Friday, 18 November 2016

Memories of Japan and South Korea

I'm back from over 3 weeks in Japan and South Korea and oh my was it an incredible holiday. Japan is like no other country I've ever visited. It's full of tradition, beauty, cutting edge technology, incredible food, the friendliest people on the planet and so much more. It's going to take me a while to sort through my photos and blog about it properly but for now I thought I'd write a little post about my top 10 memories from the trip. The entire holiday was an unforgettable experience but there are definitely a few things that stick out in my head more than anything else.

1. Celebrating my 30th birthday with sushi breakfast, DisneySea and 3 hours of karaoke

The weather was terrible for most of the day, the worse rain we experienced during our entire holiday, but that didn't dampen our spirits. My 30th began with a 6am wake up call, we headed to the famous Tsukiji fish market for breakfast, in search for Tokyo's finest sushi. The rain meant the experience felt like more of a trudge than a treasure and we eventually ran into the first sushi restaurant we found. The sushi was lovely, a little over priced, but it did the job. We headed over to DisneySea, arriving shortly after the gates opened at 9am. Even with the rain it was busy and we queued for nearly 2 hours before getting on Toy Story Mania. It was worth it, the ride is amazing. During the queue we were all pretty depressed thanks to the rain but our spirits soon lifted, as did the weather, and we ended up having a great day at the park, getting on loads of rides without having to queue for long. I didn't take many pictures which I now regret but it was so wet I couldn't be bothered. We headed back to Shibuya in the evening for three hours of all you can drink karaoke, it was epic. We finished the night in a cute noodle shop and that my friends is how I spent my 30th. The day started with a bit wet but by the end all of us had the funnest time. The karaoke room was one of the funnest moments of the holiday and I will always look back on this special birthday with a huge grin.

2. Reliving one of my favourite films and enjoying cocktails at the Park Hyatt New York Bar in Tokyo

For the most part our holiday was a casual affair, by this I mean we weren't hitting up that many high cost establishments. However, there was one high end place I wanted to visit in Tokyo. One of my favourite films is Lost in Translation. If you've seen it you will know that the majority of the film takes place in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku, more specifically it's New York Bar. I made it our mission to visit for a drink one evening and relieve some of my favourite Scarlet and Bill moments. The combination of sweet jazz, incredible views over Tokyo, and an excellent cocktail menu made this an unforgettable evening. Let's no talk about the bill because the cover change and several rounds of cocktails made this an unforgettable evening for several reasons.

3. Visiting the Studio Ghibli museum, the entire place took my breath away

Stepping into the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo quite literally took my breath away. I was speechless, I nearly cried, and I would visit again without the slightest moment of hesitation. I wouldn't call myself a Ghibli super fan, I haven't seen everything produced by the studio but what I have seen I love. Not only do Ghibli films look enchanting but they tell a story in the most delicate yet haunting of ways. Quite brutal at time, many of the films finish far from a happy place but this adds to the magic and storytelling. They tell life lessons. They are honest. They are beautiful. The museum captures this essence and transports you into your own Ghibli fairy tale. I loved every single second of the 2 hours we spent here, the museum is perfection.

4. Spending the night in a traditional ryokan and experiencing the most incredible dinner and soaking in an onsen afterwards

After 5 hectic days in Tokyo we headed into the Japanese countryside for a little r and r. Hakone is home to traditional guesthouses, called ryokans, and hot springs, called onsens. We spent a glorious evening at Fukuzumiro, a 125 year old ryokan with it's own private onsen. Our room was beautiful, it had traditional sliding doors, oak furniture and tatami mats. We were even given robes and slippers to wear. We had the most incredible dinner (and breakfast the following day), which was presented in our room. Japanese haute cuisine is called kaiseki and is a multi course meal made up of tiny plates of vegetables and fish. Our dinner was spectacular, food kept arriving and whilst we didn't know what a lot of it was, it was all incredibly delicious. The sashimi really stuck out, it was probably the best raw fish I have ever eaten. I also loved making our own soup using various vegetables and fish. The entire dinner was like nothing I have ever experienced and afterwards we enjoyed a long soak in the private onsen, rounding off an incredibly luxurious evening.

5. The temples of Kyoto

I knew I would love Kyoto because when it comes to temples I go into full on sightseeing mode. When I was in Cambodia and Myanmar at Christmas I spent a few days on my own visiting countless numbers of temples because my family weren't that bothered. Their loss I say. I don't get the whole 'they all look the same' vibe because they don't. Each temple in Kyoto has it's own beautiful design with an enchanting garden. Listening to monks chant was magical and walking around the ancient buildings in borrowed slippers really does give you an overwhelming sense of zen. The Golden Pavilion is the most impressive in the area but that's not to say the smaller temples don't exude their own charm. We spent 3 full on days visiting temples in Kyoto and in all honesty, it wasn't enough for me. There are so many more I want to see that I cannot wait to return.

6. Spending a day exploring the many art galleries on Naoshima island and paddling in the sea

I adored Naoshima! We only spent 24 hours here but my goodness was it a highlight of our holiday. Naoshima is a small island situated halfway between Kyoto and Hiroshima and is world famous for it's impressive selection of art galleries. I had high hopes of visiting some world class galleries in Tokyo but alas we ran out of time, so I made sure to make up for this here. Dotted around the island, which is incredibly cute and worth visiting even if you're not into art, are three main areas; Honmura (where we stayed) which has been taken over by the Art House Project, an installation incorporating various buildings around town; Bennesse Art Site which is home to the impressive Bennesse House Museum, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum as well as Yayoi Kusama's famous yellow pumpkin; and Miyanoura, the largest town on the island, where you'll find Kusama's red pumpkin and a handful of smaller museums. We happened to be visit during the 2016 Setouchi Triennale which meant there was a lot more buzz than normal. We spent a full day visiting the various museums and enjoying a bit of beach time. Whilst 1 full day was enough to see all the sights I definitely could have stayed here for longer.

7. Finally making it to Harry Potter world at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka

As a huge Harry Potter fan I knew we had to pay a visit to Universal Studios in Osaka for the Harry Potter world. I wasn't let down! As soon as we arrived in the park we made our way over to the Harry Potter area. As we walked through the forbidden forest I was taken aback by just how large and detailed the area was. After a couple minutes walking we emerged into Hogsmead and in the distance could see the life size Hogwarts replica. My jaw dropped, I knew this place would be impressive but I couldn't quite comprehend just how incredible it actually was. We headed over to Hogwarts for the Harry Potter ride and as I was talking to Steve about joining the single rider queue (he doesn't like rides) a random stranger offered me his fast past ticket which meant I could walk straight on and save myself a couple hours of queuing. We were on to a good start. The ride made me feel sick but it was worth it for the journey through the castle (later Steve and I walked through the castle which is a great idea if you don't want to do the ride but still want to experience Hogwarts). The queue wasn't too long for Flight of the Hippogriff, a family friendly rollercoaster around Hagrid's hut and we got talking to some Harry Potter obsessed locals whilst we waited. To my amusement every time we told a Japanese person we were from England they would ask us about Harry Potter. It was soon time to eat so we headed over to the Three Broomsticks for butter beer and pub grub. Before heading out to explore the rest of the park we spent a fair bit of time visiting the different shops in Hogsmeade. Even though we didn't buy anything the village is incredible for a bit of window shopping. The entire park is pretty incredible but I will never forget the awe I experienced upon walking into the Harry Potter area. Steve thinks I'm bonkers but as a fan it really is magical to see this world brought to life!

8. Visiting the sunset bar in Osaka for the best gin and tonic in my entire life

When we visit Osaka we really went to town when it came to drinking. Whilst we'd been to plenty of bars throughout the entire trip some of the best night life we experienced was here, most probably due to the fact Osaka is quite small so most of the bars are concentrated in one area. The tiny little Bar Core really sticks in my head but it was the couple of hours we spent at Kaara on our last night in Japan that were really special. We only planned to stay for 1 drink each but we got talking to the incredibly lovely cocktail wizard Koukichi Takahashi and 3 rounds plus £100 later we were full of merriment. The bar is tiny with dim lighting and a soft, industrial vibe. The lighting makes it look like sunset making the entire room feel very cosy. This isn't the place to party, instead it's a bar to appreciate mixology and unique cocktails. We started with a gin and tonic which turned out to be the speciality. Served in a hollowed out lime I've never enjoyed this drink more. For our second and third round we asked Koukichi to make us something of his choice. One of the drinks was yuzu and vodka with the final one being gin and something fruity. We were also given a few plates of food which was unexpected but incredibly tasty. I loved this place and whilst it was an expensive treat the bar felt so luxurious and something that would be impossible to recreate in London that it was most definitely worth it.

9. All the food

The food in Japan really was incredible. Apart from a weird ice cream experience in Tokyo I don't think we had a single bad meal. Excluding our meal in the ryokan, an incredible tempura experience in Kyoto and a Kobe steak extravaganza in Kobe everything we ate was pretty casual. From ramen, to tonkatsu, to conveyor belt sushi, to yakatori it was all delicious. The tonkotsu ramen we ate in Kyoto and Osaka was beautiful. The conveyor belt sushi feast we had in Tokyo will always be a highlight. The izakaya experience in Osaka where I somehow won bingo and subsequently £25 off our bill was so much fun. Maisen tonkatsu on our first day in Tokyo was life changing. I could go on and on but you get the point. I have never eaten so well on holiday as I did in Japan. Even the bento boxes we ate on the shinkansen were delightful as well as the numerous snacks we bought from convenience stores. If I had to name the best element of the holiday it would 100% be the food.

10. Enjoying bar crawls in Seoul

Our last few days of holiday were spent in South Korea. I adored Seoul, it's a great city with so much to see and do I could have easily spent a week here. Seoul has so much going for it but one of the things I really loved was the craft beer scene. Steve and I enjoyed 2 epic bar crawls in the Iteawon area of the city. There are so many tiny little drinking holes that it would take you a seriously long time to visit them all but we did a pretty good job of squeezing in as many as possible. From teeny tiny thrown together pubs to sleeker cocktail bars, there's so much choice. And because there's so much choice the bars we did visit (on a weekend) were never overrun with people. We always got a seat which was really nice. I really loved the all-day cafe bar type places and enjoying a Hendrick's cocktail in a flower shop was definitely a unique experience. I've only started drinking beer recently but the stuff brewed in Korea is really tasty because it's not super strong. Seoul is a relatively cheap city so drinking here really didn't break the bank and it was a great way to get talking to locals. I really hope to visit again as there''s so many other bars and craft beers I'd love to try.

It was hard creating a top ten list as there were so many other wonderful things we did. I loved going up the Japanese skyscrapers, the bullet trains, the art galleries of Seoul, the deer park in Nara, and so much more. I'll have more posts coming about my holiday so stay tuned.

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

BRUNCH REVIEW: Oslo, Hackney

I spoken quite highly of Oslo, Hackney in the past. The music venue is one of my favourites in London and even though it's all the way in East London (I live in Wimbledon), it's location next to the station means it's reasonably accessible. When Oslo first opened I popped in for dinner before a gig one night. I remember having a decent burger and some very tasty chicken wings. I also remembered the menu having Scandinavian influences, as the name would suggest, but in what capacity I can't recall too well.

These days the menu is far from Nordic, but I'm hopeful that the quality is still there. I haven't been back for dinner since but having spotted their waffles on the internet I was keen to try brunch one day. During one of mine and Steve's North London holidays this summer we finally decided to catch the 38 bus from Angel to Hackney Central to pay Oslo a visit. I was set on having a fully loaded waffle whilst Steve just wanted to have whatever took his fancy on the day.

The waffle comes in a vegetarian or meat option. I went for the meat option (Nordic cure), because I'm, all about that bacon. The waffle itself was delicious; lightly, fluffy and perfectly made. It was packed high with ingredients including a chorizo sausage, smoked bacon, avocado, poached eggs, roasted peppers, halloumi, and homemade beans. For some reason mine also came with a bloody mushroom which I had to remove immediately. Apart from the chorizo sausage which was a bit intense for my liking everything else tasted lovely. However, and I've never said this before, it did feel like there was a little too much on the plate. When I say fully loaded I really am not exaggerating. You could barely see the waffle, and whilst I have no issue with mixing food, it did feel like it all got a little messy and unorganised. I enjoyed the waffle but I'm not sure it lived up to my expectations.

Steve ended up going for the eggs Benedict which consisted of crisp bacon on an English muffin with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. I didn't try this but he said it tasted great, it sure does look good.

If you're in Hackney then it's definitely worth popping in to try the brunch, the restaurant itself is lovely with a nice sense of Hygge. I don't think I'd make the trek all the way from Wimbledon just for brunch but it was nice to try something a little different.

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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Bluebird, Chelsea

The Bluebird in Chelsea is a restaurant I have fond memories of. It used to be one of my parents favourite places to eat out so we often frequented the place for special occasions. But it's been years since I was last there so whilst I remember having a good time I can't quite recall the details.

A few weeks ago I was invited to the relaunch to experience dinner from the new menu. As I said before I don't have the best memory of the food from my previous visits but I think it was a lot more refined dining then the menu now. I definitely think the refurbishment is meant to bring in a younger crowd, maybe something to do with Made in Chelsea. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but rather something to note if you've been before.

We started with a delightful vodka and gin Martini. Fresh, punchy and full of flavour I really enjoyed it. We even got to try our hand at making cocktails. We made the Chelsea Garden which is a Hendricks gin cocktail with elderflower, apple and pomegranate. Whilst it was fruity it wasn't overpoweringly sweet, again another tasty drink.

We were given a selection of starters to try. The burrata was incredible creamy and the tempura tiger prawns were done perfectly plus the aioli that came with them was truly delicious. I really enjoyed the crispy duck salad and the fried baby squid had a nice amount of spice. The queen scallops were tasty but I felt they were too small to really appreciate the delicate flavour of the shellfish which is a shame because I absolutely adore scallops normally.

For the main course we were allowed to choose whatever meal took our fancy. Steve and I immediately decided to share the 750g rib eye steak, cooked to our preference which is 'as rare as possible'. The meat was incredible, the steak literally melted in your mouth like butter and had a lovely intense flavour. I loved the romaine lettuce salad that came on the side. We also tried the mash and fries which were great. The mash was incredibly creamy with a nice hint of garlic whilst the fries where perfectly crisp.

Again were were given a selection of desserts. I really enjoyed the pineapple carpaccio, the crème brûlée and the chocolate mousse.

I really enjoyed our meal at The Bluebird but I definitely think the food is a bit more casual than it used to be. The atmosphere is great and definitely suited for a younger crowd with loud music and bright interiors. If you're after a fine dining experience this is not the place to go but if you're looking for a Chelsea institution with great tasting food and fun atmosphere then this is definitely the place to check out.

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