Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bye-bye for now, Hong Kong!

I'm at the airport waiting to board my flight to Amsterdam. After 13 wonderful months in HK, L. and I have decided to make the jump into more unfamiliar territory and to move to the Netherlands for a year.

It's easy to wax sentimental at this time - HK, after all, was our first home as a married couple. HK was also very good to us - we liked our work and we lived well. There isn't much I can write about in the 30 or so minutes left before we need to board the plane, so here instead, are some pictures of our first home. 

We'll miss you, Hong Kong. See you again someday.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shark's Fin and Moral Ambiguity

I remember a particularly vivid image in a documentary I saw ten or so years ago where a fisherman catches a shark, slices off its fin and throws the shark back to sink, rudderless, to the bottom of the deep black sea. I vowed, after seeing this troubling image, to do my part for the sharks and to avoid eating their fins.  I was successful, until last night. 

Behold, shark's fin soup, in all its glory.

The venue to test my shark loving integrity was a food court somewhere in Happy Valley, which was said to have really good seafood (or so proclaimed by the locals and Anthony Bourdain). I was hungry, the shark's fin soup came first, and perhaps in my slightly sentimental state of mind (we are leaving Hong Kong in a week and will be gone for at least a year), I sampled the delicious local delicacy. 

After dinner, I went through a minor moral crisis - do I lack integrity when it comes to food choices? Am I a food opportunist with flexible principles? 

Then I remembered foie gras, blue fin tuna, kobe beef. 

I am carnivore, hear me roar.

(FYI though, I don't think I'll be eating shark's fin anytime soon. Aside from the fact that we'll be in Europe, where I can safely assume they don't sell shark's fin at local markets, I don't get the flavor of shark's fin. Maybe its just me.)


Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Meaning of Everything

A couple of days ago I finished reading "The Meaning of Everything" by Simon Winchester:

It's the story of the Oxford English Dictionary - how it began, why it differs from all other dictionaries, and most importantly, how it is ranks as one of the best philological works. 

Read it! It brings you back to a more erudite time (in a classical way, at least) - a time when, as teenagers, people spoke twenty languages, read physics for fun, knew why this octave of X symphony was, based on the Y musical theory, a work of genius, drew astronomical maps in their free time and volunteered at archaeological diggings. (When I was a teenager...)

I want the full set of the Oxford English Dictionary for my birthday!

A bit of trivia: creating the dictionary required thousands of people, mostly volunteers, to read through every work of literature written in English as of the late nineteenth century. To ensure that the word was truly used in the language, a particular word had to be cited in at least several written works. Among the many attributes that makes Shakespeare great is that he was the first to imbue words with certain meanings which have since then become mainstream (such as "laughable", first used in the The Merchant of Venice). However, some of his words were never employed by any other author the same way he did (e.g. "soilure" and "tortive").

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Penang

Less than 24 hours after arriving from Tokyo and while still on Tokyo hang-over, L. and I left for the city of Penang in Malaysia, a world heritage site.

First, our hotel. 

The Eastern and Oriental Hotel is the oldest and most famous hotel in Penang. The hotel offers only suites, and each room has a butler on call.

I liked this hotel, but the only downside is you had to pay for internet access. Bah.

Second, the sites. Penang has been described by many people as "a more authentic Singapore," pretty much because, well, it is. It looks older, more multi-racial, and less organized (making it more believable). As with Singapore, it has its fair share of Mosques (this is the Acheen Street Mosque [1808]):

 
Churches (this is St. George's Church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia [1818]):
and Buddhist Temples (this is the Kek Lok Si Temple [1890, but some parts still in construction], the largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia):

Also impressive was Khoo Kongsi [1906], a very extravagant clan house: 


Finally, the food. The primary reason we went to Penang was to eat this kind of Chinese-Malay-Indian food, L.'s favorite cuisine. In contrast to our Tokyo experience, L. and I ate only at the hawker centers in Penang (believe it or not we survived on less than US$200 for the entire trip for both of us, excluding only the airline tickets and hotel charges). The food looks like food from Singapore, but with some slight variations.

This is my favorite, Laksa assam - tamarind broth based noodles and vegetables with a dollop of shrimp paste (bagoong!):


Char Kway Teow:


Mee Sotong:

Mutton Soup (sup kambing) and beef soup:


and of course, my favorite drink while in Penang, Seasons Chrysanthemum tea:



Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tokyo Day 5 and 6: Tokyo on a Budget

We moved out of the Peninsula in the morning and moved into the Park Hyatt in the Shinjuku district. Staying in the Park Hyatt is on the list "1000 Things To Do Before You Die" and is featured prominently in the film "Lost in Translation", so its easy to set expectations pretty high.

The hotel is beautiful - it occupies the top 14 floors of a 47-floor building (which is tall for Tokyo) and decorated in art deco fashion. Though I still prefer the rooms at the Peninsula, the views from the rooms are undeniably fantastic. Here's what we see from one side:


and here's the view from the other side:


The greenery is Yoyogi Park, where we saw all the rockabillys on Day 3.

Hungry for lunch and a new dining experience, our guide books said that the buffet at the New York Grill, on the top floor of the hotel, was excellent, so we ate there. As with any hotel buffet, and as my stomach reminded me after the meal, a buffet is usually a bad idea. The food was good, but not exemplary. The restaurant was pretty though:


After lunch we made our way to Roponggi Hills, a shopping/office/residential complex in the middle of the business district. I was able to buy a bookmarker! Here's an interesting sculpture found in the mall:


We met a friend of a friend for dinner in the Ginza district. We had a mizutaki meal, something novel. It starts out with a bowl of what mostly looks and tastes like chicken stock, which we first drink as a soup:



Chicken and pork and liver are then added into the stock. We eat the meats with ponzu sauce:


After the meat, you eat vegetables cooked in the stock:


The last part of the meal is noodles or rice (we had noodles):


We needed to walk off what we ate for (lunch and) dinner so we took a short walk down Ginza, which thereafter became my favorite part of Tokyo:


Nightcap was again at the penthouse of the Park Hyatt, now converted into the New York Bar. There was a jazz band, and the views of Tokyo at night were magnificent:

Our last morning in Tokyo was spent shopping in Takashimaya, a 15-floor department store in Shinjuku. I bought sunblock and a scarf!

Our flight back to Hong Kong was delayed because of a typhoon in Hong Kong, so I was finally able to finish the book I've been reading for close to two months, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon (It's a funny and insightful detective story. If you can wait, the Coen brothers are making it into a movie).

Why I love Tokyo: the food and drink, the polite and pleasant people, the culture, the history and the wonderful chairs at the airport where you can ostensibly read but actually daydream about staying in Tokyo longer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tokyo Day 4: New Camera, Sumo, Kill Bill and Karaoke

I have a new camera! Quite aptly, the first destination of the day was Tsukiji market, where my little Lumix died. Armed with my new picture taking power, we headed towards the same restaurant we ate at after my camera stopped working. Here's the restaurant, and some pictures of what we ate:


The food looks really simple and familiar, but it tastes much sweeter and more buttery than anything else I've ever tasted before.

L. and I wandered around Tsukiji market after brunch and bought a few things for the house. Here's another picture of the market:
After the market, L. and I took a trip to Ryogoku to see the Sumo Museum. Sumo is apparently a complicated sport, and it was good to learn a little more about it.



L. and I also visited the sights near our hotel: Hibiya Park and the Imperial Palace.



L. and I then met up with Mr. and Mrs. MC to have dinner at Gonpachi, an Izakaya (beer and bar chow place)  most famous for being the inspiration for the last scene of Kill Bill. Check it out:


The food was, of course, great as well - we shared an assortment of grilled things (my favorite was the chicken wings) and cold soba.

To check things off our list of stuff to do in Tokyo, we went to a karoke bar named Big Echo near our hotel. Check out all the high-tech machines that help drunk people sing:

And yes, we were singing like Bonnie Tyler.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Tokyo Day 3: Sunday is Funday

The (exciting part of the) day started out with a trip to Ometesando. We ate at a resturant called Maisen, where I had tonkatsu and cold soba. Delicious, as I have come to expect in Tokyo.

We walked to Meji-ji after lunch, and were sidetracked with sights of kids dressed up in their Sunday best - super goth and anime-like. Apparently they are fixtures on Sundays in that part of town.

We saw the awe inspiring Meiji-ji, huge and elegant and simple and tranquil. Placed in the middle of a forest in the middle of bustling Tokyo, you feel as if you've left the city. After Meiji-ji, we saw another group of interesting group of people: men with rockabilly hairstyles and leather pants (in the sweltering heat!) dancing and singing to a Japanese '50s tune. The women, not to be outdone, were dressed like Sandra Dee and also singing and dancing to Japanese '50s tunes. It was extremely fun to see (again I bewail the passing of my camera).

At the same park as the rockabillies, we saw bands playing within a few feet (!) of each other. Their simultaneous playing made listening hard at first, but pretty soon you zone into the band right in front of you. The band we concentrated our listening efforts on was actually very good, and Mrs. MC bought a CD (which I will of course borrow and copy).

After sweating buckets, we cooled off in a mall called Omotosando Hills. Looking around, you realize that what the magazines say is true - the Japanese are very good dressers. Their shops are not familiar, but they have really good stuff in it. Compared to the people in Hong Kong, I think the Japanese are a little more understated in their fashion choices and less into brands.

L. and I took a little side trip to Shibuya before dinner to see Shibuya crossing, the most famous intersection in the world. Seeing all these wonderful sights and not having something to satisfy my trigger happy index finger, L. and I bought a camera at Shibuya too (Yay! Pictures tomorrow!).

Dinner was in Shibuya at "Yakitori Alley". The first little dive we went into was okay, but with the communication problem, we didn't realize the food was all chicken and pork innards. Mr. MC and I had no problem eating that stuff but L. and Mrs. MC did, so when we left the restaurant, two were full and the other two were clamoring for more.

We went into an even smaller dive, no air-conditioning, 8 seats only, hot charcoal grill right in front of you. The food there was much much better than the first one we went to, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had it been spring or fall, and not the height of summer.

Again another nightcap on the way home at some place in the Ginza district. It was an exhausting day, so I think the alcohol got into our heads pretty quickly.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tokyo Day 2: My Camera Swam with the Cockles

We left the hotel at 6:00 a.m. for Tsukiji Market. That place was amazing - it had tons of the weirdest fish, crustaceans, and other sea dwelling creatures. There were also the hundreds of tuna lining the floor of an air-conditioned warehouse and little tractors being driven around to deliver the tunas to the bidder who won it. 

I had great pictures and a video to document all this, but then my camera died. It jumped from my hands and swam into a styrofoam box of live cockles just when I was taking pictures of them. I was able to save the SD card (for which I don't have a card reader), but not the camera. (Pause here in commemoration of my Lumix Panasonic DMC-FX30).

After the trip to the main market, we went to Sushi-sen, a little shop near the market for breakfast. It was the first time I had sushi for breakfast, let alone an omakase meal. We had extremely fresh raw or half-cooked seafood, and it was "close-your-eyes, I can't believe the taste of this" wonderful. Of course, I had no pictures to document the wonderful things we ate. Boo.

It was a really bad time to lose a camera. After Tsukiji market, we went to the Hama-rikyu Gardens. We had some tea and some cake inside a traditional Japanese house/rest place, saw the gardens and went on to board a ferry that took us down the Sumidagawa river.

We had lunch at a ramen place in Asakusa, and then went on to see the Senso-Ji, featuring an image of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) which over 1400 years old. 

After this, Mr. and Mrs. MC went back to the hotel while L. and I walked around the Ginza district. After sweltering in the summer sun for a few hours, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was at a Robatayaki place named Inakaya, where I was served the second best meal of my life (breakfast that morning is third, tempura the night before is fourth). This place was unlike any restaurant I've ever been to - you all sit around a grilling pit where the raw ingredients are spread out in front of you and the chefs are kneeling in front of the pit cooking. The chef asks what you want to eat and you point to the ingredient (fish, crabs, beef, etc.) and he grills it for you. The dishes are painfully simple: just a little salt and the hot fire. The quality of the ingredients, however, is the key. My favorite dish was grilled snapper - juicy, tender, somewhat salty, somewhat sweet and melted in your mouth -  eaten with horseradish and soy sauce.

There were other great hits - the wagyu beef with the ponzu sauce on the side (L says: "This is the best beef I've tasted ever, and I've had my fair share of beef."), the oysters from the Philippines (as our chef pointed out to us), the sweetest corn on the face of the planet earth, the perfectly salted prawns and crabs. Everything was washed down with cold sake (poured traditional style into little wooden boxes that you drink from) and Suntory premium beer.

After the fabulous feast, we headed back down to the hotel bar for a night cap. I had an intriguing cocktail - lychee liqueur and sake. From the bar you could see the Ginza district spread out in front of you, and we all agreed that Tokyo by night is actually much more charming than Tokyo by day.

Lesson learned: Trying to document your trip without a camera is a pain.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tokyo Day 1: The Amazing Toilet Bowl

After ridiculous overwork, L. and I got out of Hong Kong today for a break. We left on the first flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and together with Mr. MC and Mrs. MC, we vowed to eat the entire city.

Our hotel for the first leg of the trip is The Peninsula Tokyo in the Ginza district, which among its other virtues, boasts of the most high-tech toilet bowl I've ever seen. The cover automatically lifts when it senses you're about to use it, and it automatically closes when you're done. The seat is amazingly warm and the toilet bowl itself has a control panel:

Note the "Massage", "Oscillating" and "Dryer" option, and of course, the suggestive curves.

L. made reservations for dinner at Tenmasa, a restaurant that specializes in tempura. It was the tempura of our lives. We all had ten courses of different tempura dishes, with our own choice of drink (I had a Riesling, the boys had beer and Mrs. MC had cold sake). We had, among others, shrimp, uni,eel, oysters, scallops and the sweetest mushrooms and okras I have ever tasted. Here's a picture of some of our food and our friendly chef:

The restaurant is set up into rooms seating about ten people each, with one tempura chef per room. The oil in which the food is fried is changed every thirty minutes, and is actually a mix of five different kinds of oil, including sunflower and linseed. Oishi!