Friday, September 29, 2017

A-Nara amazing day

Day 6 (Thu, 28 September 2017)

Day trip to Nara! It's a direct train from Namba station via the Kintetsu-Nara line to Kintetsu-Nara station. The trip takes about 40 mins on the express train. The express train doesn't run as frequently as the local trains, so you might want to check the timetable.

We had planned to have brunch in Nara and it was a special arrangement. Initially, we wanted to have lunch at a popular eel restaurant (Edogawa Naramachi) but Andre stumbled upon this lesser-known restaurant called Terakawa on TripAdvisor that serves soba and small plates of food, tapas style. People have said that the chef goes out of his way to please and cater to individual requests, all at very reasonable prices.

The restaurant opens only at noon and I had messaged the restaurant on Facebook last week to ask if there was a chance it opened earlier. Quite to my astonishment, the chef replied very quickly and said he would open the restaurant half an hour earlier and reserve a table for me. Talk about great service! He speaks English, since he's worked in Singapore for three years, so communication was easy.

The restaurant can be a little tricky to find since the road it's on doesn't have any signs. What you need to do is from Kintetsu-Nara station, simply locate the 7-Eleven directly across the road. Walk along Higashimuki-Kita road next to it, right to the end (about 350m), then turn left and you should see Terakawa.

Chef Fumi was there to welcome us and he's basically a one-man operation. He sets the table, waits on us and prepares the food. The settings are all colour-coordinated - so very pretty.

You can order individual small plates of food, but we opted for the Omakase, which means you leave it to the chef to decide what to serve you, based on his expertise and the daily special. Most Omakase meals cost a bomb but at Terakawa, there are three very affordable options for only Y1,000, Y1,500 or Y2,000 (the higher the price, the better quality the ingredients and number of plates).

We asked Chef Fumi how much we should order. He recommended two Omakase and two soba sets for the four of us to share. Of course we heeded his advice. He started us off with an appetiser of Edamame beans.

Then after some activity in the kitchen, he appeared with this:

It's so utterly gorgeous! Because we were sharing one set between two people, Chef Fumi repeated the plates. This arrangement is just one of the Y2,000 sets. Each set had double of these plates:

1) Japanese cucumbers with miso paste + Japanese fish cake
2) Potato salad with tiny shrimp
3) Yellow tail sushi
4) Home-made tofu

The food was downright delicious. It was a feast for the stomach as well as the eyes. All the flavours complemented each other perfectly. I usually don't like tofu but this tofu was unlike anything I'd every tasted. It was gooey and delicate, almost like Chinese carrot cake, without that beany taste I dislike.

After that, we were served the soba. When it arrived, I was taken aback by the amount. Each of us received a heaping plate of soba and a full bowl of soup. I confirmed with Chef Fumi that this was only 2 portions and he nodded, but admitted shyly, "I put a little more".

This man is generous beyond words. Just look at that soba! The soup that we were supposed to dip the soba in was incredibly rich, with tender pieces of chicken. Chef Fumi came by and scraped a little yuzu rind into the soup, which gave it a flavourful tang. Delicious.

When we had finished the noodles, Chef Fumi asked if we wanted some rice, as it can be dunked in the remaining broth for steamy Japanese-style rice porridge. Unfortunately, we were too stuffed even though the suggestion sounded wonderful.

All of us agreed that among the wonderful meals we've enjoyed in Kyoto and Osaka, this easily ranks one of the highest. And it only cost us Y5,600 (about S$70)! What a scrumptious experience. I highly recommend this to anyone who's planning on visiting Nara. Support Chef Fumi!

With Chef Fumi

After lunch, we staggered out the restaurant to burn off some of the calories. Very quickly, we encountered the famous Nara sacred deer. They're everywhere and there are deer crossing signs all along the main roads.

Deer selfie
Deer selfie 2

Andre decided to buy some deer crackers to feed the deer. Know that the minute you do that, deer will start following you like bees to honey. It's quite hilarious to see some people shrieking the minute they realise that they're surrounded by hungry deer, some more aggressive than others. Running does NOT help. The deer will chew on your plastic bag or bag straps if they think you have a tasty treat.

Guess what, the tales of bowing deer at Nara are true! (They head butt too). Just take a look.

After that en-deer-ing experience, we walked on to Todai-ji Temple. This is one of the main temples in Nara and we were blown away by the scale. This is the gate:

And this is the entrance to the Big Buddha Hall. Note its size in comparison to the people.

You enter the humungous gates and the first thing you see is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu). To give you an idea of how large the statue is, the length of its hand is 2.56 metres.

We decided not to pay to visit the Todai-ji museum and instead, walked to the Yoshiki-en Garden. This is free for foreigners.

We were expecting something similar to what we saw at Nijo-jo Castle and Osaka Castle, but this was waaaaay better. There's a pond garden, a moss garden and a flower garden. The entire grounds are absolutely stunning. Every corner looked like something out of a postcard, we had to stop just to soak in the beauty.

This was by far the most gorgeous garden we've seen on this trip, and Todai-ji Temple the most impressive temple. So Nara is definitely well worth a visit.

Then it's another 40-minute ride back to Namba station where dinner awaits us at Hanamaruken Ramen. We knew we wanted to eat ramen on this trip, and Ichiran is usually the hot favourite, but we had already eaten at Ichiran in Hong Kong, so decided to try something else. Hanamaruken came up on quite a few blogs - it's a 24-hour ramen restaurant very close to our hotel.

Their specialties are the pork rib ramen and Happiness ramen.

Happiness ramen - the seaweed comes with writing!
Pork rib ramen with a massive rib

Our verdict? The broth and egg at Ichiran are better, but the pork rib at Hanamaruken is pretty spectacular. It's fall-off-the-bone tender and very well marinated. Kenneth, who doesn't love ramen, tried a piece of the pork rib and immediately ordered it with rice (that dish doesn't exist on the menu, by the way. The chef did it just for Kenneth!)

Finally, we ended the day with dessert. We had spotted this shop a few steps away, on the same street as our hotel, which sold the ubiquitous fish waffle with red bean filling. It's a very traditional Japanese snack that you seldom see nowadays.

The guy makes it individually, expertly adding the batter and filling, and turning each waffle pan.

For a mere Y180, you get a fantastically crisp snack bursting with red bean. So addictive. So satisfying.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Kani, sushi, cheese tarts and oh yes, a castle too!

Day 5 (Wed, 27 September 2017)

Time to leave Kyoto! We travelled from Kyoto station to Osaka station via the JR Kyoto Line. Remember to take the special rapid train from platform 4 or 5, as that takes only 29 minutes. No need to buy special tickets, just use your ICOCA card. From Osaka station, we changed to the subway Midosuji Line to Namba station, which is where our hotel is.

I'd searched for a hotel near Namba station as it has direct transport to Kansai Airport and more importantly, it's near Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi, which are the main food and shopping streets in Osaka. In the end, I booked two twin rooms at Red Roof Plus Namba Hotel, which is a 4-minute walk from Dotonbori. Getting to the hotel is very easy. There is an underground walkway lined with shops and restaurants called Namba Walk, that stretches from Namba station to Nipponbashi station. There are exit points throughout Namba Walk and Red Roof Plus is just a few metres away from Exit 26.

The hotel is a no-frills one, and its entrance is small and easily missed. However, it was recently renovated and the rooms are super modern and comfortable, with all the amenities you typically find in higher class hotels. The twin room is a very reasonable size and there's a separate shower stall and toilet. We paid S$135 per room before taxes, a very good price considering the hotel's location.

I had made reservations for lunch at Dotonbori's famous crab restaurant - Kani Doraku. They have three branches along Dotonbori alone and I could only get reservations for the Higashimise (East branch), even though I tried booking more than a week before.

Kani Doraku is popular for its crab multi-course meals. They can be quite pricey but are more affordable during for lunch. We ordered two sets - the Sumire and Kikyo sets, as well as a few ala carte dishes.

What we didn't realise was that the sets were served one dish at a time, which made lunch a drawn-out two hour event. The steamed crab rice in claypots was brought to the table first with a sign that said it would take 40 minutes to cook, and we were not to open the lids. Luckily we had ordered ala carte items that were served early, otherwise we might have started eating the tablecloth in hunger, since we hadn't had breakfast. These were:

Crab croquette
Crab sushi
Crab rice bowl

These were the courses served in the crab sets:

Crab sashimi and boiled snow crab
Crab chawanmushi
Crab tempura
Crab gratin
Broiled crab

Finally, the waitress opened the claypots and tadah - the crab rice! We were supposed to scrape out all the crab meat and mix it with the rice before eating.

This meal was a real eye-opener. I'm a seafood lover in general, and the crabs done in various ways were marvelous. The crab gratin and broiled crab were huge hits. We'd also never tasted crab sashimi before and it was so unbelievably sweet, I'm salivating as I'm writing about it now.

After we polished off everything, the waitress served dessert, which was vanilla ice cream with a green tea sauce that she mixed at the table. A sweet end to a satisfying meal.

After lunch and feeling a little guilty at being such pigs, we decided to walk off some of the calories by going to Osaka Castle. It's huge compared to Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto and it's quite impressive from the outside, with huge moats and stone walls.

Photos are not allowed within the castle. Andre was a little disappointed that the authentic interior of the castle wasn't preserved. It's now a museum with exhibits of artefacts and information about the history of the castle. There's an observatory on the 8th floor of the castle tower which gives you a panoramic view of Osaka.

The garden is pretty too. Japanese gardens tend to be very picture-book charming, albeit a little manicured.

Osaka castle's grounds are sprawling and by the time we'd completed our visit and made our way out of the castle, I saw on my phone that I'd already walked about 8km that day. No wonder my back was aching.

There was only one cure for tired bodies - more food, of course 😏 Off we went to Endo Sushi! Endo Sushi is lauded as one of the very best sushi joints in Osaka, known especially for otoro (tuna belly). Endo Sushi used to be located only at Osaka Central Fish Market, and my friends would have to wake up at some ungodly hour and brave long queues to have a taste of their otoro. However, Endo Sushi has since opened up another branch at Keihan Mall. It opens from 11am-11pm, which works much better for us.

Keihan Mall is easy to locate - it's directly next to Kyobashi station. Endo Sushi is on the 5th floor. However, since there isn't an English sign, it helps to know what the shopfront looks like.

At Endo Sushi, most people order from their 5-sushi sets.

Each plate of 5 pieces of sushi is Y1,134 (about S$14). You can swap any piece of sushi for the corresponding number in another set. For example, we all decided to order set 1 but three of us swapped out the tai (sea bream) for hotate (scallop) from Set 2. Lesley-Anne swapped out tai for ika (squid) from Set 4.

Even before the sushi came, we were already impressed when we were served REAL wasabi. This is pale green with a mild, delicate flavour, unlike the overpowering bright green horseradish you get in commercial sushi restaurants in Singapore. Instead of pouring soya sauce in a condiment platter, you brush it on so it doesn't drown out your sushi.

Then the sushi arrived.

Our expectations were already sky high since our friends have raved about Endo Sushi, and still, we were blown away. Forgive the clickbait expression, there is no other way to describe the taste. We've eaten a lot of sushi over the years and have never tasted anything like this. It boggles my mind how something that doesn't require any cooking can taste so dramatically different. Fresh doesn't begin to describe it - every piece was sublime. The uni, the otoro, the sweet scallop...sigh. It made me want to live in Osaka just so I could eat there any time I wanted.

We had initially said we would just eat one plate each since we had a big lunch, and would probably snack at Dotonbori later, but each time Andre ate a piece of sushi, his eyes widened further. When Kenneth asked him if he wanted another round, he replied, "I think another 6 platters would make me very happy." 😆 No, he didn't get 6 but we did order another round.

After that, it was back to Dotonbori to catch the night scene. Since this post is already very picture-heavy, I will blog about that experience in a later post. Meanwhile, I'll just share one thing - our dessert at Pablo Cheese Tart. Pablo Cheese Tart has made a name for itself with its oozy cheese tarts. The main branch in Dotonbori is the first with an eat-in cafe.

This is what we ordered:

Original cheese tart with vanilla ice cream
Matcha cheese tart with azuki beans
Cheese soft serve ice cream

We thought the original cheese tart was ok but the green tea one was brilliant. Its slightly savoury custardy centre complements the sweet azuki beans perfectly. Pablo Cheese Tart has since opened a branch in Singapore, but it doesn't have the green tea version, which is a shame because that's the winner for us. As for the ice cream, I thought the cheese flavour was a little odd but my kids loved it.

And that marked the end of another day of culinary adventures. We're so returning to Singapore with excess baggage.