Trending: Edible Nori Cups!

Apparently this is old news amongst Japanese mums and housewives, but I was so excited to find about edible seaweed cups or, if you prefer a direct translation, ready-to-eat nori cups (そのまま食べられるのりカップ) that I just had to try them!

Edible Seaweed Cups

I don’t often make bento for myself or the hubs but I thought we could have mini sushi parties at home and the size of the cups would help with portion control! The “M” sized cups are only slightly larger than the size of mini-cupcake wrappers so they’re great for making bite-sized sushi. Each cup is separated by paper liners, making it easy to unstack the individual cups.

Nori CupsThe roasted seaweed tastes great and the cups are easier to use than expected. When filling these cups, it is best not to use ingredients that contain too much sauce and the rice needs to be cooled. Serve immediately to avoid the cups losing their shape.

Nori Cup SushiNot only do these nori cups make for a healthy snack, they also cut down on packaging waste, so they’re good for you and the environment!

Nor Cup Sushi 2

Snacking on Mt. Fuji

I’ve been obsessed with Mt. Fuji since our recent trip to Japan and it’s nice that my relationship with the majestic mountain does not have to end there! Since we had already overloaded our luggage, I was banned from buying anything from the duty free in Japan but thanks to Mr. S, I was able to quell my desire for some “Mt. Fuji” Kit Kat as he just so happened to buy a box on his recent trip home.

Mt.Fuji Kit KatIt’s actually just strawberry cheesecake flavoured Kit Kat, in Mt. Fuji themed packaging. Call me a fool (or a marketing man’s dream), but I believe packaging does matter and in this case enhanced the relatively unimpressive and bland flavour of the actual Kit Kat. I wouldn’t be so obsessed with just plain strawberry cheesecake Kit Kat, if it were not for the Mt. Fuji box it came in.

I also recently received a delicious box of Mt. Fuji chocolate crunch from Mr. K. I had also seen these at the duty free and was curious but skeptical of their taste, but to my surprise they were lovely. And they get extra points for being shaped like miniature Mt. Fujis. Arigato, Mr. K!

Mt. Fuji Chocolate Crunchjpg

While we’re on the topic of Japanese sweets and snacks, I might as well introduce my favourite Kit Kat flavour: Sakura Matcha Kit Kat. The subtle floral essence combined with matcha make for a lighter, more fragrant green tea flavour. It’s not too sweet and great with tea!

Sakura Matcha Kit Kat

What are some of your favourite snacks from Japan or elsewhere?

Finding “Zen-Time” In Tokyo

No matter how packed your schedule is while in Japan, I highly recommend reserving a few hours of “zen-time”.  On our last morning in Tokyo, we decided to visit Zojoji Temple (増上寺), which happened to also be across the road from Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai, where we had lunch reservations.  Both the temple and restaurant also provided great vantage points of Tokyo Tower.

The main building of Zojoji Temple.

The main building of Zojoji Temple — not the best shot but I wanted to get Tokyo Tower in the photo.

Here is some of the buddhist chanting that I captured. It was rather calming to just listen to them for a while and clear my mind.

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Having lived in Kyoto, the cultural capital of all traditional Japanese things, I have seen my fair share of temples and shrines, but this was my first time visiting Zojoji and I was excited to see such a colourful array of Ojizo-san (お地蔵さん).

ojizo-san

Jizo-sama is a Japanese deity who mainly protects children but also travelers.  These jizo had child-like features and sported knitted red bonnets and held pinwheels that whirled in the breeze.

ojizo-san

After saying our prayers we headed back over the road toward Tofuya Ukai for a mouthwatering, sensational multi-course meal, featuring different types of fresh tofu dishes. The restaurant is beautifully designed with its own garden and all diners have their own private tatami room.

tofuya ukai

Tokyo TowerThe dishes at Tofuya Ukai were all superb, especially the tofu simmered in soymilk and the deep fried tofu with miso sauce. There is a misconception that tofu is flavourless. Perhaps it is in the UK/US, where tofu isn’t exactly our forte, but I promise you’ll be coming back for more after dining at Tofuya Ukai. Go for lunch and order the Matsu (松) course.

Matsu Course Menu

Tofuya Ukai Matsu Course

My idea of a well-balanced lunch: bamboo shoot stuffed with fish meat and oyster dumpling; deep fried tofu coated with miso (simply divine); assorted sashimi; simmered turnip and miso; clam, shrimp, sardine sushi with sesame dressed wheat gluten and seasoned rape blossoms; soymilk with tofu hot pot; grilled Spanish mackerel and taro; steamed rice with lily bulbs and tsukemono; adzuki-bean mousse with strawberry.

We were full, but not uncomfortable so we made one more food stop before leaving for Hakone.  But of course, some traditional Kyoto style dessert from Gion Tokuya (ぎおん徳屋), located on the ground floor of United Arrows For Women in Harajuku.  It was the perfect way to end our time in Tokyo.

Parfait perfection!

Parfait perfection!

Tonkotsu Ramen: Ichiran Style

There is nothing more comforting than a piping hot bowl of ramen on a cold winter’s night. Previously, while living in Japan, I made it my mission to find the world’s perfect bowl of ramen, and I did find it in Kyoto, but sadly the shop has since closed. So the search continues.

ichiran ramen

Gift corner inside the restaurant, offering ‘cook it yourself’ ramen gifts that taste almost like the real thing and special soy sauce.

3 nights in Tokyo is hardly enough for us to eat our way around the nation’s capital but we certainly made the most of the time we had.  It was our last night in Tokyo and our only chance to see darling V. We decided on Ichiran Ramen in the Shinjuku area, picked more for it’s unique atmosphere and flavour and close proximity to the station. Although I prefer smaller local establishments, they are a chain restaurant with locations in 14 different prefectures all across Japan.

Real-time seat availability displayed so that customers can see when they'll be seated.

Real-time seat availability displayed so that customers can see when they’ll be seated.

Upon arrival, you place your order via a vending machine and once in the queue, a server will bring a list of options to customise your bowl of ramen to perfection. You can choose the firmness of your noodles, add extra spice, etc. The nice thing is their menus are in both Japanese and English, and since I was absolutely knackered from a day of cheering at the Tokyo Marathon I couldn’t be bothered with Japanese and gladly opted for the English menu.

ichiran ramen egg

I never understood why they ask you to peel your own egg, but it is always perfectly cooked, with the yolk nice and creamy in the centre. The egg is cold, however, so you may want to let it sit in the broth to warm for a few minutes. Once your order arrives the staff will close your cubicle blinds so that you can eat in private.

Photo 15-03-2014 20 05 10If you’re with a group, you can also open up the side partitions to enjoy each others company.

ichiran ramen

Perhaps it was due to the lovely company I had this time, but I felt the Shinjuku shop did a nicer job with the broth than the one in Roppongi. Just looking at this bowl of perfectly cooked noodles and rich hearty broth is making my mouth water and nostalgic for Japan.

Hungry in Tokyo

As we spent the morning visiting the Moomin Bakery and Cafe, by the time we got to Tsukiji Market all the excitement from the morning live auction that we were hoping to catch had died down and the marketplace was empty. The hubs asked sheepishly where all the fish had gone and I laughed. Had he been a good boy and woken up at 5am like I had asked, there would have been beautiful fresh fish everywhere! It was already close to 11am so instead of an abundance of fresh fish and seafood, there were massive queues for lunch for all of the small sushi shops in the covered mall. Not wanting to queue for hours, we bought some dashimaki at one of the food stalls to tide us over until lunch.

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We headed back toward the Ginza area and decided to have lunch in a restaurant specialising in tonkatsu (pork cutlet) inside Matsuya Ginza, Keitei (恵亭松屋銀座店), which evidently is part of the Wako Group. Our meal was tasty, but I prefer the menu at the original Tonkatsu Wako, as Keitei caters to a slightly more upscale crowd.

Delicious but tiny cup of coffee that came with the hubs meal.

Delicious but tiny cup of coffee that came with the hubs meal.

I enjoyed my simple meal of fresh pickled vegetables, insanely fresh and sweet shredded cabbage, soup and standard pork cutlet. You can get free refills of the pickles, cabbage and rice, but there’s only so much of it that you can eat.

Fresh pickled celery, burdock root, mountain yam and shredded daikon.

Fresh pickled celery, burdock root, mountain yam and shredded daikon.

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Eyeing the portions of the set menu, the hubs felt he should opt for something with more variety.  Little did he know that more variety didn’t mean larger quantities of food, just more dishes served in bite sized portions. Haha!  Needless to say, the hubs was still rather hungry after our meal. To be honest, feeling hungry after a meal in Japan can be a running theme if you’re not accustomed to the smaller portions.

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But don’t you fret! There is a magical floor in every luxury department store that is truly wonderful –the food hall, or depachika (デパ地下), literally department store basement — that Japan has perfected. My favourite food hall is in Takashimaya (高島屋) so that’s where we headed after lunch to sample as many items as we could before meeting N.

Food Hall Collage

And sample we did! But sadly, photos are not allowed in many shops and establishments in Japan, which is rather annoying when you’re just trying to capture all the beautiful food. I was awful at pretending that I didn’t know what was going on when asked to put my massive camera away by an elderly ‘security’ guard, so you’ll have to make do with the few shots I took before I got caught and you can get a pretty good idea of what it’s like here.

Fruit Collage

From delicate cakes to savoury sides, cured meats and ‘luxury’ fruit (you know, those melons from Hokkaido that cost 15,000yen each) the food hall has something for everyone.

Melon Collage

Harrod’s Food Hall is the only place that comes close and even then it’s not quite the same. The hubs was in heaven, we were no longer hungry and now we can’t wait to spend all day visiting various food halls the next time we’re in Japan.

Pirate Ships and Shinto Shrines

What does one do with a few hours to spare between meals in Hakone? Play tourist, of course!  With only one day to explore the area and some road blockages due to the recent snow, we decided to focus on visiting Hakone Shrine and catching a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. But before we could start the day, my father had to have his adzuki bean fix, so we found a little shop that served soba-shiruko (そば汁粉), a sweet adzuki bean soup with buckwheat dumplings.

Soba-shiruko served with pickles to offset the sweetness.

Soba-shiruko served with pickles to offset the sweetness.

soba shiruko

Soba dumplings have an ‘interesting’ texture…

Hakone Shrine,  a Japanese Shinto shrine, is situated at the top of a hill and may be difficult for some to access.  There is a beautiful tree-covered footpath that leads to the bottom of some rather steep steps. We made the trek up to the shrine and donated 100yen each to receive our fortunes.  Unfortunately, the path to the torii (鳥居) was covered in snow so we couldn’t see it but it’s similar to the one that Monks is posing in front of, except that it’s set in water.

Hakone Shrine

We overheard a tour guide explaining the chances of selecting a good omikuji (various fortunes written on small slips of white paper, which you choose at random from a box) was rather slim, something like a 10% chance of getting a good fortune, but we were lucky to each choose rather good fortunes!

The fortunes we chose were of "small blessing" and "blessing", with "small blessing" ranking slightly better than just "blessing".

The fortunes we chose were ‘small blessing’ and ‘blessing’, with ‘small blessing’ ranking slightly better than ‘blessing’.

We had to make an obligatory stop in the shrine’s ‘cafe’ so my father could try some of their delicious mochi before heading back to Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖).

Red bean, kinako, and black sesame flavoured mochi.

Red bean, kinako, and black sesame flavoured mochi.

In order to get a good view of Mr. Fuji, you have to take a pirate ship across Lake Ashi and ride the gondola up to Togendai.

Lake Ashi Pirate Ship

Lake Ashi Pirate Ship

The gondola ride was pretty, but nothing spectacular and we were starting to give up hope on seeing Mt. Fuji as the weather went from clear to cloudy.

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At the top of Togendai there is a viewing station, several gift shops and buses that take you back into Hakone.  There is also a little stand that sells one of the special foods of the region, Owakudani black eggs (大涌谷の黒たまご), eggs boiled in the hot springs of the volcano, which causes the shells of the eggs to turn black and smell of sulfur (as if eggs don’t already have a sulfuric odour).

kurotamago

It is believed eating these eggs will promote long life and a good year.  Apparently each egg adds seven years to your life, and they are sold only in packs of five for 500yen – thus eating all of them adds an additional 35 years!

kurotamago

The eggs were very hot to the touch, and the combination of sulfur and eggs further emphasised the ‘egginess’ of the eggs (Boris Johnson and G would love this).  We were expecting the cooked eggs to be black but once shelled they looked and tasted like regular boiled eggs. It would seem Hello Kitty is fond of these eggs, too, but don’t cats already have nine lives?

Hello Kitty Kurotamago

If you’re still hungry after eating all those eggs, you can also get some delicious hot baked sweet potatoes.

Photo 24-02-2014 21 17 41And wash it all down with some Mt. Fuji spring water.

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We were queuing to board the bus to take us back into Hakone town centre when suddenly, the hubs pointed out a mountainous shape in the distance.  Several seconds later the Japanese people in the queue finally noticed, as well, and there was a sudden rush to take photos before getting on the bus. I was completely mesmerised by the magnificent mountain standing right before us — was also sad to leave it all behind, but happy that my Mt. Fuji dream was now complete.

Mt. Fuji

Back in town, we decided to check out the shops and I couldn’t help but notice the iconic tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) that seem to be everywhere in Japan.  I was tempted to purchase this little fellow.

Tanuki

We were feeling rather peckish as not had a proper lunch so I was also delighted to find some Moomin’s Soup in the local Family Mart.  But of course, dear hubs, there is no escaping Moomins, not even in Hakone!  Ufufu…

Moomin's Salmon Milk Soup sighting at the local Family Mart

Moomin’s Salmon Milk Soup sighting at the local Family Mart.

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What are some of your favourite spots in Hakone? What would you suggest for visitors that only have one day to explore the area?

Heaven in Hakone

Many people think of Tokyo when they think of Japan.  But if you prefer a little less madness and a bit more quiet, I would highly recommend a weekend in Hakone.  It is sure to be a delight for the senses.  On top of having some of the best views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone offers delicious local food, beautiful traditional woodcrafts, and my favourite relaxing onsen (hot spring baths), which is not something most of us get to experience on a daily basis. We were spoiled rotten by the hotel staff at Yamanochaya (山の茶屋) and could barely bring ourselves to leave.

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The rooms at Yamanochaya are all Japanese style, which means you sleep in a proper futon and dine in the same room that you sleep (average is 10-12 mats per room).

How I've missed sleeping in a proper Japanese futon and the sweet natural smell of tatami mats.

How I’ve missed sleeping in a proper Japanese futon and the sweet natural smell of tatami mats.

We were lucky to get our own in-room open air bath, which was big enough to comfortably fit two, in addition to a separate sitting area and a “moon-watching” balcony (月見台).

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Private Onsen

Our in-room outdoor bath — such a luxury, which we made great use of!

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Shower area next to onsen — it is important to wash carefully and rinse completely before entering the bath, especially when you’re using a public onsen.

We were also offered private use of one of the larger outdoor baths, which is normally shared with other guests (there are separate women only / men only bath times).  So if you’re shy about soaking in your birthday suit with complete strangers, try to get a room with its own bath — it is worth splashing out a bit (so to speak) for a one-of-a-kind experience. We took about 3 baths a day — after all, it’s what you do when you’re in Hakone.  Soak, eat, soak, kip, eat, soak, and repeat! Monkey certainly enjoyed the “R&R”.

Monks making full use of our onsen.

Monks making full use of our outdoor bath.

Another wonderful part of our stay was the meticulously prepared breakfast and dinner that was served in our room.

Photo 15-03-2014 00 07 53The breakfast menu is not as extravagant as the dinner menu, but it certainly is a feast compared to our usual morning cuppa and some toast!

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Japanese-style breakfast for three.

A tiny taste of everything starts to fill you up quite quickly!

Breakfast on the second morning. A tiny taste of everything starts to fill you up quite quickly!

Breakfast on the second morning.

Japanese kaiseki cuisine (懐石料理) is a true feast for the eyes, as well as your tastebuds.  The flavour profiles feature generally more subtle flavours and the menu changes to suit the season. I guarantee you will enjoy the wide variety of tastiness this multi-course meal has to offer.

First night's kaiseki dinner at Yamanochaya.

First night’s kaiseki dinner at Yamanochaya.

There’s even local Hakone beer with a special Mt. Fuji theme (purchased at a nearby Family Mart).

Hakone Beer

More beautiful food from our second night's stay.

More beautiful food from our second night’s stay.

And as if the staff anticipated that we’d be in a food coma, upon the completion of our meal each night, a designated futon maker (opposed to bed maker?) would come in quietly and lay out our futons and bid us goodnight.

Photo 14-03-2014 21 33 48Needless to say, we loved every bit of our stay at Yamanochaya and would be keen to return if we’re ever in Hakone again. Have you visited Hakone before? Let us know if you have a favourite place to stay!