to get a ticket to run a train simulator. Even the simplest of the trains was a cacophony of buttons and levers that would confuse almost everyone.

After spending our whole commute to Nagoya telling Ryan about all the tasty foods in Nagoya I managed to convince him to give Histumabushi a try. Hitsumabushi Bincho Lachic branch just happened to be nearby.

To describe hitsumabushi as unagi-don (eel on rice) would be a complete understatement. The process for eating Hitsumabushi is almost ritualistic. The rice and eel are portioned into quarters. The first portion goes into a small bowl to be tried on its own. To the second portion, one adds garnishes such as wasabi, nori and green onions. The third portion is had ocha-zuke style. That is, a mild dashi and green tea broth are poured on top of everything. I like to add a bit of wasabi at this point too. The fourth and final portion is left for you to have whatever way you liked best.

Before we left Nagoya station I quickly nipped into the souvenir store and picked up another Nagoya specialty: kishimen. Apparently many travelers and salarymen pop off the train at Nagoya station just to slurp down a quick bowl of kishimen before continuing their journey.

We weren’t able to try the real deal whilst in Nagoya so we settled for the next best thing: a comforting bowl of kishimen cooked up in our Tokyo apartment. I think Ryan described this best as flattened udon noodles. The slightly sweet broth that was included in the packet had just enough flavour to stand on its own, but mild enough to go with all the ingredients we chucked in.

Tips
With a JR pass, it is very easy to take a day trip from Tokyo to Nagoya. From Tokyo station by shinkansen, it only takes around 2 hours. However, once you get to Nagoya, JR lines are hardly used. Instead, it is well serviced by the metro. Depending on how much you plan to travel it may be more economical to buy a one day pass. I found that the walk between stations in downtown Nagoya was very manageable with plenty to see along the way. Getting downtown from the station might be more of a trek.

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Please look forward to my next post. I’ll be changing things up a little when it comes to documenting my time in Tokyo and also going back to regularly scheduled food blogging!

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Kyushu to Tokyo overnight

I was a bit hesitant to write this post up. There’s so many posts up about overnight trains in Japan and I’m not sure what else I can add to them. However, for the sake of completeness I thought that it would be a good idea to add this in.

Fukuoka – Tokyo day 17

Remember the castella from Nagasaki? Turns out 4000 yen goes a long way in castella buying. In the name of science, I thought that it would be a good idea to taste test these two different castellas. The one on the left is the standard castella from Bunmeido, whereas the one on the right is the premium castella from Fukusaya. The standard castellas was roughly 1000 yen whereas the premium was 3000 yen.

Honestly, I was already a little bit in love with the standard castella when I first tore into it in Nagasaki. Therefore, I was pretty dubious as to how much better the more expensive castella could be. My first bites left me unconvinced. Successful tastings would later tell me that the premium castella was a little less sweet but with a stronger honey flavour, a touch eggier and with no artificial taste in the slightest. Just writing about these cakes is making me salivate right now.

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While we were in Japan it was the midst of basketball season. Being the NBA fanatic that he is Ryan set up at Wired cafe for the morning to stream the games live. I choose to fill out my dairy and go shopping in JR Hakata city instead. After getting lost a few times, buying enough sunscreen and makeup to last for the rest of the trip and some meandering around we met up again, only to plan to eat even more food.

We had eaten ramen every day we were in Fukuoka and we weren’t going to stop now. Luckily Ramen issou was almost right next to the station. This store is known for its slightly frothy looking tonkotsu soup broth. Though less oily and salty than Hakata Daruma, the broth had a deep pork flavour. Instead of overloading the senses with richness, this broth had a few layers to it. There was a slight sourness to it, which had me going back to the bowl for taste after taste.

Unfortunately, after this ramen, Ryan and I took turns in feeling unwell. Perhaps it was the combination of hot sweaty weather and blasting air conditioning or all the fatty ramen we had eaten in the past few days but the next few hours were spent in a slightly painful stupor. Somehow, we managed to gather all of our belongings and make our way over to Okayama in anticipation of a very exciting trip.

A little-known fact about Ryan is that he loves trains. Perhaps he has spent too much time reading ‘Night on the galactic railway’ as it’s always been one of his dreams to take a sleeper train in Japan. On our previous trip, we had researched the possibility of taking the Cassiopeia sleeper train all the way to Hokkaido. It turned out that taking a plane was simply more cost and time efficient so we gave the whole thing a miss. Naturally, he was devasting when the Cassiopeia was discontinued before we got a chance to ride it. This time he couldn’t afford to miss taking the Seto sunrise from Okayama to Tokyo.

It’s clear from the outset that the seto sunrise is worlds away from the smooth and sleek shinkansen. The train rocked a hell of a lot. You’ll have to excuse the somewhat blurry photos! Our tickets were for the cheapest seats. I would describe these as an open capsule hotel type arrangement.  There’s nowhere to store luggage, so you’ll have to sleep with your bags. I can sleep almost anywhere and in any situation so this wasn’t really a problem for me.

In spite of the rocking we explored almost every nook and cranny. The actual cabins are fairly small. There’s not much room to move, but it appeared that there were slippers and bed sheets. Thoroughly exhausted from the heat of the day I nodded off quickly. I woke up a few times throughout the night because I found the air conditioning a bit too cold. However, for the most part I slept pretty well! My scarf doubled up as a pillow and warm blanket!

Tokyo: Day 18 morning

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Bleary-eyed we pulled up into Tokyo station. The seto sunrise seemed to be a bit of a treat for Tokyoites as well. Locals on the platforms outside were snapping pictures of the train as we started getting ready to disembark.

Riding the seto sunrise was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. It’s definitely not the most comfortable form of transport or accommodation. However, as sleeper trains become a form of luxury travel it felt a little surreal to be taking the last of what was once a dense network of night trains. Perhaps one day soon this train will also be discontinued and replaced with another luxury train. Until then, this is as close to a night on the galactic railroad I can afford.

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Tips
If you’re not in Japan for a long time it might be hard to catch the seto sunrise. Tickets can only be bought at JR stations in Japan and they only go on sale a month in advance. Although we booked two weeks and a bit in advance we weren’t able to get tickets next to each other and the station attendant told us that they were, in fact, the last tickets left!

The train provides some simple bedding but not much else. There’s a vending machine to buy rather expensive drinks but no food. It’s a good idea to stock up at the convenience store beforehand. There’s also a shower station, but if you want to freshen up you’re going to have pay. Tickets are purchasable from a vending machine in the train cabins. A ticket will give you 6 minutes of water but unlimited time to towel off and get dry.

This link provides a pretty good explanation of the different seating arrangements for each cabin and what the interior of the train looks like.

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Kyushu

Years back when I was in Japan on exchange, I became good friends with a girl whose hometown was Fukuoka. Whenever I was lost with tea ceremony club her smiles and encouragement were always there for me. A long way from home, she would sometimes show me photos of the sites and tell me about the foods that she missed. The brief tid bits she shared with me about her home instantly piqued my curiosity and with each anecdote, Kyushu rose higher and higher on my list of places to visit.

Fukuoka Day 15

My friend had recommended Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine as a bit of a day trip from the centre of the city. The whole strip of stores up to the temple and the temple itself was a lot more touristy than I expected. For visitors from Korea and China, this seemed to be the first (or only) temple they would see on their Japan trip. This makes sense considering the close proximity of Kyushu to these countries, but also took me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting this to be such a crowded area.

Somewhat unhelpfully there was very little English signage. We were a little lost at what it was that we were meant to be appreciating. However, a quick google search revealed that this temple is dedicated to a very famous Japanese scholar. Consequently, throngs of Japanese students head to it, hoping that they will be granted luck on their entrance exams. While we were there it felt like there was a whole platoon of students streaming through the whole time.

A little put off by the crowds, we made our own fun by mucking around in the amusement park nearby and observing everyone around us. I briefly pondered going for a hike in the area, as apparently the trails are very beautiful but the humidity and inappropriate foot wear choice meant that instead, we headed back to Fukuoka city.

Usually, I’m not one for themed cafes. However, the Tower records cafe x Sumikko gurashi was too cute to resist. It also helps that I have a weakness for the cute little corner dwelling mascot characters. I admit that I hugged almost every plushie that was in sight. The food was surprisingly tasty and filling for a themed cafe. The drinks, cute as they were, were definitely on the over priced side.

Ryan ordered the avocado and beef from the regular menu. He had an emotional moment as he ate chunks of meat again for the first time in days. I had to have something from the themed menu. Penguin’s locomoco was cute and delicious when doused in the delicious brown sauce on the side of the plate. The drinks, cute as they were, were definitely on the over priced side.

A little bit stuck on what to do we ended up taking the train to Ohori Park. All the online descriptions state that this is a Chinese style garden, with a pagoda and lake in the centre, but that really doesn’t do the park justice. Our little jaunt around the park ended up with a swan boat ride in the middle of the pond. While paddling and wandering we saw a multitude of wildlife and joggers making their way around.

The next stop was Momochihama Beach. As someone from Darwin Ryan loves the beach. He was pretty excited at the prospect of the finally being able to go to a beach. However, when we got to this man made beach he couldn’t hide his dissapointment. What greeted us was a sliver of sand with half set up volley ball nets and food stalls. Most of the Japanese people were sitting around on the beach and mucking around as opposed to actually swimming.

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Since it was in the area we quickly dropped into Robosquare. Admission to this little exhibit is free. Almost all of the robots are Japanese language operated, so a basic grasp of Japanese certainly helped in enjoying the interactive displays.

We made it back to Canal City just in time for a special interactive light and water show. I know almost nothing about One Peice, but Ryan is a massive fan of the series. He watched on enraptured by the special effects and story line.

Fukuoka may be famous for Hakata ramen, but there’s actually a lot more variety. Kurume ramen is the predecessor of the more well known Hakata style ramen. Instead of making new stock and adding fat to it, Kurume ramen builds from older remaining stock for their ramen broth. Located in Ramen Stadium (or the rather comically misspelled raumen stadium) Honda Shoten is one of the most convenient places to try this style of ramen.

The normal ramen was definitely very porky, but not nearly as fatty as the ramen we tried the day before. This was actually a touch on the lukewarm and overly salty side. If I was in Melbourne I would be ecstatic to find ramen of this quality anywhere, but in Japan this was an average but satisfying bowl.

The special chilli ramen was a little bit more unique. On the spoon was  a little ball of fat, for extra richness and flavour. When it was all melted the broth was definitely oilier and stuck on the lips a little bit more. It was also surprsingly spicy!

Fukuoka – Kumamoto Day 16

Perhaps it was the humid Kyushu weather but we had a few late starts while in Fukuoka. Our first stop of the day was a pasta restaurant in Hakata central. I was on the search for anything with mentaiko and this pasta was sadly the closest that I got.

As soon as we got to Kumamoto station we saw Kumamon left, right and centre. It’s safe to say that this ever popular bear mascot can be found almost everywhere in the city. I’m very fond of the derpy looking Kumamon and I will readily admit that it’s only thanks to him that I know what and where Kumamoto is.

It seems that in the South of Japan trams feature much more heavily. In Kumamoto the trams have a lot of rustic charm, and actually vaguely reminded me of the city loop trams in Melbourne.

Our first stop was Kumamon square. This was actually one of the most crowded areas we went to. Tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and an array of other Asian countries were all cooing over the cute goods available. Kumamon even found a new fan in Ryan, as he appreciated all the collaboration items and variety show specials in the area.

We somehow lucked upon advertising for local school’s cultural festival. For those that don’t know, Japanese high schools and middle schools hold cultural festivals every year. These are almost like big festivals that are open to the general public. the classes and clubs put on various stalls, stores and performances for those visiting. As part of the advertising we managed to see these talented kids performing all over the shopping district.

We couldn’t go to Kyushu and not try the local delicacies. Yokobachi is a bit of an upscale izakaya where there’s a bit of everything Kyushu. Of particular note was my first taste of basashi and  motsunabe. I pleasantly surprised by the clear mostunabe soup which reminded me of traditional Chinese broths.

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We actually didn’t visit any of the historical attractions in Kumamoto. The closest we got was seeing Kumamoto castle in the distance. Even if we had wanted to I’m not sure if we would have been able to see all of them, as they are still repairing after devastating earthquakes. That said, I dare say we stumbled upon something even better and more memorable.

If you’re even in Fukuoka at night, you have to go to a Yatai. Although Japan is an eater’s dream I find that there’s not much in the way of street food. That’s where Yatai come in. Originally found Japan wide to feed the hungry working classes at all times of the night, Yatai are now almost exclusive to Fukuoka.

Vendors set up their tiny stalls as evening falls, and a mix of locals and tourists all cram in together to enjoy the food. By daylight, everything is all cleaned up, and it’s as if no one was ever there. We had already eaten earlier that day in Kumamoto but Ryan couldn’t resist ordering a ramen. I settled in with a high ball, apparently the drink of choice at a Yatai and dug into some mentaiko and grilled skewers.

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When I told locals that I was going to Fukuoka they would always mention that the ramen was top notch and so were the girls! I’m sure that’s a winning combination for almost everyone.

Tips

If you’re interested in seeing Kumamon in Kumamon square he is in his office on certain days. Check the website for the times and dates to see him! There is a warning on the side of the website saying that it might be really crowded and visitors restricted.

When taking the tram in Kumamoto it is possible to switch trams and just pay for the one fare. Make sure you talk to the tram conductor and they will issue you a ticket, which allows you to make a transfer within 15 minutes without paying extra.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017 Nagasaki

Before this trip, Kyushu was a completely unknown land for me. I vaguely had it in my mind that I had to visit the South of Japan on my travels. As for Nagasaki, my knowledge only extended to the atomic bombing, castella and Nagasaki champon. Keen to get some Kyushu culture into my mind and my stomach we headed off.

Nagasaki Day 13

From one Peace museum to another. The Nagasaki peace museum is a lot smaller and condensed than the Hiroshima one. There are significant similarities between the two, such as calls against nuclear testing and harrowing testimonies. However, there is also plenty that is unique and poignant. In particular, seeing the remnants of distinctly European styled churches illustrated how devastating nuclear warfare could occur anywhere.  I also found the final few walls detailing the number of nuclear tests conducted world-wide through out the years singularly fascinating and frightening.

From the steps of the museum, it’s a bit of a journey down the steps into the peace park. It was a little hard to figure out where the park started and where to walk along but we managed to make our way over to the epicentre of the atomic bombing. Walking down the stairs to ground zero is incredible. Just thinking that this entombed debris is the last place in the world where a nuclear bomb was used in warfare is dumbfounding.

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Just then I had a brief moment of panic where I thought that I had lost Ryan! Soon reunited I made sure that we headed towards Mt Inasa early. As with almost all scenic spots in Japan, there was a rope way up. Interestingly, this one was manned by an elevator lady/guide. Her introduction to Nagasaki was punctuated by asides to the stylish interior of the rope way car itself!

Half an hour before sunset a number of photographers had already set up their tripods, ready to capture the best views. Sadly you’ll have to make do with my unsteady hands in the photos I’ve taken. That said there’s no substitute for seeing the real thing. The view from the summit is supposedly touted as one of the most beautiful night views in the world. Although it was getting chilly we persisted standing on the windy observation deck. Watching the sun slowly set over the horizon and the lights come on all at once as dusk gave way to night was stunning.

Not as amazing was the long line for the ropeway back down to the park entrance. We kept watching very active highschoolers climbing the stairs to the top as we shuffled closer and closer to the rope way down. At this point, I was starving. I think I complained at least once every few minutes while we were standing in line. No longer able to deal with me, Ryan made sure we headed towards the nearest Ringer Hut which was conveniently open until 4 am.

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Mine was a normal serve with extra vegetables, whereas Ryan tackled a giant bowl of noodles and soup. Much like Nagasaki itself, this dish was an interesting mash of cultures. It tasted familiar, like Chinese noodle soups but also different thanks to the yuzu dressing and choice of vegetables.

With my stomach sufficiently full, I was ready to make it back to our hostel. Our night time walk was leisurely and almost romantic as we strolled by the water. A complete change from the arduous trek we had taken earlier on in the day underneath the glare of the sun.

Nagasaki – Fukuoka day 14

On this day I was on a mission. A mission to find the tastiest castella in all the land. I had a destination in mind, but quickly got distracted by a myriad of stores. After a visit to Bunmedio and Fukusaya, I was 4000 yen poorer but had rich buttery castella in my hot little hands. I couldn’t resist tearing into one of the cakes almost straight away. We sat in a park near Fukusaya and enjoyed our first bites of Nagasaki castella. I also attempted to share my castella with a stray cat, but he was less than interested.

Nagasaki sea side park is not the highest rated attraction by a long shot. None the less I found it all sorts of charming. We spent an incredibly long time sitting on the green lawns, enjoying the breeze and looking at the passing boats and playing children.

Still feeling weighed down by last night’s dinner we opted for something a bit lighter for lunch. Castella filled with ice cream from New York Do was the order of the day. There were a variety of castella flavours, but also ice monaca and ice creams. My personal favourite was the loquat filled with ice cream. If you’re visiting in Summer I highly recommend trying it!

It turned out that all of the places we had visited were stocked in the train station! Our walk around to find the supposedly best castella stores was completely unnecessary. Ryan was beside himself, having suffered so much underneath the sun. I couldn’t help but laugh. After all, Nagasaki is still Japan and Japanese train stations have almost everything.

With castella in hand, we took the train right back to Hakata station. We had some confusion with directions from the station to our airbnb. However, we soon found our way to our lodgings and also the very famous Canal City shopping centre. Ryan was a bit too ecstatic at the Jump Store whilst I looked up places to have ramen.

Hakata Ramen Daruma doesn’t look like much from the outside but step in and you’ll see each wall adorned with signatures from famous Japanese celebrities.

Our first Hakata style ramen turned out to be Ryan’s favourite and one of the best. The special grilled chashu was incredible. It was tender and had a perfect char grilled flavour to it. The broth was full of deep savoury pork flavour. I almost felt guilty eating it. It was rich, oily and salty in the best way. I couldn’t finish the broth once the noodles were gone but Ryan cleaned the bowl.

I finished off the night with a round of shopping and wandering around in the bright city lights.

Needless to say, I also had my fill of both castella and champon by the time I was done in Nagasaki. In retrospect, it was a bit of a shame that we didn’t get to explore everything but the combination of heat and hills got the best of both of us. It’s easy to say that Nagasaki is just another industrial port side town, of which there are many in Japan. It’s not just recent historical tragedy but also the long tradition of trade with China and Europe that gives Nagasaki such a fascinating vibe.

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Tips
We stayed in hostel Casa Noda. It was a short walk away from the station but the reception was up a few flights of stairs which was hard work with so much luggage!

Nagasaki is not serviced by shinkansen. We transferred at Hakata station to a limited express train. The train compartments look like a little something from the old world. However, unlike the shinkansen these trains rock – a lot. Walking to the bathroom often involved grabbing onto the chair handles so I didn’t fall over. We both also had a bit of a headache from the rocking. If you’re prone to travel sickness taking medication might be required. As for the actual town of Nagasaki, most of the landmarks are accessible by street car. There is also a bus up to Mt Inasa.

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