Gion Geisha Photography Club

Gion Geisha Photography Club

April 2, 2014, 14:00 – 15:00
Participants: Geisha 祇園甲部槇子 and Maiko 宮川町とし桃
Official website

The image of a geisha, under the guise of white foundation and red lipstick, is one that many visitors to Kyoto wish to capture on camera. Some unfortunately opt for aggressive and insensitive tactics such as stalking and grabbing. These ugly behaviors not only reflect poorly on the offenders themselves, but also cause a backlash from the geisha community and the need for new measures to protect these girls.

Those who wish to photograph geisha in a respectful manner can time their stay in Kyoto to coincide with the annual Gion Geisha Photography Club (白川藝妓攝影會), a one-hour photo shoot arranges by the local community on Shirakawa-minami Dori.

Gion Geisha Photography Club

This year’s took place at 2 pm on April 2. When I arrived on time a ring of mostly middle-aged men had completely engulfed a single geisha. The level of testosterone was so intense I could almost smell it in the air. The geisha seemed unfazed by this army of photographers; she gracefully stood under a cherry tree and responded admirably to all posing requests.

This was not the crowd I wanted to associate myself with, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Gion Geisha Photography Club

Halfway through the shoot we had a new participant, a maiko (apprentice geisha) in her twenties. Immediately she drew everyone’s attention. A few men in their seventies tried to get her to look their way by hissing and calling her Momo-chan (Miss Peach, the first name of her alias) in a high-pitched voice like they were talking to an infant. One man threw her a plastic ball so she could play with it like a kitten. As a foreigner all these felt rather embarrassing. Not so for the girls – they managed their parts as professionally as imaginable and provided us ample chances to capture on camera their normally secluded selves.

Gion at Night

Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 2)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Click here for Part 1 of the ranking. Again, this ranking only applies to the early cherry blossom season.

Don’t Miss

Daigo-ji 醍醐寺

Daigo-ji

This is another one of those places where I would not have visited if not for its cherry blossoms. Alas, Daigo-ji is one of the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan as compiled by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, making it a mandatory stop during the sakura season.

Of all the places on this sakura mission, visiting Daigo-ji demanded the most money and time. Getting to Daigo from Gion took about 40 minutes by subway, then another five minutes from the station to the temple by shuttle bus. The ¥1,000 combo ticket was the most expensive I paid anywhere in Kyoto.

Was my effort well-rewarded? The answer is …probably… yes. Daigo-ji indeed has an abundance of cherry trees, which were mostly in full bloom when I visited. The most impressive batch, ironically, is planted along a corridor outside of Reihou-kan (霊宝館) in a free area. Yet I don’t find Daigo-ji’s sakura to be superior than, say, Keage Incline Railway’s. The temple’s fame does make bypassing it a difficult decision, thus my lukewarm endorsement.

Sanbo-in Garden

I used my combo tickets to gain entrance to Sanbo-in (三宝院) and Garan (伽藍). Sanbo-in is a sub-temple dating back to 1115 and reconstructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598. Photography is not allowed inside Sanbo-in. I personally don’t find the temple and the few cherry trees in the garden interesting enough to justify my time.

Benten-do

Garan is a large area that includes the picturesque Benten-dō (弁天堂), a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten (Sarasvati), goddess of knowledge and liberal arts. Not many cherry trees are planted, but I found this prime autumn foliage spot quite beautiful even during off-season.

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600 for one attraction, ¥1,000 for two, ¥1,500 for three
Transport: ¥300 for round trip bus outside of Daigo Subway Station

Tenryu-ji 天龍寺

Ōhōjō and Zen Garden, Tenryu-ji

While not known as a sakura-viewing spot, Tenryu-ji, my second favorite temple in Kyoto, contains the single most impressive cherry tree among the thousands I have come across on this trip. There are also many other kinds of flowers in full bloom, including plum and papaya.

History has not been kind to Tenryu-ji; it was burned down nine times since its founding in 1339 and all of the current buildings were rebuilt relatively recently in the late 19th century. It is however home to one of the most impressive Zen gardens in Kyoto, and given its location next to the famous bamboo groves, anyone who plans to visit Arashiyama should circle Tenryu-ji as a priority.

Tenryu-ji

Sakura Index: 4/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:30
Admission fee: ¥600 for temple and garden
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

The Best

Philosopher’s Path 哲學之道

Philosopher’s Path

The Philosopher’s Path, for 350 days of the year, is a quaint walkway that accommodated the daily meditation of the late philosopher Kitaro Nishida, but during the two weeks when sakura blooms it is transformed into one of the most crowded places in Kyoto, and possibly on Earth. With good reason – who doesn’t love the sight of row upon row of white cherry blossoms lining up neatly above a gentle stream? Just don’t expect any resemblance of tranquility during this time.

Those tired of cherry blossom can make detours to the numerous temples along the path, such as Nanzen-ji (covered in Part 1), Honen-in (法然院) and Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), all of which I enjoyed.

Sakura Index: 4.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 17, 102, 203 then walk south from Ginkaku-ji

Nakanoshima Park, Arashiyama 嵐山中之島公園

Arashiyama

In the past, I never understand the hype of Arashiyama. Besides the ugly bridge with the beautiful name (Togetsukyō, lit. Moon Crossing Bridge), what’s there to see besides trees?

The key lies within the trees. You see, as repeatedly mentioned throughout these rankings, visiting these places at the right time is extremely important. Many of the trees in Arashiyama are in fact cherry, and in early spring this becomes one of the best spots in Kyoto for sakura-viewing. Like Ninna-ji and Diago-ji, Arashiyama is also one of the top 100 sakura-viewing spots in Japan, highlighted by the riverside Nakanoshima Park (lit. Middle of the Island Park).

Nakanoshima Park

On a side note, everywhere in Kyoto I have bumped into DSLR-wielding people who obviously have no idea on how to use their gears, but this one lady from Hong Kong who I bumped into at Nakanoshima Park clearly takes the cake. For some reasons she had attached an external flash to her DSLR, and when she asked me to take a picture of her group, it was obvious from the setting of her camera she had no idea what she was doing. The result was the constant firing of her flash, even for landscape shots under the midday sun.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keifuku Arashiyama Station on Keifuku-Arashiyama Line

Shirakawa-minami Dori, Gion 祇園白川南通 (Night)

Shirakawa, Gion

On the first evening when I visited Maruyama Park, I wasn’t too impressed with seeing the cherry blossoms at night. The light-colored petals easily become overexposed under the bright lights. Besides, I found the whole atmosphere a little theme-park-like and gimmicky.

But I experienced a 180° change of heart the next evening during my visit to the place with the most beautiful cherry blossom in Kyoto (more on that in a moment). If not, however, for its unbearable crowd, the section of Gion along Shirakawa-minami Dori might very well receive my vote as the best sakura-viewing spot in town. That’s not to say Gion doesn’t resemble a theme park, but I am willing to turn a blind eye because its cherry blossoms are so amazingly photogenic at night.

Let me backtrack a little to mention there are numerous sakura spots in Gion, particularly along the district’s many waterways such as Kamogawa (鴨川), Shirakawa (白川) and Takasegawa (高瀬川). Many people do prefer quieter spots, but the stretch of Shirakawa along Shirakawa-minami Dori is commonly acknowledged to be where the most spectacular cherry blossoms reside in Gion. Adding the fact that here is a tourist’s best bet to bump into a geisha, it is no wonder why hundreds of people congregate on this narrow alley throughout the night.

Pedestrian Zone between Shirakawa-minami Dori and Kamogawa

Even when you are fed up with the crowd, be sure to continue to head west until you have reached the Kamo River, where you will find a small pedestrian zone towered over by a impenetrable canopy of cherry blossoms.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Gion-Shijo Subway Station

Nijo-jo 二条城 (Night)

Nijo-jo

Finally we have arrived at the no. 1 spot on my ranking, Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Only the garden is opened to the public at night, so for those who would like to visit the castle you will have to do it during its day time opening hours (8:30 – 16:00).

The sakura at Shirakawa-minami Dori and Nijo-jo are both top-notch, but the latter has the benefit of a fenced off area where people can’t walk under the cherry trees. Taking also into account its slightly smaller crowd, it is much easier to take photos at Nijo-jo than most of the other famous sakura spots.

If you stay until the castle closes, you will get to experience the somewhat heavy-handed method by the staff to evict the remaining visitors. Fifteen minutes before closing time a dozen of so of the staff will lock their arms with one another and begin pressuring the visitor towards the exit in the form of a human wall. They will not touch you, but they will be right behind your back and repeat the same sentence about the need for you to abide the castle’s schedule and leave now. At 21:30 they will turn to their ultimate trick that never fails – turning off all the lights on the ground. There was a collective “oh” and followed immediately by laughter. So, I wonder, why the need for the anti-riot police tactic if they can just turn off the light at the moment the castle is scheduled to close?

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 18:00 – 21:30
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Nijo Subway Station

Final Word

My schedule for these four days:
Day 1 – Hotel at 18:00; Maruyama Park, Kiyomizu-dera
Day 2 – Chion-ji, Heian jingū, Philosopher’s Path, Honen-in, Ginkaku-ji; Gion; Diago-ji; New hotel at 19:30; Nijo-jo
Day 3 – Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji; Ninna-ji, Myoshin-ji, Ryoan-ji, Hirano-jinja; New hotel at 19:30; Gion
Day 4 – Keage Incline Railway, Nanzen-ji; Airport

Just looking back at my ambitious schedule tires me out. The omnipresent crowd wears my patience thin. Hay fever is sapping my life rapidly – I feel like a part of me has died on the second day when I sneezed no less than a hundred times. The cherry blossoms all look the same after thousands of them in succession. And as noted before, sakura is not meant to be enjoyed alone.

All that said, I still have great fun. The cherry blossoms look great on camera and even better in person – any excuse to get me back to Kyoto is good enough for me.

 

Philosopher's Path

Ranking of Kyoto’s Sakura Spots (Part 1)

April 1 – 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Thanks to cheap flights and an agreeable schedule, I find myself back in Kyoto right in time for the start of its sakura (cherry blossom) season. I actually prefer to come back in the autumn, but November is anticipated to be hectic this year – better capitalize on what’s certain now. I am traveling by myself again because my wife knows with a subject like cherry blossom I will be spending 12 hours shooting photos each day and she wants no part of that.

Kyoto’s accommodation is unbelievably expensive during the sakura season. What I have found out is same-day promotion is often availaible on the Japanese website Rakuten Travel. I have stayed at three different accommodations over my three nights in Kyoto. None cost more than ¥‎8,900 (100 yen = 0.98 USD), which was what I paid for アパホテル〈京都祇園〉EXCELLENT, located right at the heart of Gion and is normally priced at ¥‎16,000 per night.

Kyoto’s sakura season officially begins on March 27 this year and usually lasts for around two weeks. There are numerous viewing spots over town, but do keep in mind that different cherry tree varieties bloom on different dates. For example, Somei Yoshino, the most common type of sakura in Japan, is an earlier bloomer, while Ninna-ji’s Omuro sakura only opens at the tail end of the sakura season. Everything I write only applies to the beginning of the sakura season, so when I say Ninna-ji is not worth visiting, that is only because I didn’t visit in season.

Between suffering from a severe bout of hay fever and non-stop photo shooting, I am absolutely spent at this point. I did manage to visit most of the famous sakura-viewing spots over the past 2.5 days and here are my thoughts and tips on each of them.

Too early

Ninna-ji 仁和寺

Five-story Pagoda, Ninna-ji

I knew it wasn’t season yet, but since it was right next to Ryoan-ji I decided to check out Ninna-ji. There were a few Somei Yoshino cherry trees in full bloom, but the Omuro variety was at least a week away. The temple grounds is unexceptional, and because of a lack of time I decided to give the Goten (former residence of the head priest) and its ¥500 admission fee a pass.

Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500 for the temple grounds during sakura season
Transport: Omuro Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Mediocre

Ryoan-ji 龍安寺

Zen Garden, Ryoan-ji

This has to be the most overrated site in Kyoto. Don’t get me wrong – I like Zen garden, but I just don’t see how Ryoan-ji’s stands above all others. It is the largest and that’s about it.

Ryoan-ji is not a prime sakura-viewing spot, so feel free to allocate your time elsewhere if you have seen its Zen garden before.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Ryoanji-michi Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Chion-ji 知恩寺

Sanmon, Chion-ji

Except for the largest surviving sanmon (the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Temple) in Japan, there isn’t much to see at Chion-ji as its main hall is under renovation until 2019. Some sparse sakura scatter around the complex – nothing to get excited about.

Chion-ji is located right in the midst of the sakura trail between Gion and Philosopher’s Path in Eastern Kyoto. You will come across it one way or another – it is your choice if you want to take a quick look.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:30
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Higashiyama Subway Station

Nanzen-ji 南禪寺

Hattō, Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji is my favorite temple/shrine in all of Kyoto, home to perhaps the town’s most bizarre sight – a Meiji-era aqueduct amid the serene temple grounds.

Famous for its autumn foliage but not so much for sakura, nonetheless I have a soft spot for Nanzen-ji and I recommend anyone who heads to the Philosopher’s Path to also drop by for a visit.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: 8:40 to 17:00
Admission fee: Free for temple grounds
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Half bloom

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji 妙心寺退蔵院

Taizō-in, Myōshin-ji

All over town during the sakura season you will find a poster of a beautiful Shidarezakura (weeping cherry) advertising a little-known temple called Taizō-in, part of the sprawling Myōshin-ji temple complex.

The subject of the poster was only about 30% opened when I visited. It would be a much better time to visit a week later, probably along with the nearby Ninna-ji.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥500
Transport: Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line

Heian-jingū Garden 平安神宮神苑

Heian-jingu Garden

Another place I visited one week too early. Most of the sakura, especially the ones along the shore of the garden’s large lake, were only 30% – 50% opened.

Heian-jingu Garden

That said, Heian-jingu’s large varieties of cherry blossoms ensure it would not be a lost cause to visit early in the sakura season. The sakura in the rear part of the beautiful garden were about 80% opened.

Sakura Index: 2.5/5
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:00
Admission fee: ¥600
Transport: Bus 100 or Higashiyama Subway Station

Full bloom

Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺(Night)

Kiyomizu-dera

For a few weeks during the sakura and koyo (autumn foliage) seasons a handful of sites in Kyoto will open their doors at night, including Kiyomizu-dera, in my opinion the town’s most iconic attraction.

Kiyomizu-dera

The highest concentration of cherry trees is located next to a pond near the exit. Still doesn’t account to much when compares to the neighboring Maruyama Park, but even without an abundance of sakura the draw of seeing an illuminated Kiyomizu-dera in the dark is too much to pass up.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: 18:30 to 21:30
Admission fee: ¥400
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Hirano-jinja 平野神社 (Night)

Hirano-jinja

Hirano-jinja, a Shinto Shrine located near the Kitanohakubaicho Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line, might seems unassuming at first glance, yet every year comes the sakura season this is one of the most beloved spot in Kyoto, thanks to the presence of 400 cherry trees over 60 varieties.

Hirano-jinja

Unlike the temples and shrines already mentioned, hanami (flower viewing) parties are allowed at the park next to the shrine. Tourists and locals alike gather under the cherry trees with their friends and families, bonding over beer and food.

Sakura Index: 3/5
Opening hours: Until 21:00
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 205, 50, 15, 55

Maruyama Park 円山公園 (Night)

Maruyama Park’s famous Shidarezakura

Maruyama Park is another massively popular hanami spot. In fact, due to its location next to Gion, this park probably draws the largest crowd every night in Kyoto during the sakura season.

Inside the park is the most photographed cherry tree in Kyoto, a large Shidarezakura that was first planted in 1886, then again in 1947 followed the withering of the first incarnation.

I recognized a few food stalls from my last visit back in January, including a curry stall owns by a Japanese-fluent Indian. Food is not cheap, ranging from ¥300 - ¥500 per serving.

Maruyama Park

For Japanese, sakura viewing is as much a social event as appreciation of nature. My single-minded pursuit of photograph seems to go against what these beautiful flowers are all about. Not that I am feeling sorry for myself – I have taken some good photos on this trip and I can always come back next time with my family and friends.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Until 1:00 am
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Bus 100 or 206

Keage Incline Railway 蹴上傾斜鐵道

Keage Incline Railway

Nowhere is the prevalence of visitors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong more noticeable than at this abandoned railway living a second life as a famous sakura-viewing spot with about 100 cherry trees. All I could hear when I arrived at 8:30 am were Mandarin and Cantonese. Just to clarify myself – this is not an exaggeration – nobody was speaking Japanese. At all. There were two couples from Hong Kong doing their pre-wedding photos to boot.

This place is extremely popular, so come early if you want to take photos without a huge crowd in the foreground.

Sakura Index: 3.5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Transport: Keage Subway Station

Click here for Part 2 of the ranking. 

Eating in Stockholm

Östermalms Saluhall

Quick – name a Swedish dish besides meatball. I bet you can’t. See, while a so-called Nordic revolution is taking place in Copenhagen, our collective knowledge of Swedish cuisine still only goes as far as what’s on the menu at your neighborhood IKEA.

A few meals don’t account to much. With this caveat, Swedish food, at least the contemporary interpretation, reminds me of Pacific Northwest cuisine – simply prepared seafood (salmon!) that emphasizes on the freshness of the ingredients. The Baltic Sea’s icy water might not be a hotbed of marine biodiversity, but local seafood like salmon, herring, Arctic char, Atlantic cod, shrimp and crayfish are extremely fresh. I tried four restaurants over five meals – two seafood places inside food markets, a contemporary Swedish, and a traditional Swedish – and I recommend all of them except for one.

The high quality does come at a high cost, just like everything else in Stockholm. Food at supermarket is more reasonable – a large wrap can be had for 45 SEK.

Kajsas Fisk, Hötorgshallen

Kajsas Fisk

Lunch, February 25

After having nothing more than a tiny wrap over the past 24 hours, I arrived Stockholm in an absolute state of starvation. What I needed was something boiling hot and hearty, which perfectly describes Kajsas Fisk’s fish soup.

Conveniently located at the basement of Hötorgshallen, one of Stockholm’s oldest food halls, this small eatery proudly proclaims it serves the “world-famous fish soup”. You can try it for only 95 SEK, an absolute bargain in this town.

Everything is self-served. You pay at the counter where you also get your soup. Utensils, bread and a plain cabbage salad are all available at another counter. Non-soup dishes will be delivered to you after you have found a seat.

Fish Soup

The tobasco-color soup is served in a large bowl topped with a slab of garlic mayonnaise. Ingredients include seasonal white fish, shrimp, mussel, onion, tomato, garlic and various herbs. The fish and shellfish are obviously the foundation of the soup, yet equally important is the kick provided by the garlic and the herbs. Halfway done with the soup you will find the surprisingly tender seafood.

I really like fish soup, especially Cantonese style. Kajsas Fisk’s was really good, probably the best Western style fish soup I have ever had. Hopefully I don’t come across as sounding too pretentious, but I find it impossible to compare Oriental cuisines and Western ones.

Seafood Risotto

Next up was the seafood risotto (90 SEK). The rice was too soft and moist and the saffron too dominating. The only redeemable thing about this dish was the roe-filled prawns.

One thing I found out in this first meal was the admittedly idiotic but understandable practice of photographing your own food has yet to take root in Sweden. People looked at me funny whenever I pointed my camera at my food. One guy even asked me if I had never had what I ordered before – he figured it must be an Asian cultural practice.

Lunch, February 27

Normandy Oysters
Smoked Salmon Toast

Two days later I was back for the fish soup – the surefire antidote for Stockholm’s cold and misty weather. I also ordered three pieces of Normandy oysters (50 SEK) and a smoked salmon toast (95 SEK). Both tasted more or less like what I could get in Hong Kong, which is more of a compliment to modern supply chain than a complaint.

Deliciousness: 8/10
Value: 9/10
Recommendation: 9/10 (Just order the soup)
Address: Hötorgshallen 3, 111 57 Stockholm

Rolfs Kök

Rolfs Kök

Dinner, February 25

I came across Rolf Kök on Yelp when trying to find a place to eat near my hotel. A cross-reference on Google revealed this place also has a Bib Gourmand recommendation from Michelin, so I decided to give it a go. This place is not cheap though, with entrée costing around 200 SEK. Arriving at 21:15, I was seated at the bar with good view of the open kitchen.

Bread and Wine

The high alcohol tax in Sweden had kept me sober thus far on the trip, but I decided to bite the bullet this night and ordered a glass of Chardonnay from Sonoma (120 SEK).

Along with my glass of wine came a skewer of bread, a very unique way of presentation of an all-too-familiar item. Three of them vanished into my stomach in a matter of minutes before I put a brake on my appetite in anticipation of the entrée.

Cod Fish

I ordered the loin of cod with green beans, hazelnuts and goat cheese (295 SEK) because of the influence of the nearby tables. The cod was very tender and matched well with the oil-based sauce.

Deliciousness: 8/10
Value: 5/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: Tegnérgatan 41, 111 61 Stockholm

Lisa Elmqvist

Lisa Elmqvist

Lunch, February 26

Most popular among the many stalls in Östermalms Saluhall, Lisa Elmqvist is a fourth-generation seafood stall and restaurant operated for over 80 years. This was also where I had by far my worst meal in Stockholm.

Customer service is a big part of the dining experience. Often take for granted, it is an aspect which you don’t appreciate until you have terrible experiences to compare. I had to dig deep into my memory to remember the last time I was treated as poorly.

When I asked for a table for one, the waitress at the reception frowned and pointed to a seat on a shared table without as much as greeting me. A menu was thrown in front of me and not a single word was uttered when taking my order. When my backpack was accidentally knocked to the floor by another waitress, the response was not an apology or the expected act of recovering my gear from the floor. She instead gave me an annoyed stare and dragged my backpack next to my chair by her left foot. There were also no acknowledgement when my dish arrived or when I paid the bill.

I was treated like an ignorant tourist who has miraculously found out about the great insititution that is Lisa Elmqvist and should simply quickly finish his food and be immediately out of sight.

Grilled Arctic Char

All this might be tolerable if the food was any good. Too bad my grilled Arctic char (255 SEK) was overcooked and the honey mustard sauce much too salty.

Deliciousness: 3/10
Value: 5/10
Recommendation: 1/10
Address: Östermalms Saluhall S – 114 39 Stockholm

Bakfickan

Bakfickan

Dinner, February 28

It did feel strange, after so many days in the country, to still not have tried the most representative of all traditional Swedish food – the meatballs. So for my last dinner on this trip I went to Bakfickan, the cheaper and more casual diner operated by the Michelin one-star Operakällaren. Arriving at seven on a Friday night, I got a counter seat next to the entrance after a 20-minute wait.

Crayfish Toast

Again starving, I ordered a large serving of the crayfish toast (160 SEK) and the Swedish meatballs with potato purée served with lingonberry preserve and pickled gherkin (170 SEK)

The crayfish toast was large. I like the chopped crayfish with mayonnaise but it brought out a slight hint of bitterness from the toast when eaten together.

Meatballs

Compared to the fast food version I am used to, these meatballs were much more tender, but even more to my taste were the sides. The mashed potato went well with the gravy and the sourness of the lingonberry preserve provided a welcome relief to an otherwise very heavy dish.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: Karl XII:S torg, 111 86 Stockholm

A Mad Dash to the Arctic

Torneträsk

February 20, 2014

Work has brought me to Europe in the dead of winter. I didn’t plan to linger, but just before leaving home I came across a few articles about 2013/ 2014 being the peak of solar activity that runs in 11-year cycle. In other words, this winter is the best time to see the northern lights/ aurora borealis. The next peak will be 2024/2025.

With very short notice I foolhardily asked for a week’s leave, which was miraculously granted. My cold-averse wife also didn’t complain about missing out on the northern lights – she was just worried if I could stay warm in the Arctic cold. When I finally had the time to buy all the winter gear, it was the day before my flight to Geneva.

Geneva is not the most inviting place in winter. Besides work I mostly stayed at my hotel to research on the upcoming trip. Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are all perfectly fine places to see the northern lights. The rule of thumb is to head to the Arctic circle to a place with clear sky and hope for the best. The best plan only enhances the sighting of the aurora, never guarantees it.

I decide on Abisko National Park in Sweden, because the country of IKEA is not as outrageously expensive as Iceland and Norway, and Stockholm is a city I have wanted to revisit. 195 km north of the Arctic circle and at the northern tip of Sweden, Abisko’s reputation of clear sky makes the tiny village one of the premier aurora-sighting places on earth.

I am now about to fly to Stockholm. To enhance my probability of seeing the northern lights, my schedule is extremely flexible.  All I have with me is an e-ticket of my upcoming overnight train ride to Abisko, a place unknown to me even a week ago, and a three-night reservation for a bed at the STF Mountain Station. Everything else is up in the air.

Seeing Kyoto under a Different Light

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

January 11 – 12, 2014

Photo set on Flickr (Part of Kansai Region set)

22 hours is a very short amount of time, especially for Kyoto, one of the world’s best travel destinations. That however was all the time we got between our overnight trip to Kinosaki Onsen and our flight back to Hong Kong. Instead of trying to cramp as much as possible into this limited time frame, we instead picked and chose a few things that we missed out on our last visit five years ago.

Our slower pace allowed us to see more of Kyoto the city. We didn’t have to bounce around the city’s four corners all day long like last time, exhausting ourselves seeing many of the main sights. Our familiarity of Kyoto was growing but we remained captivated by how much more there is to explore in the ancient capital.

Already I am thinking of visiting Kyoto and Osaka again later this year for some of the slightly out-of-the-way places like Uji and Koya-san. Also on my list are restaurants like Fujiya 1935 and Gyuho. So much for my pledge to not visit Japan because it is too easy.

Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺)

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji is a tricky subject to photograph. Good lighting is always essential, but some subjects allow you to get away with less than optimal condition. Not so with Kinkaku-ji. Instead of a sharp golden hue, poor lighting will turn the temple’s iconic exterior into the colour of Dijon mustard.

We got to Kinkaku-ji at the perfect time, just as the sun was shining directly upon the temple. Since Kinkaku-ji is not one of my favorites, I am glad the shots turn out fine and I can devote my time to elsewhere next time.

Nishiki Market (錦市場)

Nishiki Market

Compares to the other seasons, Kyoto is much less crowded in the winter. Nishiki Market, otherwise one of the busiest place in the city, was mostly empty during our morning visit. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the market takes the form of narrow alley that stretches across five blocks. All kinds of local specialties were on sale, such as pickled vegetable, seafood, wagashi, roasted chestnut, matcha, oden and an assortment of fruit and vegetable.

The food wasn’t cheap. We bought a small bag of chestnut for ¥1,000, a box of matcha mochi for ¥500, two pieces of oden fish cake for ¥1,600, two pieces of daifuku (mochi stuffed with red bean) for ¥500 and two unagi-don for ¥3,800. The daifuku and unagi-don were worthy of their price tags; I wouldn’t try the others again.

Gion (祇園)

New Year Street Market, Gion

I find Gion overrated – its shops sell mostly the same souvenirs. A high concentration of very good kaiseki restaurants do seem to populate the area (according to Tabelog), but we had already blown our budget in Kinosaki Onsen. Just when we were about to leave, a sign on Hanami-kōji (花見小路) led us to a bustling street market two blocks west on Yamato Oji-Dori (大和大路通). From what I understood by reading the banners, this new year year market would last from January 8 – 12.

The food, just like Nishiki Market’s, wasn’t cheap. We spent ¥300 for a pork bun, a whopping ¥400 on an ear of corn and another ¥600 on a dish of stewed beef.

Kyoto Ebisu Shrine

We followed the crowd and eventually arrived at Kyoto Ebisu Shrine (ゑびす神社). Ebisu is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune in Japanese mythology, and a large gathering of people were lining up to either pray or purchase good luck charms.

I spent half an hour taking photos and soaking in the convivial mood. Funny how being on the road would alter one’s behavior – I always avoid Hong Kong’s jam-packed Chinese new year festivities like the plague.

Sanjūsangen-dō (三十三間堂)

Tōshiya, Sanjūsangen-dō

Every new year on the second Sunday, just ahead of the Coming of Age Day, an archery contest called Tōshiya (通し矢) takes place at Sanjūsangen-dō. Seemed like this was a big deal as posters of this event were everywhere in Kyoto, so we gave it a look before heading to the airport.

Admission was free (normally ¥600) to the main hall, which houses 1,000 human-sized and a three-meter tall wooden Kannon (觀音) statues. Hundreds of people were lining up to get inside, not because of the statues, but for the Rite of the Willow (柳枝のお加持), where a monk performed a ritual to cure headache by sprinkling water onto the worshippers with a willow branch.

Outside the hall was an even larger gathering of participants and onlookers for the archery contest. The participants, most of them dressed in kimono, are about to turn 20 years old in the coming year, thus “coming of age” in becoming adults. The contest last from 9 am to 4 pm, with the men competing in the morning and the ladies in the afternoon. So thick was the wall of spectators it was impossible for us to find any opening with a clear view of the field.

Time was running out on us – instead of digging in deeper trying to find a spot we opted to go grab some breakfast.

Kaiseki at Nishimuraya Shogetsu

Snow Crab

January 10, 2014

Photo set on Flickr (Part of Eating in Japan set)

Besides the beautiful winter scenery, snow crab (松葉蟹) is another good reason to travel to Kinosaki Onsen during winter time. The crab is only in season from November to March. It goes without saying this local delicacy was prominently featured on Nishimuraya Shogetsu’s kaiseki (懐石; multi-course meal) menu.

Appetizer

The meal was served in our room, beginning with appetizer, cooked crab and sashimi.

Appetizer consisted of marinated seaweed, arrowhead mushroom (慈菇), squid-wrapped fish roe, mandarin orange with fish roe, chicken liver and cooked yellowtail. Everything was good and I especially liked the mandarin orange.

Cooked crab

I am not a big fan of crab, but I now can see why the Japanese is so fond of the snow crab. The meat was firm and had a very sweet flavor with a hint of sea water. But the best part was the crab roe. I painstakingly picked out every ounce of meat I could see from the shell, and by the time I was done an hour had passed and our table was full of other dishes. My wife, who didn’t see the need to put so much effort into picking out the tiniest pieces of meat, breezed through her dishes and started playing with her smartphone while I was still working on one of the crab legs.

Sashimi

I should have eaten the sashimi first before I worked on the crab. Alas the sashimi was already on the table for an hour by the time I laid my chopsticks on them. The four types of seafood were spot shrimp (牡丹海老), greater amberjack (間八), tai (鯛) and of course snow crab.

This was my first time having raw crab. Unlike the crispy texture of raw shrimp or lobster, the raw crab had a slimy texture. It was fine but I preferred the cooked version more. The amberjack and tai were great; the shrimp so-so.

Tajima Beef

Next up was Tajima beef (但馬牛). Everyone knows about Kobe beef. Heck, a guy liked the meat so much he even named his kid after it. But to clarify, just like Champagne is a region where the bubbly drink is cultivated, you can think of Kobe as a brand. The beef itself comes from a strain of black cattle called Tajima, mostly born and raised in Hyōgo Prefecture where both Kobe and Kinosaki Onsen are located. The beef is one of the world’s most expensive food ingredient, comparable to the likes of white truffle and Beluga caviar.

We each had three tiny pieces. The cooking method was simply; we put the meat on a grill for 20 seconds each side. It was very tender and had a strong flavor. The impression was fleeting though – I think it is a bit pretentious to treat beef like how we would normally consume sashimi. I know Tajima beef is expensive, so I would rather have something else on the menu (lobster?) or better yet just charge me less. But I digress.

Again, the beef was good.

Consommé with Greater Burdock Dumpling

This was the part of the marathon meal when I was too busy putting food into my mouth in order to get up to speed with my wife. The soup served as the base to hold up the main focus of this dish – a greater burdock (牛蒡) dumpling. Greater burdock is one of my favorites and acted as a good change of pace from all the seafood.

Cooked Abalone

Abalone is not an easy ingredient to handle. This one was tender and the sauce didn’t overwhelm the taste of the shellfish.

Snow Crab Hot Pot

I wasn’t too thrilled when I saw the hot pot. The snow crab was tasty; I just didn’t want to spend another hour picking out its meat. But I couldn’t help myself. By the time I was done at ten, our server, who was meticulous in her service throughout the night, couldn’t help but let out a hearty laugh when she entered our room for the second time after my wife was done with her dessert and finally saw that I was done with my pot of crab.

If I were to rank the three dishes of crab, it would be cooked crab > hot pot > sashimi.

Pot of Rice

The rice had gone completely cold when I got around to it. I didn’t bother to ask for a reheat and I finished it anyway.

Mango Pudding and Fruit

The melon and strawberry capped a good ending to my three-hour meal. The mango pudding was too sweet for my taste and was the only thing I didn’t finish on the night.

A Recollection of Past Travels

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