Monday, February 16, 2015

Anago, in many ways at Ginza Hirai - a One Michelin Star Restaurant in Tokyo

It may seem amazing to some that the city that has the most restaurants with Michelin stars is no longer Paris.  For quite a number of years now, Tokyo has held that distinction.  
More one-,  two-  and three- star Michelin restaurants can be found here than anywhere else.  

This February, I was again fortunate to go to Tokyo for a quick business trip.  
Naturally, I called my ex-director and dear gourmet friend Abe san for a catch up dinner.  
Abe san  always says he is glad to see me --  I am a good excuse to go out and discover yet another delectable dish or another small but excellent restaurant.  
On this cold winter night, we took a short cab ride to the Ginza area where this little alleyway 
hides a one star Michelin  restaurant.

Hirai, tucked away in the  Ginza 5-chome area, is a restaurant devoted to the delicate
deliciousness of the anago or salt water conger eel.  Don't be put-off by its unprepossessing facade ...
Hirai is focused on the single-minded pursuit of preparing anago in the most ambrosial ways possible.

Even my hashioki or chopstick rest sports a happy smile!  This definitely bodes well for the 
rest of the evening.

We arrive quite early and have the place to ourselves.  Hirai is not a big restaurant.  
There are only four  tables and a small counter that seats four.

It's a semi open kitchen at Hirai.  From my seat by the door, I could watch part of the action going on in the cooking area.  There are two chefs inside, that plus one waitress brings the total staff to just three.   It never ceases to amaze me how efficient and smooth service is in restaurants in Japan,
even with a minimum number of staff.

We see a copy of the latest Michelin guide at the counter and easily find the bookmarked  page where Hirai is featured.

There are cute eels drawn on the handwritten menu.  No english menu and no photos of food either.
Of course this is nothing to worry about as I have Abe san who does all the ordering.
I did get to practice my extremely low level of Nihongo with the attentive and amused waitress who despite single handedly waiting on all the tables, still had time to stop and chat each time she brought our food.

I ordered my usual nama beer and was taken aback when it was brought not in a glass,  
but in a tall lovely, two-toned brown and beige glazed beer mug.  The beer head formed a 
high, creamy dome  --  it was so pretty I could barely bring myself to take a sip.

Our dinner started with a serving of sashimi - just a few slices of dark red meguro or tuna and a lone ebi or shrimp.  The freshness opened up my appetite and signalled my brain that more goodies were yet to come.

Next up --  three thin slices of anago yakiniku, grilled with just shio or salt.
A slim sliver of pink and white hajikami or pickled ginger root was artfully placed on top.
A dash of salt, a smidgin of fresh wasabi and a small slice of lime were all  the condiments
needed to enhance one's enjoyment of this dish.

After that,  came anago tare yakiniku with a mild sweetish sauce.  The sauce did not distract
from the natural sweetness of the eel.   Julienned green onions accompanied this truly
melt-in-your-mouth dish.  Shite ga tokeru -- as Abe san taught me to say.

Abe san also ordered tempura moriawase which included a piece of anago, buried
underneath the lightly fried vegetables.

Unagi or fresh water eel is richer and oilier than anago and is usually prepared only by by grilling then basting with a sweet eel sauce.
Anago or salt water eel however lends itself well to other ways of cooking -- like being battered and deep fried as evidenced by this firm yet soft piece of tempura.

By this time, Abe san felt we had probably not yet fully indulged in the exceptional anago 
specialties that Hirai had to offer.  He ordered this small dish of anago no hone or
deep fried anago bones.  These were crisp, salty and just plain addictive.
It was like eating shoestring potatoes but -- moto suki desu as they say.
I like this better!
Anago no hone was the perfect otsumami or food eaten with alcohol -- in Tagalog,
we would call it pulutan.

For a modern take on anago, Hirai's chef offered up this next dish. 
 If you deconstruct this, at the bottom is a piece of meltingly sweetish grilled anago, topped by a 
crunchy cucumber slice, topped by a cube of soft, salty, creamy cheese.  
Each little pile is then liberally sprinkled with firm fresh tobiko or fish roe.
Amazing!  All the flavours combined to make for a luscious, scrumptious bite.  
The cheese added that last umami kick that made it utterly toku betsu --  extraordinarily special!
We shared this dish evenly -- three pieces  for me and three for Abe san.  
Although, if he had looked away for just a second, I would have swiped one 
without feeling any pangs of guilt.

Abe san wanted to know if I was still up for one last course --and of course I said yes.
After all, everything that had come before could be seen as appetisers leading to the grand finale.
The anago setto was placed in front of me.  The tray had a small bowl of miso soup,  some tsukemono or pickles, a generous bowl of anago donburi and a smaller empty bowl.
Abe san said to eat the donburi not from its bowl but to place it in the small red bowl.
Later on he said we would be given some dashi stock that we would use to make a porridge
with what would be left of the anago and rice -- therefore, I was not to wolf everything down but keep some for when the dashi would be brought over.

For a bit of spice, this small grater had freshly grated wasabi root.  If so desired, sprinkle the 
grated wasabi on the anago donburi using the little bamboo brush.  I love how meticulous 
the chef was about the finer details of how we could really savour each dish that he prepared.

Halfway through my donburi, this little teapot was brought over.
It contained a very delicate dashi stock that I poured over the remaining rice and
anago in my bowl -- creating a subtle and comforting finish to another quintessentially
Japanese food experience.

 Here is an "action shot" of Abe san relishing his meal.  By the time we were ready to leave, Hirai was full and the next diners were waiting outside to take our place.

Off I went into the chilly February  night, warmed by the good companionship of an
old and dear friend, lots of beer and shochu and yes, soft and sweet anago.
I took one last look at this cul de sac where thanks to Abe san, I had unearthed yet another
gustatory gem in Tokyo.
If you find yourself wandering around the back streets of Ginza 5 chome,  don't forget to look
for this little arcade that houses the one-star Michelin restaurant called Hirai.
You can recognise the caricature of the eel on the lighted sign.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List

The first time I visited Kyoto I came completely under her spell.  That unique blend of tradition, heritage and culture is captivating.  There is so much to see, feel and experience.  
Even if I moved to Kyoto (and that thought did come to mind),  I would never be able to see all that she has to offer within one lifetime.
But -- there is something definable and within my reach.  
Within its roughly 850 square kilometre area,  Kyoto has 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  
I know that I can visit each and every one at least once -- and that is a bucket list that I have partially fulfilled. 

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

The first time I visited Kyoto was in September, 2012.  Since it was just a week-end side trip from a business meeting, I did not know how much I could see of her treasures.   
I had seen photos of Kiyomizu-dera, perched high up on a hill and knew that I just had to see it.  
I did not even know that this very famous Buddhist Temple was a UNESCO World Heritage site until I got there.  This photo does not do Kiyomizu-dera any justice at all. 
It is simply too stunning to be properly photographed by an amateur like me.

2. Ryoan-ji Temple

During this same trip, I had earmarked specific must-see places.  
I had read about a karesansui or dry landscape Zen rock garden in a temple in  Japan where  
there are 15 stones but no matter where you sit or stand, you will never see all of 
them at the same time.    In Buddhism, the number 15 stands for completeness so not seeing all fifteen stones is an insight unto itself.  
Ryoan-ji Temple is another UNESCO World Heritage site.  
Seeing the raked sand and rock garden, even in the presence of other visitors was an emotional and deeply moving experience for me.   
Also, in Ryoan-ji, Buddha made me cry.

3. Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Pavilion

Happily, Kinkaku-ji is a 20 minute leisurely stroll or a 5 minute bus ride away from Ryoan-ji so I was able to visit another UNESCO World Heritage site in the same afternoon.  I call Kinkaku-ji the poster child of Kyoto.  With its stunning gold leaf paint,  it is unarguably also the most photogenic.

4. Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

My next visit to Kyoto came six months later, in April 2013.
It was still spring but we were too late for the explosion of sakura or cherry blossoms that line the area near Ginkaku-ji Temple also known as the Silver Pavilion.
Originally created as a villa by the grandson of the nobleman who built Kinkaku-ji
it became a Zen temple and later on was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This simple wooden pavilion is set amidst beautiful gardens, ponds and paths that take you up the hills of Higashiyama
Ginkaku-ji is not silver coloured so why call it the Silver Pavilion?  
They say that moonlight casts a silvery glow on the dark wood of the pavilion on a night when there is a full moon.  That would be quite a sight to behold.

5. Tenryu-ji Temple

I did not even know about the existence of Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama - we were in the area to see the famous bamboo groves.  Because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, my good friend Meiko san suggested that we go see it too.
Tenryu-ji  is actually one of Kyoto's five great Zen Temples.  It means "heavenly dragon temple"
and there is an impressive painting of a huge dragon on the ceiling of one of the main halls.  
Unfortunately, photos inside the hall are not allowed but photos are encouraged outdoors, to capture the beauty of the temple's sand garden surrounding this lovely pond.

6. Hongan-ji Temples

My next visit to Kyoto was Christmas,  2013.  We stayed in a hotel right inside Kyoto Station and the Hongan-ji Temples were just a short walk away.  Above is a photo of the Goeido, part of the Higashi Hongan-ji or east temple.  The Goeido is the biggest wooden structure in Kyoto.
Beside the Higashi Hongan-ji is the Nishi Hongan-ji or the west temple.
Both belong to the Jodo-shin sect of Buddhism and together are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

7. Toji Temple

Ever since I visited Koya-san and learned about the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi who established Shingon Buddhism in Japan, I have become a fan of this monk, his many outstanding accomplishments and his simple but profound teachings.
Kobo Daishi was Head Priest at Toji Temple during the 9th century and was responsible for many of the wooden structures that are still standing in the temple grounds today.  
It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also hosts one of Kyoto's major flea markets held on the 21st of each month.

8. Ninna-ji Temple 

I finally caught the sakura on my next springtime visit to Kyoto in April 2014.
Ninna-ji Temple boasts of a stunning garden of late blooming cherry blossom trees called omuro sakura.   Cherry blossoms aside,  this temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also an
Imperial temple as it was established by the Emperor in the late 9th century.
The most impressive sight in the temple grounds is the Goten, former residence of  the Head Priest.  The photo above shows the Goten's  beautiful sand garden that abuts a reflecting pool.  

9. Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hieizan

Our  April 2014 visit coincided with Holy Week so on Good Friday, we decided to explore a non traditional spiritual path and paid a visit to one of Buddhism's holiest sites. 
Enryaku-ji, located at the top of  Mt Hieizan is one of the most important temples and monasteries in Japan and is the headquarters for the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  
Aside from the main hall called Kompon Chudo, shown in the photo above,  there are several other beautiful buildings within the temple grounds that are designated as "important cultural assets" of Japan. 
Enryaku-ji is one of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Historically, the mountain  is also the site of Nobunaga's well known massacre of the "warrior monks".   

10. Kamigamo-jinja Shrine

Our most recent visit to Kyoto was this December 2014.
By this time, I had a tally of my UNESCO World Heritage site progress and I was excited by the fact that I had passed the halfway mark.
The photo above shows the huge torii which marks the entrance to the Kamigamo-jinja shrine.
The oldest Shinto shrine in Kyoto is even older than the city itself.  It is near the banks of the Kamogawa river and Wake-ikazuchi or the God of Thunder is enshrined in this place.
What struck me particularly about Kamigamo-jinja was its huge open spaces -- a wide expansive lawn leads to the main shrine.  While it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not as frequented by foreign tourists and seems a bit off the beaten tourist track.

11.  Shimogamo-jinja Shrine

This is the twin shrine to Kamigamo-jinja.  Together they are two of the oldest Shinto Shrines in the city and each one is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The Shimogamo-jinja where the deity Wake-ikazuchi is also enshrined, is at the junction of two rivers -- the Takano and the Kamogawa.
It is a ten minute bus ride from the Kamigamo-jinja.
Shimogamo-jinja is inside one of Kyoto's oldest forests, the Tadasu-no-mori so you walk among centuries-old wooded paths as you go through the shrine's grounds.

12. Byodo-in Temple

Perhaps it was fitting that  I visited Byodo-in Temple towards the end of my visit last December.
Located in Uji, a suburb of Kyoto, it was the perfect way to cap off my latest Kyoto vacation.
Byodo-in's most famous structure is the majestic Phoenix Hall that rises like a vermillion mirage in the middle of a reflecting pond.  The image of the Phoenix Hall is also captured for all posterity
on Japan's 10 yen coin.
Inside the Hall is a statue of the Amida Buddha, compassionate comforter of souls as they pass from this life to the afterlife.
Aside from being in awe of its breathtaking beauty,  I felt  peacefulness of mind and spirit during my visit.
Namu Amida Butsu.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Of Bishops and Buddhists -- our uncommon Christmas Day in Kyoto

Christmas Day in Kyoto is definitely unlike Christmas day in the Philippines.  
It is a regular working day so people really go about their daily business.  
While the trappings of Christmas may be present -- lights, Christmas trees, Santa Claus and gifts -- 
however,  that's all there is to it.  For majority of the Japanese, it is a commercial and not a religious event.

Since this was our second Christmas Day in Kyoto we knew enough as to where we could properly celebrate the occasion. Just as we did last year, we hied off to busy, commercial Kawaramachidori where the Cathedral of Saint Francis Xavier is located.  The Cathedral is built along simple, modern lines with beautiful stained glass windows.  The presence of a small belen or creche at the foot of the altar made me feel a little less homesick.

Good friend and Kyoto resident Meiko san attended mass with us, as she did last year.  As the mass was said in Japanese, she translated portions of the Bishop's homily during the mass, all in a quiet whisper of course.

The first time we heard Christmas mass at the Cathedral, Bishop Paul Otsuka of the Diocese of Kyoto was the main celebrant.  This year,  he celebrated mass again and afterwards mingled with the parishioners.  He was very amiable and glad to meet visitors like us -- Jay had the nerve (I was too shy) to ask the Bishop to pose for a souvenir photo.

From mass, we headed to Ginkakuji,  a Zen Temple in the eastern hills of Higashiyama.  This is a Buddhist temple that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for one of its buildings, the Silver Pavilion.

This was the week before New Year so preparations were well underway to spruce up the temple grounds.  It was quite fascinating to watch these men fixing the volcano shaped cone or the "moon viewing platform" from where it is said the shogun used to sit and watch the full moon.
This sand cone is set in the middle of the dry sand garden known as the "Silver Sea of Sand".
Zen temples are famous for their beautiful dry rock or sand gardens and Ginkakuji has quite a splendid one.

I much prefer  The Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji over its counterpart, the Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji.  I love the subdued and quiet elegance of the former over the flashy showiness of the latter. Ginkakuji is wabi sabi to its core.

It was drizzling intermittently but this didn't stop us from taking a walk through the Philosopher's Path.   Cold winter weather notwithstanding,  Martina still had an appetite for an ice cream cone.

Meiko san had a Christmas treat for us -- she brought us to a temple a short walk away.
This is the entrance to Honen-in, built by the Buddhist priest Honen who also established
the Jodo-shu sect of Buddhism in the 12th century.   Wide and easy stone steps make for a comfortable and pleasing approach to the Somon or the first gate to the temple.

Honen-in is a bit off the tourist beaten track.  The afternoon we visited, we were the only ones there.  For me, this seclusion added much to its appeal.  A stone path leads to the second gate, the Sanmon.
A burst of yellow leaves, remnants of what must have been spectacular autumn foliage is the only "distraction" to this serene setting.

To the left of the thatched roof Sanmon Gate is this old stone marker.  Meiko san said it states that no alcohol, meat or garlic are allowed inside the temple grounds.  I felt a bit guilty for being a  
beer-guzzling,  non- vegetarian visitor.

These two rectangular mounds of sand are what you first see when you step through the 
Sanmon Gate.  These symbolise water and as you pass through them, you are purified, both in body and mind.  There are patterns on top of the sand mounds which are changed according to the season. 

The Hondo or Main Hall was closed and is open to the public only a few times a year, during the spring and autumn seasons.

 I found it hard to tear myself away from the tranquility of Honen-in.  Its calm and quiet air seemed ideal for contemplation and meditation.  While there was not much to see in terms of grand buildings or structures,  experiencing the stillness of the place brought a feeling of peace to my soul.

From Honen-in we walked the back streets of the Philosopher's Path.   Meiko san said this was a very premier residential area of Kyoto.  

Back on the Philosopher's Path we came upon this community of cats.   While I have walked through this way before,  I had never noticed any cats although Meiko san said this was a "highlight" of this stretch of the walk. While these may be stray cats, they seemed to well taken cared of by the residents -- as evidenced by this tabby all wrapped up in a blanket to ward off the December chill.  

There are quite of number of these Kyoto kittens -- here they are huddled in a cart, taking their afternoon nap.

I didn't worry at all about these felines --  even if they could be called "homeless",  they were all quite fat and definitely well fed.

We had finally come to the end of our  walk.   From Ginkakuji, where we started, it had been an almost two kilometre chilly but lovely stroll.  From a Bishop to a Buddhist temple, it was an untraditional but entirely appropriate way to celebrate Christmas Day in Kyoto.