Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Of Ghost Towns and Butadon Pork - a Tokachi Specialty in Hirosaki (Aomori Prefecture)

A rice ball of shredded dry kelp and Hidaka Kelp for 228 yen.

I was lost for two hours, navigating the deserted streets of remote Hirosaki, this city at the northern end of Honshu, the Japanese mainland. From its castle grounds, I took the wrong exit and couldn't find my way back. What's worse, there were absolutely no one walking the streets. I was in a set of a post-apocalyptic movie. 

When it was dark and chilly, I finally stood in front of my hotel, Toyoko Inn Hirosaki. My stomach was doing somersaults. I knew I should nourish myself first because once inside the comforts of my room, I'd fall into a deep, dreamless slumber.

Fukufukuya Hirosaki Ekimae restaurant was conveniently beside my hotel's entrance. They had photos of food, including that of the Butadon Pork, a Tokachi specialty (from across the sea in alluring Hokkaido). Its Donburi Rice Bowl costs a measly 598 yen. I added a rice ball that looked interesting - Shredded Dry Kelp and Hidaka Kelp for 228 yen. 

Once inside, I took my shoes off, deposited them in a locker, then walked with my socks on to pick a table. It was either a tatami matted-cubicle or a tall table cubicle with sliding doors. I chose the latter so I could enjoy my Japanese dinner in private. Besides, the table across mine was having a rowdy good ole time. My order took a little longer than expected but I wasn't in a rush. 

As for the Butadon, the relation between Tokachi (a coastal subprefecture in Hokkaido) and pigs, according to its pioneer Benzo Yoda, has been longstanding and is considered indispensable to the lives of the locals. 

Little Piece of History from Botejyu

Butadon or pork bowl is a local specialty of Obihiro in Tokachi consisting of a bowl of rice topped with pork simmered in a mildly sweet sauce. Shuji Abe, a local restaurateur, was credited for creating the Butadon in 1933. 

Butadon is pork bowl which uses locally bred pork. It was conceived to provide accessible food for everyone to keep them warm during Tokachi’s brutal winters. When researching “what kind of flavor would be palatable to the mass”, they decided it should be soy sauce-based as this was close to the popular “Unadon (eel bowl)” taste that Japanese people love so much. There you go.

Kombu (Kelps)

Kelp harvest in Hokkaido. This photo only courtesy of www.japantimes.co.jp
Meanwhile, most of Japan's kombu is harvested in Hokkaido, accounting for around 90% of all production. 

The sea ice that drifts over to Hokkaido from Siberia is rich in minerals and provides an environment that produces delicious kombu. 

Hidaka-Kombu is good for both making broth and eating (simmered in soy sauce). It is soft, easy to boil and tasty. It is also known as mitsuishi-kombu. Fukufukuya provided me the opportunity to taste Hidaka Kelp. 

How authentic can you get.

Fukufukuya Hirosaki Ekimae restaurant

Natural Hidaka konbu from Hokkaido. They are stewed and eaten. This photo only from global.rakutten.com.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Kato Kiyomasa - Conqueror, Castle-Maker, Christian Butcher from Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto, Kyushu)

In a sudden burst of inspiration, one rainy day in Fukuoka, I decided to go to Kumamoto, 114 kilometers southeast of Fukuoka. I had 4 hours to spare so why not see another Japanese city from a different prefecture (Kumamoto prefecture). By shinkansen, the trip took less than an hour. My destination was the castle.

Since its devastation from an earthquake, Kumamoto Castle has been closed for a major restoration, but this doesn't stop tourists from visiting the grounds surrounding it. More than the splendor of Japan's 3rd largest castle, it has a colorful history. 

Kato Kiyomasa, a ferocious feudal Lord (referred to as daimyo) transformed a small castle into a towering fortress in the early 1600s. Kiyomasa was one of the three conquerors of Seoul and Busan in his heyday. In Kyushu, he was brutal in pursuing Christians. He'd capture pregnant Christian women and slice their bulging bellies alive; remove the unborn child and cut their heads. His mind was in a constant state of war, thus he marked his territories with imposing castles. He ruled his ward with an iron fist and outlawed anything else not related to honing one's fighting skills. Poetry out! Music out! Painting out!

These days, Kato Kiyomasa's statue graces the nearby entrance of Kumamoto Castle. He sits atop a platform, waving a flag, wearing an unusually tall hat, it might as well be Merlin's. If you're visiting the castle grounds, you shouldn't miss Kiyomasa's scowling statue. Otherwise, it's like visiting Tokyo's Shibuya and missing Hachiko.

What I thoroughly enjoyed was the local food found in the shopping arcade near the entrance. I bought souvenir items: those boring postcards and ref magnets; food made out of horse meat, sea urchins, lotus, red beans, and matcha-flavored drinks. And there's that delightful Kumamoto Ramen. When it was time to head back for my train, I was uncomfortably satiated.

The castle's non-appearance was really a seductive invitation. Come back again and see me, I could hear its whisper.

Kumamon (right) is the city's lovable icon. He was voted as Japan's most favorite mascot! You find him in shops and parks, and he has a big head at the Kumamoto Train Station.

Kumamoto Castle. This image only is courtesy of hyolee2 of Wikipedia.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Tasting Japan's Best Tea in Yamecha Cafe Bunbuku - Yame City (Fukuoka)

One stormy day in Yame City, I ventured to try the world-renowned Yame Tea, voted as Japan's best tea for 9 consecutive years. Meanwhile, the prefecture of Fukuoka was being battered by the torrential rains of a typhoon that killed people in the ward. But would a tourist stop on his track to avoid a storm? Not me!

Yame City is known for its hillside green-tea plantations. I was there to check out some temples and its handicraft industry. Drove through the deserted streets of Fukushima's traditional houses called "Machiya" now turned into shops. Walked around desolate Yamanoi Park beside the river. Went up the mountain to pay homage to the Chinese monk that brought seeds from China which started the green tea industry in the region. It was a beautiful spot called Reiganji Temple overlooking undulating tea farms. Walked around the 800 year old Camphor Tree (so revered that the community built a pagoda for it) where hundreds of Wisteria flowers bloom at spring time. It was a full day despite the rains.

Before going back to Chikugo City's Hainuzuka Train Station for my ride back to Fukuoka, I passed by a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere. There's a garden nearby but I was there to try the Yame Tea. It would be a travesty not to do so.

Yamecha Cafe Bunbuku is a quaint tea shop that serves all things matcha (green tea). Once seated, I had Yame Tea, Matcha Ice Cream, Green Tea-flavored chiffon cake; then a slice of another matcha-flavored crumbly cake that looked too inviting I couldn't pass it up. 

The Deal With Green Teas

What's the big deal with green teas? Aside from its rich, savory taste, they are healthy drinks that help block the formation of plaques that cause Alzheimer's Disease. They also help keep the blood sugar stable, thus beneficial for those with Diabetes. They also lower cholesterol and the blood pressure in general. They're rich in anti-oxidant that helps decrease incidence of cancer.

What I appreciated was their "tutorial" tea ceremony; i.e. the proper way of drinking your green tea. The storekeeper patiently taught me the basics: temperature, the swigging of your cup , how often do you refill; pouring sugar, milk or honey, etc. 

The controlled temperature (70 degrees C to be exact, the "temperature that does not burn the lips") allows the tea leaves to come up with amino acids which impart some sweetness to the beverage. Anything hotter destroys the nutrients. There was stark difference from the oolong tea ceremony I experienced in Hangzhou, China. What's better, the prices here are inexpensive (a scoop of matcha ice cream costs 430 yen).

The cafe also serves meals, although mostly, its raison d'etre is as a tea shop. One wing of the cafe is a souvenir shop. They have packets of green tea, postcards hand-painted by local artists, ceramic cups and figures, trinkets, etc. 

Through all of these, I realized that traveling this little corner of Kyushu was testy and ultimately rewarding. English language is almost unspoken. Even the local train from Fukuoka (via Kagoshima Main Line) didn't have English signs and travel advisories, I constantly had to check and ask around. This difficulty and seeming remoteness was what made this visit special. 

#matcha   #greentea   #yamecity   #fukuoka   #yamechacafebunbuku   #bunbuku   #lifestyle   #teaceremony

Monday, April 3, 2017

Black Sands of Dawis Beach (Digos City, Davao del Sur)

The northern stretch of black sand from Dawis Pier used to have rows of cottages facing the beach, now there's none. Talisay trees and coconut palms line the shore. It is accessible from the lone restaurant beside the pier. South of this, there's a smattering of hole-in-the-wall beach resorts with limited facilities.

To get to Dawis Beach, you can hail a pedicab (tricycle) from the city center. Be sure to agree on a price, which should cost you about P80. 

These days, labels on the road en route to Dawis read "Barangay Dawis" instead of "Dawis Beach". In sunny afternoons, you can stand on the pier and watch the waves rush to the shore. It's a beguiling scene, to say the least.

The view south of the Dawis pier.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Unicolor Beach Resort, Barangay Dawis, (Digos City, Davao del Sur)

At the eastern coast of the Davao Gulf, south of Digos City, is the burough of Dawis. People used to call the stretch of black sand as "Dawis Beach" stretching northward from the pier. Now it is just "Barangay Dawis". The more open area is the southern stretch. We found Unicolor Beach Resort.

If I am not mistaken, getting a cottage will cost you P300 (or was it P500). These is a contiguous row of concrete shacks, like holes in the wall, painted in reds and blue-greens. These shacks are completely enclosed except for the entrance, thus you don't have a view of the sea. At the center of the compound is a medium-sized function hall. There's ample parking at the entrance, framed by a "tindahan", that subs as an entrance booth.

The compound has available rooms for those wanting to stay for the night. I asked about the rates - P800 and P1,200; the difference is probably in the availability of AC. The beach is, however, a few steps away. Just mind the children as there are wandering dogs everywhere. I read an online page that mentions a swimming pool. This does not have one. There are no cabanas facing the beach either; just Talisay trees.

During my visit, I saw a family bring pots of food with them so it should be safe to assume there's no corkage fee for food and beverages brought in. The resort has a Facebook page. Please refer inquiries there; not here.

You can leisurely stroll from this resort to the pier which provides a more dramatic vista of the ocean. In the golden hour of the afternoon, the sun casts a milky green hue on the sea. The stretch of dark sand north of the pier seems more inviting, with palms swaying with the gentle breeze. Next post, we'll show you the northern stretch from the pier. You can take a tricycle from Digos City proper to get to Dawis, setting you back by P80. Agree on a fare before getting in the trike.

Function Hall

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

That Sinfully Sumptuous Humba of Siquijor (Visayas)

Dining options in the mystical island of Siquijor are quite limited for the backpacker. There are no fast foods and any mid-range restaurants to speak of. Even carinderias are very few and far from each other. You'd have your breakfast in your hotel or guesthouse then pick from the relatively expensive options of dining in resort restaurants. My meals here were unexpectedly upscale, ranging from not less than P300 to P600 per order. 

Maybe the witches have cast their spells against "eateries"? Err... not really. The "mambabarangs" (local witches), accordingly to my driver-guide have gone to the mountains and have grown old. Their siblings supposedly have refused to accept the "gifts" they're supposed to pass on because of the stigma that society puts on them. As a result, this tradition for which the island is infamously known for is gradually disappearing from modern day Siquijor. But I am digressing.

On the day of my departure from the island, I headed to the port early so I could buy my one-way ticket to Dumaguete (business class available). I saw a carinderia-cum-sari-sari store just in front of the Ocean Jet ticket booth. This is your typical Pinoy carinderia. I picked the Humba, sinfully languishing in mouth-watering oil. I am no cook. That is an understatement. But to my mind, "humba" is the Visayan variety of the Filipino adobo. It is a stewed pork dish that's "sweet, sour, salty" cooked with brown sugar, tausi (salted black beans) and banana blossoms.

My humba is very tasty, its meat tender, and you feel cholesterol impinging on your blood vessels, but I didn't care. One pice of humba costs PhP25 so I ordered 2, plus a cup of rice and a piece of banana. My cheapest meal (many times over) in Siquijor at PhP90 (< $2). 

This is the Eye in the Sky!  

Tender and tasty humba.

Ocean Jet tickets bound for Dumaguete are bought in the small shop at the right in this town also called Siquijor, the capital of the island. The other port is located at the town of Larena. This corner carinderia is located in front of these ticket shops.

Siquijor is the country's 3rd smallest province. It boasts of white sand beaches and a very international population of tourists (backpackers) zipping around this slumbering island.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Breakfast Buffet at I-Residence Hotel Silom (Bangkok)

I love mornings at I-Residence Hotel Silom for so many reasons. Located along Narathivas Rachanakarin Road, the hotel stands just at the footsteps to the Chong Nonsi BTS station. It has a 24-hour convenience store nearby. A fruit vendor occasionally sells those sinfully sweet Thai lansones. 

In the morning, I would leisurely take my time before the 10 AM breakfast cut-off at the 10th floor. I'd stuff myself then head to the adjacent swimming pool. I'd usually sit near the balcony where there's view of the skyline, not to mention the chance for a lazy trainspotting. For those who love their morning meals, don't wait til the very last hour because they usually don't replenish the buffet stock after 9:30 AM.

I-Residence Hotel Silom has a sister branch in Sathorn, but I find this most convenient, with very personable front desk staff. This premium boutique hotel is well maintained. I think it was built sometime 2010.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

BTS Chong Nonsi just in front of I-Residence Silom.