Monday, June 27, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - My dinner in a yatai, fun dining Fukuoka style!

Before I left for Fukuoka,  I e-mailed my Japanese gourmet friend Abe san who lives in Tokyo 
for some food and travel advice.  He said just one thing to me ... "Nonna san, eat in a yatai!
It is so much fun!"   Just what is a yatai?  We Pinoys would be very familiar with it as we see
many of versions of it all over  Metro Manila.

A yatai is an outdoor makeshift  stall that sprouts up in busy streets at dusk and usually 
remains open till way after midnight.  While they have permanent locations, the stands are 
very much temporary.   Like Cinderella, they disappear at a certain hour and the area is left bare 
and clean, as if the yatai was never there. 
Fukuoka has over 140 yatai, the most of any city in Japan,  no wonder they call it the iconic 
Fukuoka dining experience.

There are yatai in several places around the city but I went to the ones clustered around  
the Tenjin shopping district.  This was just a convenient 20 minute walk from our hotel.  
It was almost 7 p.m on a weekday evening but it was still light outside.  With a seating capacity 
of just 8 to 10 people, several yatai were already quite full, this early in the evening. 

I crossed the street in search of my own happy hunting ground.  Near the corner of 
Showa-dori and Watanabe-dori, I found a yatai that seemed to have just opened for the 
night.  There were no other customers yet and Chef san seemed happy enough to see me ... 
his buena mano for the evening.
Yatai have become so popular with tourists,  that some stalls have english speakers manning 
the counter and some  have english menus.  
But in this case, Chef san hardly spoke any English and I of course could only get by with my 
limited  Nihongo.  But food is the universal language  so we understood each other quite well.

 I am not sure if this is the yatai's name but on the front of the menu it clearly states 
Tenjin Yatai Shun.  

While the menu was in Japanese, the photos clearly showed what was on offer.  
Hakata style ramen, yakitori, karaage, stir fries  -- these are the most common things on 
offer at  a yatai as  I suppose they are popular and easy to cook.

Even if this is indeed a temporary and improvised "restaurant" care is given to ensure that 
the food you eat  is always in the best condition.  There is a mini chiller where perishable 
ingredients  like the chicken for the yakitori, dumplings,  fresh noodles etc are kept.  
In Fukuoka, yatai do not serve anything raw so food quality and safety are never  compromised.

Right beside the small chiller was a vat of oden.  This is a traditional japanese dish with eggs, vegetables, tofu and fish cakes boiled and simmered in a clear dashi broth.  It's usually a winter 
food but because the ingredients are quite light -- slices of daikon, boiled eggs, konnyaku, chikuwa, etc., it works just as well during warmer seasons. And yes, it goes very well with alcohol!

Other diners had arrived who ordered yakitori and the chef set about cooking the 
skewers over an open charcoal grill. It smelled delicious and for a moment, I was struck with
food envy.  

Nom nom nom!  There were shy smiles all around  but I guess we were too focused on our food 
to engage in any light conversation.  

Some yatai are mom-and-pop operations and some have two people working together.  
Tenjin Yatai Shun had just this one multi-tasker who I presumed was the owner.  
He took down orders, sliced and diced, grilled and sautéed, served everyone, washed the 
dishes,  wiped down the counter, received payments,  made change... and mixed drinks too.  
He did all this very cooly, he even had time for casual banter with all of us. 
Such an amazing one man yatai show!

I ordered a bowl of Hakata tonkotsu ramen without  expecting much because well -- 
this was a yatai so perhaps the ramen would just be so-so or as the Japanese like to say 
"ma-ma".   My bowl had all the ingredients -- the milky rich tonkotsu broth,  thin slices of 
chashu,  scallions, lots of garlic, green onions and sesame seeds.  

Well I was in for a pleasant surprise!  The ramen was very good - the broth had that deep and complex flavour that you expect from of simmering pork bones for 12 hours. The noodles were springy.  It was a bit skimpy on the chashu slices -- just two pieces but I only paid 600 yen for 
the bowl so I had no right to complain. 

I also ordered a dish of deep fried tofu which came with a generous topping of sliced fried
garlic, fresh ginger and lots of spring onions.  

I can never resist konnyaku when it is on the table.  I was already quite full but I saw it 
simmering in the vat of oden.    I enjoy the slightly gummy, slightly chewy texture of this 
root vegetable.  The Japanese say it is the perfect diet food -- zero calories and zero taste.  
I disagree about the zero taste specially when it has been simmering in an umami-ful dashi 
broth and served with a smudge of hot mustard on the side. 

Yatai are essentially outdoor pubs so all sorts of drinks are available.  Yatai Shun's bar was 
actually a plastic bin by my feet, stocked high with bottles.  There is oolong tea for 
non-drinkers plus beer, sake, whisky, shochu  for the imbibers.  You can even order  mixed 
drink like shochu with orange juice or tea.  
I wanted a regular bottle of beer but there were only large bottles on hand. 
Mondai nai, Chef san ... daijobu desu.  Kanpai!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - Lunch at Washoku Yohira in Nagasaki (with a few detours on the side)

After our visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, our Tours by Locals guide, Miyuki san brought us to lunch.  She had previously asked me what we would like to eat and I told her that 
I would prefer a place where the locals go,  that served Japanese cuisine, preferably accented 
with Nagasaki flavours.   
She made reservations at Washoku Yohira -- washoku means traditional Japanese cuisine,  and 
that is exactly what we enjoyed for lunch that day.

But first we made a  detour to the original store of Fukusaya,  makers of castela since 1624.  
Castela, a delicate honey spongecake with a Portuguese pedigree originated in Nagasaki and 
has since become a Japanese  favourite. 
You can find castela sold in Tokyo and other major cities in Japan.  I had always bought 
Fukusaya castela both to eat at home and as omiyage for friends.  
I was not about to pass up a chance to visit its oldest existing store in Yamanokuchi in Nagasaki

The store which dates back to the 1800s retains a quaint,  nostalgic air.   Fukusaya's  castela are displayed inside an old fashioned wood and glass case.  There are two kinds -- the original honey cake and  a cocoa castela -- a concession perhaps to modernity and chocolate lovers.   Both come in two sizes -- a 1000 gram box and a 600 gram box.  

I managed to control myself and bought only six of the 600 gram boxes -- which immediately 
added  3.6 kilos to the weight of my shopping bag.  But Miyuki san was so nice, she offered to 
lug two of the boxes for me.    Here we are with the friendly staff of Fukusaya -- can you see 
my happy grin?  I look just like the  cat who swallowed the castela -- honey and cocoa flavoured!

Purchases done, we headed off to lunch.  Around the corner from Fukusaya is Maruyama 
Park,  a quiet neighbourhood square with benches, trees, hydrangea bushes and in one corner, 
a bronze statue of Ryoma Sakamoto.  
Sakamoto san is a heroic  figure in Japan's history towards modernisation.  
He is typically shown wearing Japanese garb paired with very western boots.
Miyuki san said this area used to be a red light district.  Now it has been gentrified -- with 
restaurants, cafes and the city's oldest (and most expensive) restaurant.  

A few hundred meters from Maruyama Park, Miyuki san led us down these stone steps to a 
narrow alley that we would never have noticed,  if we were wandering around on our own.  
Actually, because the area does not have any famous touristy sites,  I didn't see any 
foreigners walking around.

Just at the bottom of the steps was this narrow wooden gate.  If not for the stand with the restaurant's menu done in a  pretty water-colour style stationed right in front,   I would have thought that this was a private residence.

We walked down a few steps and a small stone statue (was it a jizo?) stood by a waterfall. 
It was a peaceful and charming way to welcome guests in. 

Washoku Yohira used to be a private house, admittedly a rather large house, until it was 
transformed into  this restaurant.  There were renovations and repairs being done so there was lots of scaffolding in the front and side of the property.

We entered through sliding doors into a small foyer. Because this is a traditional Japanese 
restaurant,  we had to take off our shoes and change into slippers that the receptionist had 
graciously placed on the floor,  right in front of our feet.  A wooden cabinet off to the side is 
where guests' footwear are kept. 
Later on  as we were ready to leave,  we found our shoes again placed on the marble floor, 
ready for us to put back on.  
I am always amazed that the staff  can remember which shoes belong to which feet.

A cabinet with pieces of antique plates is the only decor at the front lobby.   
Yohira's walls are painted in a mutedly elegant golden yellow. A cream carpeted  
hallway stretches out towards the  back, with private dining rooms on both sides.   
There are more dining rooms upstairs, on the second floor.

I asked permission to peek into one of the rooms.  This mid sized room sits 6 diners on a tatami 
floor.  Windows look out onto a small pocket garden and a bamboo fence.

I had told Miyuki san that Jay and I found it difficult to eat on a tatami mat, unless it was a 
dropped floor. We were ushered into a room right at the front of the house -- a bright cheerful dining room surrounded by floor to ceiling windows.  There were just two tables for four and a
long counter that seats  six.

Washoku Yohira does not have an a la carte menu but offers several kinds of set menus -- 
starting at 1,800 yen all the way to 7,000 yen per person.  Washoku or traditional Japanese 
cuisine always works with what is in season, with deep respect for nature's bounty.  Only the 
freshest seasonal ingredients are used.   After a few minutes, we were each brought a lovely 
basket filled with different kinds of pretty little plates and bowls, each filled with an assortment of tidbits. This was just for starters, Miyuki san assured us.

One of the appetisers was this small plate of sashimi, with a couple of  slices of tai (sea bream), 
ika (squid)  and hamachi ( amberjack).  Freshly grated yellow green wasabi, which tastes nothing
like commercial bright green wasabi  from a tube,  is placed on one side.  

I specially enjoyed this small garden fresh bite of mashed and pureed peas.  I wish it had been 
big enough for two bites.  A cold terrine made of white asparagus was so easy on the palate with a delicate lingering taste.  These two small appetisers alone made the dining experience at Yohira 
so unique and delicious.  And yes, that simmered bit of tako (octopus) was tender and sweet. 

Chawanmushi is a Nagasaki specialty -- Yohira's version was smooth and slid deliciously down 
my throat.  The dashi that went into this dish was first rate, you could taste its umami rich flavour 
adding depth to the creamy custardy goodness.  That small dish on the right contains a sesame infused tofu square resting on a mild slightly jellied sauce.

All these starters were meant to complement the two entrees that came with the meal.  
Entree one, shown in the background was a slice of perfectly broiled fish topped with thinly 
shaved green onions and accompanied by a small piece of  sweet corn.  
Entree two in the foreground was a dish filled with the makings of a pork shabu shabu -- 
with thin slices of pork, mushrooms, tofu and vegetables.

If you're wondering how we cooked our shabu shabu, each of us had been given this tiny  stove. 

The candle flame gave off just the right heat. The thin pork slices cooked in seconds  --  
shabu,  shabu (swish, swish)  and they were done!
Dipped in the accompanying yuzu flavoured sauce, each bite just melted in the mouth.  

This was my entire lunch -- a basket of more than a dozen different small zensai (appetisers)  plus the entrees of grilled fish and shabu shabu.  It was a harmonious blending  of colours, textures and  tastes  -- all for just 2,500 yen  per person.  I can only imagine that Yohira's most expensive 7,000 yen menu must be a spectacular gastronomic feast. 

Washoku or traditional Japanese cuisine is served in small and perfect bites -- there may 
be  many dishes on your tray but they are small portions and each mouthful is a prelude to
the next.   Definitely ...  quality over quantity.  
At the end of our meal, there was room left for a couple of delicious desserts ...  a green tea 
pudding enhanced with mango flavours -- light, refreshing and tasting of summer plus 
a very traditional  red bean dessert,  not as heavy or sweet, in keeping with the season's tastes.
A cup of very good coffee ended this faultless and flawless meal.

Yohira's moss covered stone steps led us back out into the alleyway.  What a delightful lunch interlude that was!

To walk off some of the calories from lunch, we took a bus with Miyuki san to Kazagashira Park.
Located on top of Mt Kazagashira, it was just a twenty minute ride from downtown. 
The scenic winding roads reminded me of Baguio in earlier and greener times.  
The park is a ten minute walk from the bus stop and on a hot and sunny day, I was thankful for the shaded areas along the way.

Big beautiful hydrangeas lined the walkway in Kazagashira Park.  It was difficult not to stop 
and take photos of each and every marvellous  bloom.

The observation platform gives great views of Nagasaki harbour, albeit slightly obscured by the 
thick growth of trees.  Can you see Megami Ohashi in the distance, Kyushu's longest cable bridge.

Jay and I were happy to see our old friend, Ryoma Sakamoto once again here at the top of 
Mt. Kazagashira.  We tried to copy his trademark stance but we didn't do so well,  to omoimasu. 

Otsukare sama deshita  Miyuki san!    It was an amazing first visit to her city.  I wish we could have explored more places with her but we will definitely do that the next time around.


Here is Fukusaya's castela in honey and cocoa flavours --  sliced and ready to eat.  
Moist and delectable --  hmmm, it's so light ... perhaps I'll just have one more slice. 


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - To Nagasaki with the JR Northern Kyushu Pass

Even if we just had five days in Fukuoka, we decided to venture out of the city for a day to visit Nagasaki -- a place we had always wanted to see.  While the shinkansen or bullet train does not 
ply the Fukuoka-Nagasaki route, the rapid train Kamome Express would take us there in just a 
little over two hours.

For this trip, we travelled using a JR Rail Pass which is available from the JR Ticket Office at 
the JR Hakata Station.   JR sells regional passes which are particularly useful and of good value, specially if you are staying within just one area.   

For Kyushu,  JR  sells two types of passes -- there is the JR Kyushu Pass which 
covers the entire island and then there is the Northern Kyushu Pass which covers Kumamoto, 
Nagasaki, Oita, Beppu, Aso -- all of which are prime tourist destinations.   We actually planned 
to go to Kumamoto too but because of extensive work due to the earthquake, we put that trip off 
for the next visit. 

A single roundtrip ticket to Nagasaki would have cost 10,400 yen per person.  The JR Northern 
Kyushu Pass cost only 8,400 yen for three days -- ride all you can on  JR trains within the 
designated areas.    The pass also allows for 10 free reserved seats, which you would pay extra 
for  if you were buying individual tickets.  The pass is very good value for money!

We were taking the 7:17 a.m. train to Nagasaki so the first thing we needed to do when we got 
to Hakata Station was to buy our breakfast to eat on the train.  Jay headed to a local bakery ...

And I headed straight for the kiosk that sells ekiben or eki bento.  These are specially packed 
meals  meant to be eaten on the train. I bought the ichiban bento or the most popular selling meal.

Breakfasts bought, we headed to the tracks to catch the train.  Pass holders do not go through 
the automatic turnstiles but through a special gate clearly marked on one side.

It's easy to take the train anywhere in Japan -- there are english signs to keep you from getting lost ... even before you've left.

Once the train arrived, we checked the lighted sign on the side to see if we were indeed getting on the right car.

The interiors of the Kamome Express were a bit dated but the train was spotlessly clean 
(this is Japan after all).  The seats were comfortable with lots of leg room and there was even 
a compartment above for your belongings.  The Kamome Express is certainly a lot better than 
most budget airlines!

As Jay peels off the plastic wrap from his (sad looking) ham sandwich, I couldn't resist asking him ...

Doesn't he think my ekiben looks much more appetising and delicious? 

It's a two hour train ride so I settle down in my window seat and watch the countryside go by.  Planting season seems to have begun and fields have been neatly ploughed.  I normally think 
of Japan as a highly industrialised nation but in truth,  it's just about as much of an agricultural country as well. 

The scenery changed from farms to seaside as the train passed through the coastline linking 
Fukuoka to Nagasaki.  It had been drizzling when we left and I hoped the rain would stop when 
we arrived at our destination. 

Touchdown Nagasaki!  

For today's visit, I chose to get a Tours by Locals guide -- this global travel company has english speaking tour guides in over 130 countries.   I always try to book with them when I travel.  Nothing like having a local give you a real sense of the place you are visiting.  The rain had stopped when 
Miyuki Ogawa, our guide for the day met us at the station.

Nagasaki City  itself is small, with less than half a million people according to Miyuki san. There
is no subway network but there is something that's even more photogenic and just as efficient --- 
a throwback-to-the-old-days tram system.  These trams are the easiest and certainly the cheapest
(just a flat fare of 120 yen) ways to get around.   We took a tram to our first stop -- to Urakami,
north of the city.

Nagasaki was the site of the second atomic bomb dropped in August 1945.  
Heiwa Koen or Peace Park commemorates this event but more importantly the park aims to 
promote peace.   It is a popular destination for both foreign and domestic visitors.  Don't be scared 
off by the stairs -- there is an escalator right beside it that will take you up and back down to street level again.

As you enter the park you are greeted by this fountain where the water shoots out to form what looks like angel wings or as I see it,  two hands in prayer.

The park was built on the site of a former prison,  a few hundred meters away from the actual hypocenter.  These  remnants of the prison's stone walls are all that was left after the blast.

We came upon several local volunteers some of whom were quite elderly.   Could they be hibakusha 
or survivors of the blast?  I was too shy to ask but we did stop to sign their petitions to completely abolish nuclear weapons.  

The focal point of Peace Park is this very large bronze statue,  done by a local sculptor named 
Seibo Kitamura.  Miyuki san told us that the hand raised upwards is pointing to the sky,  where the atomic bomb came from. The hand extended sideways is supposed to symbolise peace. 
In my mind though, the hand extended sideways shows the extent of destruction from that which  came from the sky. 
It is quite powerful and I feel my throat constricting from the different emotions that 
I am suddenly subjected to.  There are no negative vibes that I can feel but I do sense a  strong 
and potent force while I am in the park.

We stopped for a while to watch this group of high school students with their teachers. 

The children were here to offer their senbazuru at this structure that looks like two hands praying.  Senbazuru are 1,000 paper cranes, folded origami style and strung together to form a colourful garland.  Traditionally, these paper cranes are seen as symbols of love and hope.  Legend goes 
that if you make senbazuru, your wish will be granted.   

We walked away from the Peace Park and headed down to the Nagasaki Hypocenter Park
A memorial stands on the centre along with a surviving pillar from the Urakami Catholic 
Cathedral which was located very near this site.  
On the monument is an ever changing number which reflects how many people in Nagasaki 
have died since the day the bomb exploded.   When it happened in 1945,  74,000 people 
immediately perished.  The number is now at 168,767 and will continue to go up as more 
survivors from that time pass away.   
While the mood is somber and reflective,  the presence of trees around the memorial somehow
revives the spirit.  Miyuki san said that hundreds of sakura or cherry blossom trees surround the 
park  and during spring, many people come to enjoy the flowers.  
Beauty can come from destruction after all.  


A short walk around and under the cherry trees led us to the steps leading up to the Nagasaki 
Atomic Bomb Museum.  I had reservations about entering.   I already had very strong emotions 
about what happened here,  I  was not sure I could handle seeing graphic and vivid images.   
But in the end, I finally decided to go inside.

The Museum has a circular design and you descend a winding ramp where the years are marked on the wall.  In this way, you are not immediately subjected to a barrage of what happened here,  but
seem to go back in time,  thus perhaps preparing yourself as you slowly walk down towards the
main exhibit.

The first thing I saw when I reached the exhibit hall was this wall clock that survived the blast.  
The hands are stopped at 11:02, the exact time when the bomb exploded over Nagasaki.  
Everyday,  at 11:02 a.m. a special song for peace is played throughout the Museum.  We were lucky 
to be there at that precise time so we heard the simple but lovely melody.  Music does soothe the 
soul,  helping dispel disturbing feelings. 

The exhibit starts off with a mural of images of Nagasaki before the war.   A collage of heartrending photos show the "ordinariness" of Nagasaki -- houses on the hillside, the Urakami Cathedral and even a photo of little children after their confirmation at the cathedral.  


The next section of the exhibit shows what happened after 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945. 
There are  distressing photos of victims and survivors and poignant examples of what "survived" 
like this rosary and cross that were found in the ruins of Urakami Cathedral.  
Aside from the atomic bomb, Nagasaki would be of special interest to Filipino Catholics as this 
was where the first Filipino saint,  San Lorenzo Ruiz was martyred.  
Nagasaki was also the centre for Catholicism and Christianity in Japan in the 16th century.  
I am sorry we were not able to visit the church and  San Lorenzo Ruiz' statue at the 26 Martyrs Memorial but we will definitely come back to Nagasaki to see that. 

I joined a group of schoolchildren standing in front of the  replica of the actual bomb.   
Painted bright yellow with a black stripe around the middle -- it looked  almost innocuous,  
like Charlie Brown's shirt.   Code named "Fat Man",  (Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima), 
this bomb was made of plutonium, an even more destructive element than the uranium used in 
"Little Boy".   

After being exposed to the horrors and yes the pointlessness and sheer stupidity of wars and the 
men that wage them -- the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum ends on a more positive note.  
The third part of the exhibit is devoted to the efforts currently being done worldwide to forever 
stop and abolish  nuclear weapons.  There is a map showing where all the "declared" nuclear 
weapons are located around the world.  
A Nobel Prize won in 1995 by the group fighting for the abolition of nuclear weapons has been donated to Nagasaki and the hibakusha and is displayed in the museum. 

While I had read books and watched movies and documentaries about the awfulness of 
what happened in Nagasaki and Hiroshima,  I was still unprepared for the haunting experience 
of actually seeing the scraps, the bits and pieces, the fragments of thousands of lives shattered 
forever on that day.  
However despite seeing the painful photos and souvenirs of the past,  at the end of my visit, 
I found myself still moved but now,  also quite uplifted. 
Before I arrived, I wondered if Nagasaki would be a place with a lingering sadness and
resentment in its heart. 
What I found instead was a city that was vibrant,  hopeful and looking forward to the future. 
I wish that these garlands of senbazuru may work their magic so that Nagasaki's and our wish 
for a nuclear weapons free world will finally be fulfilled.