Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Fried chicken and polar bears at Osu

Day 5 (Sat, 22 December 2018)

After last night's adventure, we planned to have a leisurely day by going to the Osu area. This is a market area of sorts, similar to Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Various vendors sell food, clothes and other knick knacks in little shops that line the alleys.

The first thing we did was zoom in on Gaburichicken. Why is this shop so special? It sells karaage or Japanese fried chicken, and has won the Best Fried Chicken gold medal six years in a row. Who organises this competition and how do they decide on the winning entry? We have absolutely no idea. It's just the kitschy kind of trivia that appeals to us.

In case you want to know how to find it, it's right next to the giant waving cat. 

You can eat at the restaurant but if you take the fried chicken to go, it comes in a cup. There are six varieties - one plain and the others with different sauces. We ordered one plain and one with tartar sauce. 

It was very good. I mean, it's hard to go wrong with fried chicken, but we find Japanese karaage especially delicious, with its crispy skin and juicy thigh chunks. Andre loves Japanese tartar sauce - it's made with egg pieces and goes with everything, not just fish.

Next item on our food scavenger hunt was tenmusu. This is a speciality of Nagoya and is a piece of prawn tempura wrapped in a rice ball. Tenmusu is a snack food and can be found in many takeaway stalls at train stations, but the best one is supposedly at a shop called Senju, found in the Osu area. Andre did most of the food research for this trip, and he led us to the restaurant. Which turned out to be great because there's no way we would have found it if he didn't know what the front of the restaurant looked like.

It's tucked away in a nondescript row of buildings, and there are not English signs or pictures outside. Inside, a little old lady handles the orders while three others prepare the tenmusu in the kitchen. That's all they sell. As we sat and waited for our order to be served, locals popped in to take away boxes of tenmusu. We're obviously the oddities here.

A perfectly fried piece of prawn tempura, wrapped in rice and seaweed, served with hot green tea.

Next snack: one of our favourite Japanese desserts - red bean fish! We had some a couple of days ago at the Toyota Museum train station, but it wasn't very good. So we were delighted when we spotted this shop, which is the same one that we enjoyed tremendously in Osaka.

The batter is light and the red bean filling has a perfect consistency. Yumz.

More Nagoya food - some form of mochi with soya sauce brushed over it. The seller perked up when he heard we were Singaporeans, as he had visited Singapore on his honeymoon.

A little Osu church in the midst of the shops.

And one of the main attractions at Osu - Osu temple.

Where we spotted an unlikely character. That's right, your eyes deceive you not - it's a polar bear, looking at his phone, no less.

Andre couldn't resist and approached it for a selfie.

It even tipped its hat to Andre after.

A beary polite fellow indeed.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Winter Wonderland - Nabana no Sato

Day 4 (Fri, 21 December 2018)

On the cards today was Nabana no Sato, a flower garden, to see the winter illumination. From my research, it sounded something like Gardens by the Bay, but specially lit up for winter. Nabana no Sato is part of Nagashima Resort, a long strip of land surrounded by rivers and the sea, and which also includes a theme park, onsen and Mitsui Outlet Park.

But first, lunch! We went to Tetsuemon at Nagoya station to try yet another Nagoya speciality - Cochin chicken. Most people would be familiar with oyakudon, which is a rice bowl with chicken pieces, topped with egg. Interestingly, "oyakudon" means parent and child rice bowl, giving new meaning to the puzzle: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Tetsuemon serves all types of chicken dishes. We ordered two oyakudon with the Cochin chicken which also came with fried chicken wings, one regular oyakudon (just to see what the difference was) and one karaage (fried chicken). All the sets came with a chicken meatball soup.

This was the oyakudon.

Our verdict? Honestly, our Philistine palates couldn't make out the difference between the Cochin and regular chicken. What wowed me was not the chicken but the egg. It's not overly runny but still slightly wobbly. A layer of sunny, creamy goodness. Andre loved the karaage, especially the tartar sauce that accompanied it.

To get to Nabana no Sato, you need to first get to Nagashima onsen. Directions online were quite elusive and the official sites contained mostly Japanese instructions. As far as we know, there are two ways to get to Nagashima onsen - either via a straight bus from Meitetsu Bus Station or via train to Kuwana station, and then a bus ride to the onsen. We chose the latter because Kenneth and Lesley-Anne are not keen on long bus rides.

JR line from Nagoya station to Kuwana station

The Kuwana bus station is small and local, and it wasn't very clear where we were supposed to go, until we asked the station master. We finally sorted it out and got on the right bus to Nagashima Onsen. Given the complexity of the train-bus journey, I highly recommend you take the straight bus route instead. We opted to take the bus back (there's a direct one from Nabana no Sato all the way to Nagoya station) and it's much easier.

Nabana no Sato is known for their winter night illumination. I'd seen pictures online and it has great reviews. When we entered the garden, it was still daylight and one of the first scenes that greeted us was this gorgeous autumn foliage.

There's also a mirror lake which doubled the magic of the scene.

There's a revolving platform which you can ride to have a bird's eye view of the entire gardens. It looked a little like an odd spaceship. You can't see it in the pic but there's a Mount Fuji structure on top of it!

The light up was at 5pm, since sunset in winter is 4.45pm. We followed a route which led us to one of the main attractions - a fully lit 100-metre long tunnel, literally called "Brilliant Walk". It's hard to describe and photographs don't do it justice. Imagine being surrounded by twinkling fairy lights all about you, with gentle Christmas music serenading you as you stroll along in fresh, brisk air.

Greeting us at the end of the walk was an open field and a large screen where a light shown was being screened.

Then came another lit tunnel, this one in lavender. It was simply surreal.

Entry to Nabana no Sato is Y2,300 each, which includes a Y1,000 coupon that can be used for souvenirs or meals. We thought we would have to settle for an overpriced and tasteless dinner, typical of theme parks, until we came across a Japanese restaurant partially hidden within the gardens. Despite its posh exterior, its meals were reasonably priced - about Y2,000 for each set. We had sashimi, clams, eel...and they were all fantastic. We were four very happy campers.

When we had finished dinner, it was completely dark outside. Then the real magic happened. Entire rows of trees along the bank were illuminated so their fiery shades blazed against the backdrop of a black night, with perfect reflections in the still waters. It was an ethereal sight. I could have sat and stared at it all night. Again, photos don't do it justice.

The entire park was lit up, with changing colours dancing to music.

I've seen quite a few Christmas light-ups in my time, but this one beats them all. I wasn't sure what I was expecting to see in Nagoya, but this plus the visit to Shirakawa-go alone made the trip worthwhile.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Once upon a fairy tale village - Shirakawa-Go

Day 3 (Thu, 20 December 2018)

This was one of the highlights of our trip - to visit Takayama and Shirakawa-Go village - a UNESCO world heritage site. Since the latter is quite remote and not easy to get to, we decided it would be less hassle to book a day tour instead of trying to make it there on our own. We chose the one by Klook.

The departure point was Meitetsu bus station, which is on the 4th floor of Meitetsu Shopping Centre at Nagoya station.

The first stop was Takayama, and the route was took us through the highlands. Due to an accident on the expressway which caused a jam, the driver had to take the local roads, which turned out to be a blessing, as it set us back only by 15 mins but led us through a very picturesque snowscape. Breath-taking.

Takayama is an old town in the mountainous Hida region. Land wise, it's larger than Tokyo, but 90% of it consists of mountains and forests. It's very pretty and quaint, reminiscent of Kyoto but less touristy.

Takayama has a few specialities, such as sake. This is one of the few sake shops and breweries.

Yes, he's now old enough to drink.

Honestly, we were not prepared for the cold. We stupidly didn't realise our day trip would take us to where there was SNOW and 2-degree weather, and were dressed for 12-degree Nagoya. This aptly describes us in winter:

So every chance we got, we ducked into a shop to warm our hands.

This was a miso shop, with free miso soup.

This shop sells daifuku - chilled confectionery with whole fruit in it. There were all kinds of flavours on display, from strawberry to kiwi and orange.

Another speciality - Hida beef sushi. This one attracts long queues...and after tasting it, we knew why. It's pretty darn delicious.

Served on a cracker

We didn't eat too much at Takayama as a buffet lunch at Green Hotel was provided as part of the package. It's a surprisingly generous spread from Japanese to Western and Chinese. Of course we zoomed in on the Japanese selection. There's even a chocolate fountain.

Finally, we arrived at the main attraction - Shirakawa Village. You have a cross a long suspension bridge to get to the village.

Because we came in winter, we were treated to snow-capped houses and a frosty scene - the things fairy tales are made of. For people who live in the tropics, this is simply mesmorising.

The traditional houses are called gassho and are made with thatched roofs. Not a single nail is used. We were given entry to one of the houses. It's dark and cold inside, with lots of beams and steeps stairs.

My goofy kids
Swinging from a rafter

Views from the gassho.

It was bitingly cold. Andre kept singing to himself, "I can't feel my face when I'm with you." Lesley-Anne, who's cold even in Singapore's 30-degree weather, sat herself in front of fires and drank hot green tea wherever it was available.

It was a long day, but Shirakawa-go is one of most picture perfect destinations I've ever visited. The landscape is enchanting, like something out of a movie set. If you have the chance, go see it in winter. I hear that it's even more beautiful in the evenings. But don't be silly like us, and wrap up!

It was a 3-hour bus ride back to Nagoya after that. We agreed that after a chilly day, a steaming bowl of ramen sounded wonderful, so we walked to this 24-hour Ichiran. We had Ichiran in Hong Kong and our unanimous verdict was that it had the best ramen anywhere. We'd tried others in Osaka, but none of them came close to Ichiran.

In case you're not familiar, at Ichiran, you place and pay for your order at a vending machine first. (Note: their "salted egg" is the ramen egg, not the salted egg we have at home. This is a must-try).

Then you wait in a room for a booth to be free, and fill out a form stating your preference for richness of broth, condiments, etc. When booths free up, you're shown to yours. The bamboo curtain is up until you hand your waiter your order.

When the order is served, the waiter discretely lowers the curtain so you can enjoy your ramen in peace, alone in your booth. This is an introvert's dream.

Kenneth is not a big fan of ramen so he ordered the rice and stewed pork.

But the rest of us were in ramen heaven.

Good to the last drop.