Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 11 - In the black at Go Kitchen

When on vacations of a week or more,  I prefer to stay in apartments rather than hotels.
It somehow gives me the feeling that I "belong", at least for the time that I am there.
I like exploring the neighbourhood -- buying bread from nearby bakeries,  shopping in the small markets and enjoying meals in restaurants that have not been discovered by tourists.

On this trip to Fukuoka, we were lucky to stay in a quiet neighbourhood.  On walks to and from the apartment, we would often pass by this cozy little cafe called Go Kitchen.
It was full of regulars during mealtimes -- office workers from the nearby buildings and residents.  
The blue door looked quite inviting.  Green plants and wooden penguins  on the window sill added to the eclectic, homey appeal. Rough hewn wooden benches  hopefully meant that smokers were not allowed inside the restaurant. 

One afternoon we finally decided to drop in for a late lunch.  At 3 p.m. the place was nearly empty.  I immediately like the unpretentious, comfortable vibe.  Menus on the table were in Japanese and our waitress could hardly speak or understand english.   
She beckoned us outside ... were we being thrown out of the place?

It turned out she wanted to show us the signboard which had photos of their 
(I'm guessing) specialties -- hamburg steak, a tomato based pasta dish and something 
I could not quite identify, so I had to point and ask ... "kore wa ... omurice desu ka?"  
She smiled enthusiastically -- "Hai! So desu."
Food once again had broken the language barrier!

After we all trooped back inside, I settled down in our booth which had a good view of  the
chef probably making our meal .  A counter for diners wraps around the entire kitchen. I loved the simple overhead shelves for  cups and bowls,  sake and shochu bottles --  a tasteful and efficient way to maximise the limited space. 

 Although we did see the photo on the menu outside, Jay and I were both taken aback when his order of hamburg steak arrived at the table. 
It looked like it had been rolled in tar!  Had the kitchen burnt it?  Why was it so black?
It turned out that a black sauce had been poured all over it.  The hamburg steak itself was perfectly cooked.  Broiled not fried, the hefty patty was succulent, juicy and beefy.  
The hamburg set at Go Kitchen  came with buttered vegetables plus a bowl of hot rice 
and miso soup.  
It's your typical yoshoku dish where western influences are blended with Japanese tastes and preferences.

My omurice did not look like the normal omurice at all.  It came in a gigantic pasta plate that almost covered the entire tray.   The same black sauce that blanketed Jay's hamburg steak was slathered all over the egg and rice. 
This black sauce must be Go Kitchen's very own special concoction.  Jet black with a satiny sheen, 
it did not taste like any sauce I had tried before.  I could not pinpoint it specifically as salty-sweet 
or sweetish-spicy.    The consistency was not quite thick but it wasn't soupy either.
It was certainly savoury and full of umami goodness.
 It completely confounded us and we just had to keep tasting it until we finished everything on our plates.

 Omurice is customarily served with tomato ketchup -- whether on the side or squeezed on top.
Since this obviously had been removed,  the chef had incorporated ketchup with the chicken broth fried rice so each spoonful reminded you that this strange looking dish was an omurice indeed. 
Go Kitchen's version fused tradition with the chef's innovation -- and it worked, deliciously.      

We lingered long after our late lunch -- still trying to decipher the inexplicable puzzle of 
Go Kitchen's uniquely flavourful  black sauce.  Perhaps another visit is needed before we can crack 
this  riddle.  In the meantime,  I'll have another glass of beer!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 10 - Foraging (and feeding!) at the Hakozaki Nomi-no-Ichi

One of the few places where you can find something irresistible, quirky, unique, priceless and yet affordable is a local flea market.
In France, these are called marche aux puces (literally, market of fleas), in Madrid, the biggest is called el rastro  and in Japan, the old-timers fondly call them nomi-no-ichi.
By whatever name they are called, flea markets sing out their siren call to me and I can never resist.
I did my research before our trip to Fukuoka and found out one would be held on December 23 -- just in time for our visit. 

Flea markets open and close early so the early birds get the proverbial "worms".  
The Hakozaki -gu Flea Market opens at 7:00 so we set off right after breakfast. 

The bus ride to  Hakozaki-gu took a little over 30 minutes.  I had been here last June but Jay and Gani had not,  so a visit to this third most important Hachiman shrine in Japan was the first priority.   There were more pigeons than shrine goers this early in the morning.

Hakozaki-gu's entrance is guarded by a huge stone torii.  Beyond it is the Hakozaki  Nomi-no-Ichi.  
Some major temples and shrines in Japan hold regular flea markets as the grounds are usually extensive and can accommodate many stalls and shoppers.  
In Kyoto, there are monthly flea markets at To-ji and Kitano Tenman-gu that are extremely popular with both locals and visitors alike.

There are over 200 stalls at the market -- it is probably Kyushu's largest and certainly one of the biggest in Japan.

This shopper has already snagged a prize -- a fabric covered footstool plus some more items in her shopping bag.  Perhaps she's on her way home. 

Like any flea market,  there are all sorts of items for sale, some of it new but most are "pre-owned"
or "pre-loved".
Vendors have set up their stalls from behind their parked vehicles with merchandise carefully arrayed on folding tables.  
This reminds me of Paris week-ends spent at my favourite Marche aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves where cars and even light trucks are squeezed side by side with items for sale spilling out onto the sidewalk.
Of course this being Japan -- things are a lot more neat and orderly.

Jay and I had been looking for a cast iron tea pot and we saw several "good as new" examples at the market.  They were well below department store prices so we were happy to have finally bought

The comical slightly ribald tanuki (a fairytale racoon like creature) is a common sight outside izakayas. Carrying its little sake flask,  it invites you to drop by and have a drink.  We bought a
small tanuki statue from this friendly vendor who gave us a discount -- even before we had asked
for one.
By the way,  as in all flea markets,  good natured and fair haggling is allowed! And in Japan, a
polite  greeting and smile will certainly go a long way.

At every flea market I go to, there is always a stand-out item that I really want but know that I
cannot bring home.  I recall, with some regret --  antique light sconces, ceramic topped apothecary jars, vintage steamer trunks (!),  a large beautiful green leather suitcase ---  and other one-of-a-kind finds that were too fragile or too heavy to lug back home.
Today's most wanted item was this vintage bamboo and rattan rocking chair that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was definitely a find but would never have fit in my luggage.

Antiques were out in full force.  I wonder how old this child's pedal car is?  Made of tin and wood,
it may not have been in  mint condition but it is still something that a collector would definitely snap up!

I am not sure if this vintage metal wash basin set is actually functional or merely a decorative piece.

Some vendors have added home grown produce to their usual merchandise. 

One of the items I look for in Japanese flea markets are old obis -- those broad sashes that are tied around kimonos.  They are usually made of gorgeous, rich silk brocade.   I have quite a few stashed away so for today,  I was just "looking".

A small scoop of these wooden beads costs 500 yen each.  I have no idea what I will use them for ... 
a Buddha bracelet maybe?  I buy two scoops. They hardly weigh anything and are so pretty that I could not resist. 

Poor, forlorn Teddy -- looking spiffy and clean as he sits with his valise, waiting for some child
to take him home.

These tote bags were re-purposed from old obis and kimonos.  The designs are traditionally Japanese and would make unusual omiyage or pasalubong.  The lady that you see in the photo told me that she makes them herself.  They were a steal at just 500 yen each.  

I am always attracted to traditional Japanese clothing --  at the market, there are haori coats
(loose, worn over a kimono) and happi coats (for informal wear) in different colours and designs
for the different seasons.  
Over the many years of combing through various nomi-no-ichi, I have bought quite a few of these 
coats at unbelievable prices... would you believe 500 yen for a lovely embroidered purple coat?! 
I have recycled and worn them on formal occasions  -- giving a new and fresh look to standard evening dress. 

There are plenty of lacquer ware and beautiful stone and ceramic plates, bowls and cups but these 
are now also available in local Japanese surplus shops.  

Audiophiles and bibliophiles would be happy rooting through boxes and crates of books and vinyl LPs  at the market.

Fancy some vintage toys -- monsters, robots, action figures even some Buddhas or Gods of Fortune?
E.T and Harry Potter are also in attendance.

While flea markets do have food stalls,  I was a bit surprised to see this yakitori stall.   I associate yakitori with boozy evenings in smoky izakayas.  To see one in the middle of a bright morning
was a bit disconcerting.  But there it (happily) was.
The smells of grilled meat over a charcoal fire wafted through the cold air -- reeling us right in.  

No english signs available -- just point to each skewer and ask if it is tori (chicken),  buta (pork) or gyu (beef). 

On the rightmost are tsukune or chicken meatballs.  These are dipped in tare,  a sweetish spicy sauce.   Beside it are skewers of kawa -- the deadly but delicious chicken skin. On the leftmost plate are skewers of horumon or beef and pork offal.

As you order, the grill master finishes cooking up a half-cooked skewer, brushing it several times with his special tare or  sauce. The yakitori in this stall are all tare,  there is no yakitori shio (salt)  which is what I normally order. 

There are tables and plastic chairs so we can enjoy our barbecue at leisure.
While there are no plates we are given paper cups to hold our yakitori sticks. 
Water and other drinks are available from the vending machines nearby.  I would have gotten
a cold beer but it seemed much too early in the day for that.

The yakitori was hot and delicious.  Aside from the tsukune, we also had pork skewers, momo or chicken thigh and mune or lean (and healthier)  chicken breast. I wish I had bought that beer after all.

Despite our limited language skills, we were able to chat with the friendly chef, who was kind enough to allow us to take photos.  
This unplanned and tasty stop was  the perfect way to end a most productive morning foraging through the finds at the Hakozaki-gu Nomi-no-Ichi

NB Thanks to Jay and Gani for some of the photos used in this post!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 9 - Sakura Niku noodles at Higo Moshiya Yumeakari in Kumamoto

When I travel, specially when I visit a new place, I always want to try the local specialty.   On this visit to Kumamoto, the helpful lady at the Tourist Information desk at the station suggested that we would find local food at the restaurants around Kumamoto-jo

At the foot of the castle grounds is the tourist facility called Sakura-no-baba Josaien also known as "Castle Town".  There are shops selling Kumamoto's specialties, a pavilion for Edo-themed performances starring "samurai" and even  a "mini museum" dedicated to the life of Kato Kiyomasa
and the Hosokawa family, feudal lords of Kumamoto
More importantly, for hungry tourists like us there are a number of cafes and restaurants.   
We peered into several before deciding on Moshiya Yumeakari because the menu posted outside offered the specialty of Kumamoto -- sakura niku or horse meat.

Inside, the restaurant was surprisingly spacious.  The maitre d (yes, they have one) led us to a comfortable booth located in the back.

The english menu features just  a select number of dishes -- ramen and donburi or rice bowls
but it is the noodle soup with horse meat that I had made up my mind to order. 
I had tried horse meat before in Tokyo, as both basashi (sashimi) and as the prettily named 
"sakura nabe" and was looking forward to enjoying it again.  
Why is horse meat called sakura niku or cherry blossom meat  -- this is because of the raw meat's bright, pinkish-red colour. 

I'm glad that my son Gani is with me so I don't have to drink beer by myself!

Jay decides to order the donburi made from the special Higo Asobibuta pork, egg and garnished with pickled ginger strips.  The pork most probably came from pigs raised in Aso, a city in Kumamoto prefecture. 

This is my bowl of horse meat noodles.  The soy sauce based soup is thick and a bit gelatinous, reminding me of maki, the chinese noodle dish.  It's rich and tasty.  The noodles are round and of medium thickness, perhaps to better soak up the hearty soup base.

My bowl is generously filled with chunks of sakura niku.  It must have been boiled for hours because it's tender and dissolves deliciously in my  mouth.  For those of you wondering what horse meat tastes like, it has a surprisingly fine texture, more so than beef.  There are undertones of a mild sweetness.   It is also less fatty and probably better for your health.  

In addition to the sakura niku, my bowl is dotted with my favourite gingko nuts which add a bit of chewy texture to the dish.  It is said that when he built Kumamoto-jo, Lord Kiyomasa planted
many gingko trees in the castle grounds so that in case of a prolonged siege,  there would always be gingko nuts to feed everyone.  It's nice to have that bit of history in this delectable noodle bowl. 

We definitely enjoyed our hearty lunch at Yumeakari.  There was just enough time to pick up a few 
souvenirs before we headed back to the station to catch the shinkansen back to Fukuoka.

One last photo with my favourite bear, Kumamon.  Apparently aside from being the prefecture's mascot, he also moonlights as the Station Master of Kumamoto Station.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 8 - The Remarkable Kumamoto-jo ... a must-go-to in Kyushu

When Jay and I first visited  Fukuoka on June 2016, it had just been two months since a powerful earthquake hit Kumamoto, which is about a hundred miles away.  The city suffered damage as well as its most significant monument, Kumamoto-jo or Kumamoto Castle.  I wanted to visit then but was told that they were in the middle of recovery and might not be ready for tourists. 

On this December trip to Fukuoka,  Kumamoto was number one on my "bakit (why) list". 
As in "bakit hindi ko puntahan ito ngayon?" ("why should I not go now?").  We had the 
3-day JR Northern Kyushu pass which allowed us unlimited travel on JR trains, including 
the Kyushu shinkansen which would take us from Hakata Station to Kumamoto in just 35 minutes.

(NB The Northern Kyushu Pass costs 8,500 yen per person. We used it for Nagasaki and  Kumamoto where round trip tickets would have amounted to 19,040 yen per person.   The pass was truly a terrific buy!) 

The shinkansen ride to Kumamoto went by so quickly -- we hardly had time to relax and enjoy 
our comfortable reserved seats.  

The  two most famous "brands" in Kumamoto are the splendid castle and the friendly
black bear known as "Kumamon",  the prefecture's mascot.  As a big fan, I was happily
surprised by his giant grinning face in the train station.

Like Nagasaki, Kumamoto has a tram system -- the best and easiest way to get around the city.
There are just two lines -- A and B and at some point they meet up in one station so you can transfer and get to another part of the city.  Line A stops right in front of the train station and takes passengers to the stop nearest Kumamoto-jo.

The tram is standing room only for most of the 15 minute ride to Kumamoto Shiyakusho-mae, the stop closest to the castle.  From this point on -- let me trace our steps to Kumamoto-jo so if you're
going on your own, you'll know just how to get there.

Across the road from the tram stop,  this directional poster helped us get our bearings. 

Our approach started by the Nagabei Wall that runs along the Tsuboi River.
The wall at more than 230 meters long, is the longest of all the castle walls and is a designated Important Cultural Property.  It is made of contrasting black and white stones which sadly  have crumbled in certain sections.   This was my very first view of the damage caused by the earthquake and it was disheartening to see.
Do you see those bare branches?  Those are cherry blossom trees and during sakura season, the Nagabei is framed by masses of pink and white blooms, making it a very popular spot for both
locals and tourists alike.

We saw more extensive damage as we walked down the path.  This portion of the Nagabei has collapsed completely with crumbled stones spilling out from a gaping hole.  It is as if its guts had  poured out and I for one, felt a visceral punch to see this destruction.   

Before entering the castle walls, you will see this statue of Kato Kiyomasa, the local daimyo or 
feudal lord who in 1600 started building this castle complex, expanding it from the fortress that 
it was originally constructed as, in the late 1400s.  
Lord Kiyomasa finished the castle in 1607 --  a relatively short time for such a massive undertaking.
 It is sad to note that he passed away in 1611, just a few years after his castle was built.  He enjoyed 
it for just a short time.

Before the earthquake, one of the access points to the castle was via the Hazekata Gate.  As you can see from this photo,  this entrance is now barricaded and closed to the public.  Instead,  visitors are directed to go through the Johsaien, a tourist information facility that also houses souvenir shops, restaurants and rest areas.

Right outside, someone has cleverly put together PET bottles in the shape of the main castle keep.  
I wish the earthquake had toppled this "castle"  instead. 

This is the entrance to Johsaien -- it hews quite closely to the look of the period.

We walked inside and exited via a side gate which led to the castle's perimeter areas that have been deemed secure and thus, are open to the public.

Behind the Johsaien is a steep stone staircase that takes visitors to the areas that will give everyone vantage though long-distance views of the castle.

One of the first structures that you will see is the Hitsujisaru Yagura  (yagura means turret) that guards the southwest flank of Kumamoto-jo

Here is another view of the turret, now seen with the collapsed portions of the walls.   Across it is the empty moat.  Can you see the stones carefully laid out on the grass?  Restoration of the castle consists of trying to put the broken stones back in the same place -- much like a giant puzzle.  Local artisans and craftsmen are working on the restoration and are committed to seeing the castle brought back to its original glory.

We walked up a short but steep incline to reach this wide open space where we could see the main castle buildings from across the moat.  You can see that the enormous stone walls that have sustained much damage. 

This is the Inui Yagura  that guards the northwest part of the castle .  Can you see that it is precariously balanced on one part of the stone wall that has almost completely crumbled. 
Directly behind it is the Uto-Yagura.  Five stories tall and one of the original buildings in the castle compound, it is a designated Important Cultural Property.  Thankfully, it was not fully destroyed by the earthquake.
You can catch a glimpse of the main castle buildings partially obscured in the far background.

Around the bend from the moat we saw these large plastic bags placed firmly against the stone walls to prevent any further damage. 

This is the Kumamoto-jo Inari Shrine also known as the Kato Shrine. It was built in the 1600s to protect the castle and Lord Kiyomasa.  The shrine is neither big nor is it flashy -- it looks very much like a neighbourhood shrine --  which is what it exactly was, during Lord Kiyomasa's time.    
This is also the end of the road for visitors as the castle grounds beyond this area are closed off to the public. 

At  Kato-jinja, I saw this miniature shrine perched on a tree branch.  Small shide or lightning bolt shaped paper streamers are hung from a hemp rope.  The shide are Shinto symbols used to designate sacred or holy areas. There must be a kami or spirit that resides in this tree. 

From the shrine, you will get a very good look of the Honmaru.  This is where Lord Kiyomasa lived and where he conducted government business. 
You can see that the roof tiles have been badly damaged.   Despite that, it continues to stand tall and majestic against the darkening winter sky.  I can understand why Kumamoto-jo is one of the top 3 castles in Japan.
Even a powerful earthquake cannot diminish its breath taking presence. 

While I would have wanted to visit a few more places in Kumamoto,  the main purpose of this short trip was to see the castle.  After spending a little over three hours in Kumamoto-jo, we headed back to the station for the train ride back to Fukuoka.

The Kyushu Shinkansen makes two trips every hour to and from Fukuoka.   It's less than 100 kilometres from Kumamoto and takes only 30 to 40 minutes on the the shinkansen.  If you are in Fukuoka, it would be a shame to miss this quick trip to Kumamoto to see the castle.  
Please visit ... your tourist dollars will certainly help towards the castle's repair and reconstruction! 


I took this photo somewhere along the Nagabei Path.  Seeing this yellow bud push its way up, beyond wood and concrete, gave me a feeling of hope. I feel it is a symbol of the recovery that is happening now in Kumamoto.   
Because of the strong spirit of the citizens of Kumamoto,  I know that one day the castle will be restored to its full grandeur and greatness. 

NB Many thanks to my son Gani and husband Jay for some of the photos used in this post.  And thank you to google photos for the enhancement of my photo of the Inui Yagura Turret.

We wandered around  Kumamoto-jo on our own, without the invaluable services of a local guide. In an attempt to 
identify the various structures in my photos,  I relied mainly on the tourist map and a magazine specially published detailing the progress of the restoration.  If there are any mistakes as to the proper identification of the turrets and buildings, the mistakes are all mine. Gomen nasai!