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Experience A Hong Kong Christmas, No Matter Where You Are in The World

A couple of weeks ago, the highly anticipated Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble (initially set for November 22) was shelved after a surge of cases in the region – much to the disappointment of many. Some hotels and shopping centres, had, in fact, tailored special holiday experiences – ready to welcome their first leisure travellers after over a year of travel restrictions. 

While that obviously hasn’t worked out, that doesn’t mean Christmas has to be canceled. Hong Kong retailers, businesses and artists alike have banded together to bring an immersive and innovative festive season to people all over the world – using the power of technology.

Take a 360-degree virtual tour of Hong Kong’s festive Central Business District 

Hong Kong’s Christmas celebrations are widely considered to be some of the best in the region, with vibrant Christmas markets, stunning displays, fun activities and more. The Hong Kong WinterFest, an annual fixture organised by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, has been a major tourist draw each year – and although visitors might not be able to attend physically this year, they can still expect a veritable wonderland through their screens. 

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Go on a tour of Christmas Town – a snow-kissed virtual CBD based on Hong Kong’s very own Central Business District – which ‘starts’ off at Statue Square, a historic public space in the heart of Central. From there, visitors are free to choose their own adventure: you can learn how to make festive DIY crafts such as aromatic wreaths, ornaments, pop-up holiday cards or candle holders via video tutorials, download holiday-themed Whatsapp stickers designed by famous Hong Kong illustrator like Din Dong, Dustykid and Messy Deck, or tune in to beautiful Christmas carols. If you prefer to just soak in the sights of the CBD’s iconic skyscrapers (which will be all decked out for the holidays), a towering tree and festive Christmas lodges, let Uncle Siu – a popular English educator known for his charming voice – lead you through the innovative 360-degree experience, and make fun, interactive stops along the way. 

The virtual tour of Christmas Town is part of the 2020 Hong Kong Winterfest, which will run until 3 January 2021. 

The world’s first “AI Butterflies Illuminating Interactive Art”

Enter a playground of light at Lee Tung Avenue in Wan Chai, where a seven-metre-tall, stained-glass butterfly and over 350 little LED butterflies have taken up residence. Dubbed “Butterflies of Hope,” it is the world’s first AI-powered butterfly art installation,  created to inspire, uplift and remind visitors of the hope, love, beauty and positivity we have in this world.

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If you are in Hong Kong, afternoon is the best time to visit, as the glass installation refracts natural light onto the ground, painting the boulevard in a myriad of colours. Evenings are a magical affair, with a music-and-light symphony that sees the butterflies taking flight as they ‘dance’ to the sound of music using artificial intelligence.

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The Lee Tung Avenue atrium is also home to a stunning, 12-metre-tall Christmas tree, with some powerful special effects. Combining touchless interactive technology and a special shadow projection technique, the tree projects butterflies onto the clothes of visitors – a feat of art and technology. 

Enjoy the festivities at Lee Tung Avenue until 10 January 2021.

Get lost in the Asia debut of Globoscope, a light showcase from France

K11 MUSEA, a new cultural-retail destination and arts hub on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, has turned up the Christmas spirit this year with A Very MUSEA Christmas Village. The village spreads joy and wonderment with a roster of artistic cultural experiences, including the Asia debut of Globoscope.

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Globoscope debuts in Asia at K11 Musea

Created by Collectif Coin, a renowned French art lab, the site-specific immersive light show stretches across the Bohemian Garden, a roof-top open space. A 20-minute private experience can be reserved to enjoy the surreal, sensory light exhibit with family or friends. It’s a sight to behold: Glowing spheres dance and swirl in choreographed light movements, while the dramatic Hong Kong skyline shines in the distance.

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Adding to the festive vibes is K11 MUSEA’s gorgeous Christmas Forest, featuring glistening golden trees in the mall’s atrium. Also not to be missed is a special Santa Muse Parade and a Christmas Market.

Experience A Very MUSEA Christmas Village through 3 January 2021. 

“Christmas Every Day” goes high tech with virtual Santa Meet & Greets

For the past 50 years, Harbour City has marked the holiday seasons with larger-than-life Christmas installations and festive surprises. This year is no different: it’s “Christmas Every Day” celebration once again promises unforgettable holiday memories, complemented by a roster of online experiences. 

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Take a virtual tour of the incredible decorations throughout the mall and “check-in” on social media or share your Christmas wish list with Santa during a virtual Meet & Greet. For the little ones, Harbour City has created an interactive online colouring game, where children can dress up their “Monster Friends” – adorable 3D cartoon characters illustrated by Dutch artist Eva Cremers – and then watch their masterpiece come to life!

The holiday extravaganza continues in person. At the “Christmas Lighting Garden” on the Ocean Terminal Deck, you can wade through a sea of illuminated LED clovers and dandelions and enjoy the “Christmas Lighting & Music Show” every evening with the stunning Hong Kong skyline as a backdrop.

Enjoy Harbour City’s “Christmas Every Day” online and offline experiences until 3 January 2021.

*Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death: How Wesak Is Celebrated Around The World

May 7 marks Wesak (or Vesak) Day, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha, a central figure in Buddhism. It is one of the most important days for Buddhists around the world. Unlike Christmas, which has a set date each year, Wesak falls on the full moon of the month of Vesakha according to the ancient Indian calendar, which is typically between April and May.

While Wesak is celebrated in many different ways, with some practices intertwined with the local culture, one common aspect of the festival is paying homage to Buddha and observing the Buddhist precepts of kindness to all living beings. As such, Buddhists will usually eat vegetarian food, go to temples to offer prayers, practice loving-kindness and donate to charity. Many temples around the world will also organise talks on dharma (the Buddhist equivalent of the gospel – ie Buddha’s teachings) and activities such as bathing the Buddha, a symbolic ritual which involves pouring water over a small Buddha statue to cleanse one’s sins.

MALAYSIA

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At 19.2% of the population, Malaysia has a significant number of Buddhists – and Wesak is considered a national holiday. During this time, temples are usually packed with devotees, who come together to donate to the needy and light candles, incense and joss sticks as offerings. The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple – one of the most prominent Sinhalese Buddhist temples in Kuala Lumpur – turns into a bustling hive of activity on Wesak Day, as thousands converge to chant sutras together and pray for the wellbeing of all living beings. The highlight of the celebration is a large procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with lighted floats of Buddha and the deities accompanied by devotees holding prayer candles.

NEPAL 

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Buddha was believed to have been born in Lumbini in Nepal, and every year, thousands of pilgrims gather at this pilgrimage site (as well as the surrounding Kathmandu Valley) on Buddha Jayanthi (Buddha’s birthday), to attend religious processions and chant Buddhist scriptures. Similar to other parts of the world, kind deeds and acts of charity are observed, such as donating food and clothes to the needy, providing financial aid to schools and monasteries, and taking part in blood donation drives. Some people dress in white (to symbolise purity), and observe a vegetarian diet.

SRI LANKA 

Piliyandala Vesak Thorana 2016
A Pandol for Vesak. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Varuna Harshana / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Wesak is a major event in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, with celebrations lasting for a week. The sale of alcohol and fresh meat is prohibited during this period. Aside from alms-giving and prayers, Wesak celebrations in Sri Lanka take on a slightly festive mood – with public displays of electrically-lit pandols (a temporary structure which illustrates stories from Buddhist scriptures) as well as colourful lanterns called Vesak kuudu hung along streets and in front of homes, to represent the light of the Buddha, Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). There are also organisations and groups that go about singing bhakti gee, or Buddhist devotional songs, much like the Christian practice of carolling.

SOUTH KOREA 

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service/ CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

South Korea celebrates the birthday of Buddha, or ‘seokga tansinil’, on the 8th day of the 4th month in the Korean lunar calendar. Besides being a religious celebration, it is also very much cultural, with traditional performances, folk games, parades, and more. The world-famous Lotus Lantern Festival, which dates back over 1,000 years, is held in conjunction with seokga tansinil. Seoul hosts the largest event of its kind, featuring grand parades, floats with Buddhist figures and cultural icons such as dragons and phoenixes. Parade participants carry lotus-shaped lights (Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus) – a symbol of purity and wisdom.

THAILAND 

Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand
Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Leelaryonkul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Another Buddhist-majority country, Thailand’s Wesak celebrations are massive. Many Thais are deeply devout (young men are encouraged to be ordained as monks for a certain amount of time as a rite of passage into adulthood) – so temples will usually be full of devotees offering prayers to gain ‘merits’ (in millennial terms – they’re kind of like a points system in Buddhism: do good stuff, get good merits, do bad stuff, get demerits) in order to accumulate good karma.

1 Wesak Day (in Thailand) 2007
Image via Wikimedia Commons – ผู้สร้างสรรค์ผลงาน/ส่งข้อมูลเก็บในคลังข้อมูลเสรีวิกิมีเดียคอมมอนส์ – เทวประภาส มากคล้าย / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Buddhism in Thailand is mainly of the Theravada branch (there are several differences between the two major branches namely Theravada and Mahayana), so devotees observe the Five Moral precepts according to the branch’s tradition – by refraining from harming living things or consuming intoxicating substances. Bars and clubs are closed during this period as a sign of respect.

INDONESIA 

Borobudur Temple on Vesak Day 2015
Waisak (as Vesak is known in Indonesia) celebrations at Borobudur. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Aditya Suseno / CC0

Indonesia once housed powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, with many ancient structures that have stood the test of time scattered across the region. One of these is Borobudur near the city of Yogyakarta, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. It is an important site for Indonesian Buddhists as well as pilgrims from around the world, who gather here for Wesak Day celebrations. Something unique to Indonesia’s Wesak Day celebrations is Pindapata, a ritual involving thousands of monks walking around the structure as well as on the streets, whilst praying to receive charity and blessings for the Indonesian people. Sky lanterns are also released into the night sky, which makes for a magical display against the backdrop of the full moon.

LAOS 

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The Rocket Festival being celebrated in Yasothon, Laos. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Wesak is known as Visakha Bouxa in Laos, where Buddhism is the predominant religion. As Visakha Bouxa falls during the transition between dry and wet season, Laotians celebrate it with Boun Bang Fay, or the Rocket Festival. Villages compete with each other to send large homemade rockets into the sky in an attempt to convince celestial being to send down rain. The rockets can be rather dangerous as they contain a large amount of gunpowder and can sometimes reach several hundred metres. The rocket launching is preempted by parades, musical shows and dance performances. These practices are also apparently quite prevalent in the northern Thai region of Isan.

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Locals performing as part of a street parade for the Yasothon Rocket Festival. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

 

 

 

Tucking Into Chanko Nabe (Sumo Hotpot) @ Saganobori, Ginza, Tokyo

I was going through some old posts from my Japan trip last year and realised that I missed out writing on this.

It was our last night in Tokyo, and as appreciation for our work filming from 3AM – 1PM lol (we were doing a story on the Toyosu Fish Market), our POC / guide Ken-san picked out a place for dinner. It turned out to be Saganobori in Ginza, which is very famous for their chanko nabe, aka sumo hotpot. Reservations are required, so we were really grateful to Ken-san for making all the arrangements – we just showed up for the food!

Sumo wrestling is a big sport and an age-old tradition in Japan. If you thought they are just fat dudes wrestling around in a ring, you are sorely mistaken. A lot of hard work and dedication goes into maintaining their physique, and sumo wrestlers adhere to a rigorous diet and training regime, and follow a strict set of rules.

One of the most recognisable dishes associated with sumo wrestling is chanko nabe, which literally translates to “a meal of hotpot”. There are no specific recipes, but typical ingredients include meat or fish/seafood, and vegetables. One thing they all have in common is the large serving, as chanko nabe is eaten as part of a weight gain diet.

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Cute sumo-themed chopstick holders !

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A couple of pickled appetisers to get things started. The fig with cream sauce (top right) was divine.

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Japanese cuisine is always a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach.

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Tamagoyaki (Sweet omelette) with herbs – fluffy, bouncy and absolutely perfect.

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Small fried shrimp – more snacks to keep us going while they prepared the hotpot.

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It. Was. Massive.

It was the first time I had ever seen such a gigantic hotpot, and it was filled to the brim with beautiful slices of fatty pork belly, humongous squares of tofu, meatballs, mushrooms, vegetables and spring onions in a light dashi broth. This thing could feed a village. Needless to say, we had problems finishing it among the six of us and were basically lying sideways in our chairs by the end of the meal. It was quite wasted, so I don’t recommend getting this unless you’re travelling in a big group or you are a big eater with a bottomless pit for a stomach.

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This was like the third bowl and I was already slowing down considerably lol. Of course, everything was fresh and tasty, especially the pork belly slices. The dashi got more and more flavourful as the night wore on, having soaked up the full flavours of the ingredients.

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The meat and veggies in itself were already very filling – but of course Ken-san had to go and order noodles lol. I’m not sure what they are but they were a little chewy, like udon, but less thick.

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Despite saying we were all full, we somehow found space in our stomach for ice cream (because everyone has a separate dessert stomach, no?). It was an interesting flavour – sea salt – hence the bluish tinge.

We actually sat around eating and drinking green tea (thankfully, I travelled with a group of non-alcoholics!) until closing time. It was actually autumn during our visit and the weather was just starting to get chilly – so it was nice to have something warm and hearty before bedtime.

If you’ve never had sumo hotpot, and are travelling with friends/family in Tokyo, I recommend trying it out at Saganobori. The shop can be a little hard to find because it’s tucked in a quiet side alley (I notice that this is a trend with many famous restos in Tokyo – they often look super unassuming / are hidden in some back alley or other), but with a little determination and a GPS, you’ll be rewarded with a giant bowl of hearty hotpot!

SAGANOBORI 

Address: 7-18-15, Ginza, Chuo 104-0061 Tokyo Prefecture

Website: https://www.saganobori.co.jp

Phone: +81 3-3545-1221

PS: I’m not sure how you can make reservations if you don’t speak Japanese. You may need the assistance of a local.

 

 

Experiencing Japan’s Konbini (Convenience Store) Culture In Tokyo

Japan has a thing for convenience stores (konbini). There are over 50,000 of them throughout the country, and they’re everywhere in Tokyo. There’s a Family Mart at every street corner, a Lawson at every shopping centre, and all of them are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike many convenience stores in other parts of the world, Japanese ones offer not just food and beverages, but also services like ATMs, storage, postal, and even laundry.

I had a small taste of ‘konbini culture’ during my short stay in Tokyo, as my hotel was just across the road from a Family Mart. Staying up late nights to finish writing and having to get up early the next day for assignments, I found myself popping into the store several times a day, to grab a coffee, a bun, a hot meal or just to check out the stuff they had, which I wouldn’t be able to find back home.

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While F&B products take up most of the floor space, the store sells a variety of other goods as well, ranging from clothes and electronics to travel essentials (lotions, creams, sunscreen, etc.), and books and magazines. Heated coffee in a display rack was something that I only discovered a couple of years ago, and it still fascinates me how you can have a cold and warm section for your beverages. Ready-packed bento boxes are just a matter of popping into the microwave and voila! Hot meal.

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Jerky and other snacks

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Ice cream.

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Items like yakisoba (carbs on carbs!) are prepared daily. I was also obsessed with the sweet custard they had on sale. The offerings are all fresh, rather than looking like they’ve sat on the shelf for years like in many hypermarkets in Malaysia. The store I went to also had an ATM machine, a payment terminal, free Wifi, and an area where you could sit down and enjoy your bento.

There is, however, a price to pay for this convenience that people enjoy. Most prominent are issues such as low pay, exhausting working hours and poor work conditions. If you’ve read the brilliant Convenience Store Woman book by Sayaka Murata, it offers an interesting and quirky insight into what goes on behind the almost clinical facade of a convenience store operation.

BONUS: Because I couldn’t find another blog post to plug this in (lol) and it doesn’t seem like it warranted a full one, I stayed at the HOTEL UNIZO GINZA (Nana-Chome), which is conveniently located just a street away from the busy Ginza thoroughfare.

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Space is a premium in Japan; but the room was cosy enough (I like small rooms when travelling alone; it feels ‘safe’, somehow. Like I’m filling up the space). The bed was also very comfortable. There was a work desk, a TV that was strategically placed so I could see it from the bathroom (which had a half bath-tub like most places in Tokyo), a mini fridge and an ironing board for clothes. It was a good thing my luggage bag was small, but even then I had to put it on my bed to open it up fully.

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Actually reminds me of my dorm room back when I was in the UK albeit that was quite a bit larger. Small, neat, cosy.

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Toyosu, Tokyo : An Inside Look Into The World’s Largest Seafood Market

When I initially received the assignment to check out what goes on behind-the-scenes at Toyosu (aka the world’s largest seafood market) – I wasn’t looking forward to it. The itinerary looked crazy (waking up at 2AM, tuna cutting at 3AM, tuna auction at 4!?) … and it wasn’t exactly the Maldives. But I also knew it wasn’t a privilege afforded to many, so what was a couple of sleepless nights?

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting experiences I’ve ever had; proving that some things are worth waking up early for. 

Image courtesy of Xavier Mah Consultancy

If you haven’t yet heard of Toyosu, it’s the modern, new successor of the historic Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, which moved its wholesale operations there in October 2018. The old market was popular with tourists (especially for its tuna auctions) and was deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, so much so that it was called ‘Japan’s Kitchen’. But it was also old and susceptible to the elements. Toyosu, located some two kilometres away by the Bay of Tokyo, would have better, upgraded facilities, streamlined processes, more hygienic conditions, temperature control – all the works. And spanning 40 hectares, 1.7 times larger than Tsukiji, it would be one of the world’s largest seafood markets. Close to 400 wholesalers and businesses made the move.

DAY 1 

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6AM: Arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to Toyosu, we were led by Ken-san (our guide and contact for the trip) into the Intermediate Wholesale Fish Market. A typical day at Toyosu starts as early as 8 or 9 PM the night before, when trucks bearing seafood from all over Japan arrive to offload their goods, which are then sent to various parts of the market for auctions, packing, export, etc. The place was still a hive of activity during our visit, the floor slick with moisture and ice. There were piles of Styrofoam boxes everywhere we turned, and we literally had to dodge the electric turret trucks as they zoomed past bearing cargo. Tourists are not allowed within the premises, so wayward journalists would do well to get out of the way lest they become pancakes.

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We were taken to the packing facilities, where seafood is packed for export. In order to keep everything fresh, temperatures are kept at between 3 to 5 degrees Celsius, and the workers operating forklifts could be seen bundled in thick jackets, beanies and gloves. The temperature was so cold the camera crew that came with us had a hard time getting their equipment to work properly. I was expecting seafood to be everywhere, but everything was neat and orderly – most of the  items had already been packed inside the boxes.

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My knowledge of fish extends to salmon, tuna, mackerel and dory.

The seafood business at Toyosu is a massive machinery, and the process can get pretty complicated. The gist of it is that there are three ‘first wholesalers’, who are responsible for getting seafood from various suppliers and fishermen from all over Japan. A portion of these is for direct export, but the bulk will be sold / auctioned off to intermediate wholesalers, who make up most of the businesses at Toyosu. These intermediate wholesalers then liaise with sushi shops, hypermarkets, hotels, restaurants, etc, or work with distributors, for domestic consumption or export. What’s stopping them from ‘jumping the queue’, so to say? ie why doesn’t an intermediate wholesaler get his supply straight from the fishermen? Well, the Japanese have very traditional work ethics, and violating these business practices, oftentimes built over generations, is a big no-no.

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We were scheduled to interview Yasuhiro Yamazaki-san, the company president of Yamaharu Co., Ltd ie the largest intermediate wholesaler in Toyosu. The main shop, which consisted of several lots, was packed with boxes, leaving a small walkway for customers to squeeze through. The variety was astounding, with loads of seafood I didn’t even have a name for. There was an area where staff members could perform ikijime on live fish. Ikijime is the traditional way of slaughtering fish to maintain the quality of its meat, as it is killed instantly without a struggle, preventing the release of lactic acid and ammonia from muscle movement.

I had always imagined Japanese company presidents to be stern corporate culture-types, but Yamazaki-san was nothing of the sort. Dressed in a hamaguchi (a traditional headband) and rubber boots, his demeanour was friendly. Even so,  he had an obvious leader vibe: one whom employees would respect and follow through thick and thin because he’s hands-on with the work, not just telling people what to do from a cozy office chair. Having been in the business for close to three decades, he was obviously very knowledgeable about seafood, sharing with us many pearls of wisdom, from what season certain fish was best consumed, to how to determine if a fish was fresh or not. The Pacific Saury, for example, would develop a yellow tip on its beak once it has been out in the open for awhile. Another thing that fascinated me about the entire setup at Toyosu is how businesses and their customers have relationships dating back years and years. Many of the patrons that come to shop at Yamazaki-san’s shop had obviously been with him for a long time, and they bantered with him (as well as other staff members) like old friends.

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A giant oyster the size of someone’s head.

Yamazaki-san shared that the most expensive seafood he’s ever auctioned for (in relation to its portion) was … drum roll sea urchin. 750,000 yen (about RM28,000 / 7,000 USD) for one kilogramme, to be exact. Does he even make a profit? “When buying these things I only think about supply good quality items to my customers, so I always instruct my people to not think about profit when doing the auctions. Think about supplying customers good quality.” was the answer.

All isn’t hunky dory, however. The seafood catch has been going down year-on-year, with Yamazaki-san sharing that the catch for sanma (ie Pacific saury) was only 1/30th the previous year – one of the worst he has ever seen. Still, he isn’t too pessimistic, as he believes that the seasons have changed and that good seafood is still available – it’s all a matter of catching them at the right season.

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We ventured up to the fourth floor of the building, which houses Uogashi Yokocho. Here you can find a bunch of shops catering to restaurant chefs and culinary professionals, with items such as kitchen utensils, high-grade chef knives and more – but they also have stalls selling souvenirs, snacks and spices for general visitors. There weren’t many visitors during our visit, because there was a typhoon the night before and some public transportation was still grounded.

DAY 2 

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3AM: Chugging coffee from Family Mart and trying to keep our eyes open, we returned to Toyosu – this time to watch the tuna cutting. When you talk about prized seafood in Japan, tuna always comes to mind. The specimens we saw – wheeled in on trolleys and hauled onto the cutting table – were gigantic, clocking in at 80+ kilos. I later learned that these were actually farmed tuna, ie they were smaller than wild-caught tuna that average between 200 to 300 kilos wtf. There are several types of tuna; the most expensive being the bluefin, followed by yellowfin, skipjack and albacore.

Slicing the tuna up is no mean feat, and it was fascinating to watch. Larger tuna had to be managed by two workers. The knives they used were long like machetes, but less curved. We chatted up the boss and he mentioned that it might take an apprentice up to two years to master the art of cutting up a whole tuna. More impressive was the fact that the carcasses were sliced clean with very little meat left on the bone – the thin layer covering it was almost translucent.

Photo courtesy of Xavier Mah Consultancy

What’s your favourite cut of tuna? Mine is otoro (tuna belly). It has this melt-in-the-mouth texture that’s indescribably umami. It’s also the most expensive.

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Killing time while waiting for the tuna auction.

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Making our way to the tuna auction observation deck, we passed through an information centre for tourists, which had a replica of the largest tuna ever caught and sold at Tsukiji – a beast weighing half a tonne – captured back in the 1980s. Bluefin tuna can live up to 40 years, so imagine how long it must have taken for the fish to get to this size!

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At Tsukiji, a select number of visitors each day were allowed to enter the auction floor. This is no longer the case at Toyosu. Instead, you watch the process from a second-floor deck, separated by foggy glass. To be frank, it doesn’t make much of a viewing experience. If you book in advance through the Toyosu website, you can get a little closer (the first floor), which was where we were. You’re still separated by a glass, but the top is not covered and you can at least hear what’s going on.

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4.30 AM: The tuna auction begins around 4, and lasts for about an hour. There is a section for frozen tuna, and a section for fresh tuna. Toting torchlights, buyers inspected the fish, checking the colour and fattiness. When the floor opened, signaled by the ringing of a bell, buyers raised their hands using teyari, or digit gestures, to indicate their bids and the quantity of products they want to purchase. It was like this magical sign language that only they knew; I could barely keep up with the raised hands before the auctioneer called out who had won.

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5.30AM: Auction over and the sun rising, we made our way to the third floor where there are restaurants. More coffee!

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Tsukiji’s most famous sushi joint – Sushi Dai – moved with it when the wholesale operations relocated to Toyosu. The queue is insane, and you’ll often have to wait for several hours just to get a seat, but some people swear by it. Photo above is of another (less crowded) shop. Of course, all of the seafood served at the restos come directly from the market itself.

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There’s a nicely landscaped garden at the rooftop of the building, which gives visitors beautiful views of the Tokyo metropolitan area from across the Bay.

10 AM: Our next interview was with the president of the largest first wholesaler at Toyosu,  Hiroyuki Taguchi-san of Daiichi Suisan Co., Ltd.

Like Yamazaki-san, Taguchi-san has been in the business for many years, half a decade, to be exact. Prior to the interview, I had heard that he was good friends with many notable businessmen, politicians and people in high places, as befitting the president of a large company – but again, was pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth he seemed to be. This man has over a hundred employees under his wing, but was insisting we eat the cakes like an elderly grandpa spoiling his visiting grandchildren. Speaking of grandpas, Taguchi-san’s grandfather was a pioneer at Tsukiji, so this was very much an old family business. He patiently answered all our questions even though we went way past the allocated time.

We popped over to the fruits and vegetable market in another building, then came back to get the equipment we left behind. There was some sort of exhibition / event going on so we stuck our nose there as well. It turned out to be some sort of food expo where distributors and wholesalers were exhibiting the best of their products, from fresh seafood to processed goods. Of course we couldn’t say no to free samples…

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We finally wrapped up around 1PM, having spent the last 12 hours filming and interviewing. It was tiring af, but I was glad for the experience, and to understand better the process of how the seafood that we enjoy gets served from farm to fork, or ocean to chopsticks (?? lame). I was also touched by the passion and dedication that many of the people – Taguchi-san, Yamazaki-san, as well as all the staffers – have for their work. It’s not just about money, but also delivering the best, and there’s a strong sense of pride in what they do.

IS TOYOSU FISH MARKET WORTH VISITING FOR TOURISTS? 

Tsukiji had that traditional charm which attracted tourists from all over the world, but it was also bad for business because it’s difficult to sell stuff when you have hordes of tourists and their cameras getting in the way of your actual customers, crowding the store and messing up items. Toyosu was built primarily for business, with all the comforts of modern technology: being indoors, it has temperature control according to product, and the loading bays are designed for trucks rather than trains as they were with Tsukiji.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t visit, because they do have facilities for tourists, ie the observation deck, the restaurants, the rooftop garden and the shops. Plans are also in the works for a recreational area with its own onsen and shops where visitors can buy fresh vegetables and fish. If you want an insight into the seafood industry in Japan, Toyosu is a worthwhile stop.

GETTING THERE 

Getting to Toyosu can be tricky since it’s a bit out of the way. If you’re taking the JR Yamanote Line from Tokyo Station, travel to Yurakucho and switch to the Yurakucho Subway Line, headed to Toyosu. There, take the Yurikamome to Shijo-mae Station, where you’ll alight and see signs directing you to the buildings (accessible via pedestrian walkways). Else, take a taxi from nearby Odaiba.

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Visiting Tsukiji Honganji: Why Is There An Indian-Looking Temple In Tokyo?

There are plenty of beautiful traditional Buddhist and Shinto temples around Tokyo – but one, in particular, piqued my curiosity as I was Googling for places to explore around Tsukiji. Located not too far from where Tsukiji Market used to stand, Tsukiji Honganji is a Buddhist temple of the Jodo Shinsu sect, the largest in Japan, with a history dating back to the 16th century. What is notable, however, is the temple’s appearance, which is modelled after ancient Hindu / Buddhist temples from India.

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Physically, there’s nothing left of the ‘original’ temple, which was totalled in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The current building was completed in 1934, and features many elements common to Hindu temples in India. Rather than the usual red typical of many Japanese temples, the Hongan-ji has a granite-brown hue; as well as dome-like shapes, elaborate carvings and even a pair of stone lions guarding the staircase to the main hall.

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The main hall, aka Hondo.

Japan is known to be more culturally homogenous than many other countries around the world, so it was amazing to see the blend of different cultural elements at the temple. While the interior features many Japanese elements, it also had foreign touches as well, such as a towering 2,000-pipe organ from Germany, and stained glass windows. I also felt it quite unusual to be in a temple with so little red – an auspicious colour for many East Asian cultures – but instead has lots of elegant black and gold.

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The main altar, with a Buddha at its centre. The temple also houses several important artifacts, making it a popular pilgrimage site.

 

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Getting There 

The temple is a 2-minute walk from Tsukiji Metro station.

HONGAN-JI 

3 Chome-15-1 Tsukiji, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan

Opening hours: 6AM – 5PM

Hamarikyu Gardens @ Chuo, Tokyo – A Green Respite From The Tokugawa Shogunate

Despite being an ultra-modern metropolis, Tokyo has beautiful green spaces – like the Hamarikyu Gardens in Chuo-ku, just a stone’s throw away from Ginza. Like an oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle, these tranquil gardens once served as the hunting grounds and imperial R&R spot for the Tokugawa clan, in Edo-era Tokyo.

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I was only able to visit at 4PM – leaving me an hour to explore the place. There had been a typhoon the night before, so some sections of the park were closed for repairs, but there was still plenty to see – like the majestic 300-year-old pine tree greeting visitors at the entrance. Typical of Japanese parks, many of the trees and rocks felt carefully composed and structured, with wide gravel paths and immaculately manicured lawns.

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Each season offers a different view – in the hazy summer heat, tiny yellow cosmos peppered the field. In spring, visitors will be privy to blooming plum and cherry blossoms, while fall brings with it autumn foliage on maple and gingko trees.

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Ignoring the shadow of the buildings surrounding the park, it’s easy to imagine how the royals would use the park as a tranquil retreat, hunting ducks from behind blinds or enjoying tea by the pond.

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Reconstruction of traditional buildings

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The park is built around a man-made lake, which draws its water from the Bay of Tokyo.

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Drop by for a spot of tea at the park’s traditional tea house, which is built on a platform at the edge of the lake, giving it the appearance that it’s floating. Visiting is free, or you can order a matcha for a fee.

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The Hamarikyu Gardens is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo for a couple of hours, and it’s also less crowded than some other parks in the city, such as the Imperial Palace East Garden or Kiyosumi Teien – so you’re almost always guaranteed of having the vast grounds to yourself (or close enough to it). It’s also very accessible, being a 5-minute walk from Shiodome Station or a 15-minute walk from Shimbashi Station. Entrance is 300 yen (RM 11 / USD 2.64).

 

 

 

 

One Night In Ginza, Tokyo

With its bespoke boutiques, branded luxury stores, glitzy malls and chic eateries, Ginza is widely considered to be one of Japan’s (if not the world’s) most luxurious and elegant shopping districts. Today, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than classy and upscale – but did you know that Ginza was actually built over a filled-in swamp in the 167th century? Together with two other districts – Nihonbashi and Kanda – they formed the original downtown centre of Edo-era Tokyo.

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During my stay in Tokyo, I was based in a quiet street just behind the main shopping thoroughfare, which made it very convenient to access the area. Unfortunately due to work and time constraints, I only got one full night to explore what Ginza had to offer; barely a tiny glimpse. It was an interesting glimpse, nevertheless. While the rest of the group took the train to Shinjuku, I wandered around Ginza poking my nose into random shops and department stores.

(Above) The Wako Store, housed in an art deco building that dates back to the 1930s. You’d know Wako now as Seiko, the jewellery and watches brand. The clocktower plays the Westminster Chimes tune every hour.

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The Nissan showroom at the eponymously-named Nissan Crossing, where pedestrians can ogle at the latest high-tech vehicles from the car-manufacturing giant through a glass window.

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As the sun sets over Tokyo, Ginza comes to life, like a magical wonderland of lights filled with a sea of people. Couples stroll hand in hand down the pavement, loud Chinese tourists flaunt their bags of luxury goods, businessmen with sweaty foreheads and crisp suits congregate for a beer and some after-hours socialising, and impeccably-dressed women with the air of rich tai tais push their baby strollers forward.

(Above) Tokyu Plaza, where tourists can enjoy duty free shopping.

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Popped into UNIQLO’s flagship store – which spans a mind-boggling 12 floors. Most of the floors had a display section in the middle with mannequins dressed in the latest fashion pieces. Not big on shopping tbh so I did not spend too much time here, but this will probably be a pilgrimage site for Uniqlo fans.

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One of the peeps I was travelling with was going on about Ginza Six, one of the newest shopping complexes in the area, so I went to see what the hype was all about. It was nice, but again, malls aren’t really my thing (excluding the grocery store + restaurants). What I really liked, though, was the bookstore on the top floor, and the rooftop garden which had an open concept an several interesting art installations. If you’re into branded things, then the flagship stores for Fendi, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent can be found within the building. There is also a Noh theatre, and banquet hall facilities.

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As much as I love sushi, raw fish doesn’t sit well in my stomach these days (getting old and shit). For some inexplicable reason, I also found myself craving a burger lol. Now, fast food isn’t big in Japan because they’ve got all these healthy, delicious and wholesome restaurants to choose from, but they do have a brand called Lotteria, which was originally from South Korea. I found one hidden in an underground nook (you have to descend a staircase into the basement). It seemed largely frequented by locals – I mean, what tourist comes to Ginza and eats fast food, amirite? Oh, wait…

(Above) The setting is catered more towards single diners. After placing your order, they give you a pink slip which you have to clip on the top of the divider, and they’ll send your food to the table.

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Shrimp burger isn’t something we see much in KL (God I miss the ones at Wendy’s before they took it off the menu), so I had to get that. It was close to a 1,000 yen for the set, ie about RM40 lol probably the most I’ve paid for fast food, apart from that Burger King I got at the Hong Kong airport a couple of years ago. I wasn’t expecting it to be American-sized, but boy was the portion paltry. This is why you don’t see fat people in Japan…

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All things considered, I loved the shrimp burger. The patty was fried and breaded well, and was chock full of shrimp rather than flour or filler. Add to that tangy mayonnaise, a slice of cheese, some cabbage to cut through the grease and plain, soft buns.

There are many things to see in Ginza, and it carries well its moniker as a shopper’s paradise. Even for non-shoppers, it is close enough to several attractions such as the Hamarikyu Gardens (will detail in another post), art galleries and museums, making it a great base for travellers.

Where would you visit if you had one night in Ginza?