Suzukien X Nanaya @ Asakusa, Tokyo – The World’s Strongest Matcha Ice-Cream

What do you get when you marry a venerable tea house with over 150 years of history, with a popular confectionery chain? If your answer is the world’s most intensely flavoured matcha ice cream, then you’d be right.

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Suzukien, located in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo (just across the road from Sensoji Temple), prides itself in serving Premium No.7, aka a gelato so packed with the flavours of matcha, your tastebuds will do a stop, drop and roll.

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There are seven ‘degrees’ of matcha flavoured gelato served here, each more intense than the last. You can tell by the colouration itself, with the no.7 boasting a rich, almost dark green hue. The store can get pretty crowded, but they do have a small space at the back where you can indulge in your ice cream for a bit (standing room only).

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I was a little apprehensive to go all the way, so I picked something in between – probably a 2 or a 3. The matcha flavour was pretty pronounced, but mildly sweet, cool and refreshing – perfect for the summer heat.

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Aside from ice cream, you can find a variety of matcha products and tea souvenirs for sale here.

Suzukien @ Asakusa

3 Chome-4-3 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan

Opening hours: 10AM – 5PM (daily)

 

Review: Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan @ Tsukiji Outer Market, Tokyo

On my last trip to Japan, I was fortunate enough to experience many off-the-beaten path gems, from visiting thatched-roof villages in Gokayama to strolling through one of the country’s most beautifully landscaped gardens in Kanazawa.

This time around, I had a couple of days in Tokyo – the country’s modern, bustling capital. While most of it was spent on a work-related assignment, our group managed to squeeze in time to visit a couple of places – many thanks to our guide Ken-san, who brought us to both popular attractions and little spots that only the locals would know.

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After a morning work briefing at his office, Ken-san brought us to the site of the old Tsukiji Market. Many visitors to Tokyo would have visited (or at least heard) of the iconic Tsukiji Market, a sprawling wholesale seafood market located in the heart of the city. Opened in 1935, it replaced an even older market nearby called Nihonbashi, and was famous for its tuna auctions.

The market shuttered and moved its wholesale operations to the newer Toyosu Market, some two kilometres away, in October last year, citing better facilities and hygiene. The restaurants and shops outside Tsukiji, however, have remained – and they still get their seafood fresh from Toyosu (from the same wholesalers that were operating at Tsukiji) each morning.

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One of the area’s most famous sushi restaurants, which has since moved to Toyosu (you gotta line up for 2-3 hours to get in) was called Sushi Dai. I was initially confused when looking up the name of the restaurant we dined at, because it sounded so similar, but have now confirmed that they’re not related. That is not to say that Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan is not worth a visit, because we found the sushi to be excellent. No long wait as well!

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You know a place is good when it’s mostly locals. I think we were the only foreigners dining in during lunch time. The space was rather cramped (as it usually is with many Japanese restos), but cosy, with multiple floors. We settled into a corner and let Ken-san do the ordering while we sipped on green tea.

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Our first platter of five nigiri sushi. I can’t even recall all of them (lol), but from second left, tuna, ika (squid), ebi (shrimp) and hotate (scallop). Needless to say, everything was very fresh, and the nigiri was expertly done with no flaky rice bits – just firm balls of rice covered by beautifully sliced fish and seafood.

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Next, grilled anago (eel), ikura (salmon roe), kampachi (yellowtail), and maki rolls stuffed with sliced cucumber and tuna, plus sweet egg rolls. Don’t let their simple appearance fool you – the egg rolls are laborious to make and require much skill, as they have to be folded in a special pan with minute timing.

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Ikura – glistening, briny bubbles that burst when you pop them in your mouth.

While I have not had the good fortune to try Sushi Dai (ie ‘the best sushi in Japan according to some travelers), I think this is a good alternative if you, like me, can’t stand queueing up for hours just to have a meal! Prices for the platters vary, from 1,000 yen to 2,000 yen depending on the number and variety of items.

TSUKIJI SUSHIDAI HONKAN 

6-21-2, Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan

Business hours: 10.30AM – 4.00PM (Mon – Sat), 11AM – 10PM (Sun)

 

Travelogue Japan: An Unagi Dinner in Nagoya City

Our five days in Japan was coming to a close. We spent our last night in Nagoya, a bustling metropolis and Chubu’s largest city. There was finally some time for free and easy (our schedule had been so jam-packed, it was difficult to even shop for souvenirs!), and I spent an evening wandering around my hotel, popping into convenience stores and malls to see what I could get for fam and friends back home.

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View across the street from our hotel. The tall, modern buildings, neon lights and flurry of activity was definitely a big change from the rural countryside and quaint towns we had been visiting for the last five days. I’m a city girl through and through, so this was a comforting, familiar sight. Restaurants and shops were open til late instead of closing at 6PM and the streets came to life with malls, cafes, karaoke joints and izakayas as the sun set.

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Our guide Mariko-san took us to a local izakaya (unfortunately the place didn’t have an English sign so I can’t tell what it’s called) around the bend for our last dinner together. Like many traditional Japanese restaurants, the tables were low with a space for guests to place their feet underneath, or kneel on the pillows if they chose to.

Since Nagoya is a port city and close to the sea, fresh seafood is readily available. We ordered fried ebi tempura, which were some of the largest I’ve ever seen. The batter was light and crisp, sealing the moisture and juiciness of the springy shrimp on the inside. The cabbage on the side helped to reduce the greasiness.

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Mariko-san had some coupons, so we redeemed a plate of fried sesame chicken wings, apparently a specialty in Nagoya. The wings didn’t have much meat on them but the flavour was really good – sweet and slightly salty – with the fragrance of sesame.

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Squid sashimi. The naturally sweet flavour of the seafood was brought out when dipped in a hint of soy sauce.

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Fried squid with shisho leaf, also lightly battered and fried to perfection.

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Another local specialty that we tried was the Unagi (eel) on fluffy Japanese rice, served with pickles. The eel had a slightly smoky, charred flavour as it had been grilled over a charcoal fire,slowly basted with a sweet sauce on top. Muslim travelers should note that the sauce has sake (alcohol) in it – a fact my colleague was unaware of until he had eaten more than half lol (I didn’t know either).

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Night view in Nagoya.

Japan has been an amazing experience, and I hope that it wasn’t ‘once-in-a-lifetime’, because I definitely plan on revisiting other places!

 

Travelogue Japan: Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, Nagoya

Nagoya is an interesting blend of old and new. On one hand, the city has a rich history that dates back to the founding of Nagoya Castle, once the Tokugawa Shogunate’s stronghold. On the other, you have the city’s current status as the fourth largest city in Japan and a major maritime port.

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After the war, which reduced many old parts of Japan to rubble, the country was in shambles – but from the ashes, a new Japan arose –  through its manufacturing sector, especially in the field of technology and robotics. A fitting last stop to our visit, then, was to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. 

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Nagoya is the birthplace of Toyota, but did you know that the brand did not start as an automotive manufacturer, but rather a textile factory? (I didn’t). Also, they were first called Toyoda, after Kiichiro Toyoda, its founder. The museum, which pays tributes to its early roots, can be found in an old red brick warehouse built in the 1910s.

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The first section of the museum is dedicated to its early days as a textile manufacturer. As such, visitors will find looms, threads and textile-related machines on display.

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Takayama/Nagoya

Spacious exhibition hall filled with old models.

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The 1930s saw the company breaking into the automotive sector, taking its first step into becoming the automotive giant we know of today. A large section of the museum is dedicated to showcasing the technology used in the manufacture of its cars, from the casting of the body to the components. Some machines on display are operational, so that visitors can see how everything is put together!

Takayama/Nagoya

Takayama/Nagoya

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A giant press (?), which roared to life at the push of a button and filled the hall with clanking.

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How the outer shell is fitted together.

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At the end of the day, there is a violin performance by the museum’s resident robot – the company’s foray into advanced robotics. The robot played Canon in D and another classical song. While it lacked the oomph that is human emotion, it certainly had technical prowess!

TOYOTA COMMEMORATIVE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY AND TECHNOLOGY 

4 Chome-1-35 Noritakeshinmachi, Nishi-ku, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 451-0051, Japan

Opening hours: 9.30AM – 5PM (closed on Mondays, last entry 4PM)

Phone: +81 52-551-6115

Admission: 500 yen

 

 

Travelogue Japan: Nagoya Castle, Nagoya

You know the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’? I couldn’t have agreed more – our five days in Japan felt like it was coming to an end too soon! Our last overnight stop before flying back to Tokyo was Nagoya, the country’s fourth largest city and a major maritime port.

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We caught a mid-morning train from Takayama, a three-hour ride away. Mariko-san bought us these adorable sarubobo (baby monkey) -shaped lunchboxes for lunch. Every meal in Japan that we’ve had so far was meticulously presented – bentos bought from any regular convenience store were no exception.

I had the stir-fried beef with shredded egg and fried fish cakes on a bed of fluffy white rice, served with half a boiled egg, some pickles, boiled prawn and some kombu (kelp).

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View as our train cut through the countryside. We saw swathes of green paddy fields and vegetable farms, quaint villages and in some parts of the journey, beautiful river gorges running through valleys and hills.

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Takayama/Nagoya

Arrived in Nagoya in the afternoon.

Compared to the small towns and rural cities on our itinerary, Nagoya was massive and very modern. We stayed in the city centre, which was surrounded by tall buildings, malls and offices.

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Had a quick rest and then it was off again to Nagoya Castle! Built in the 16th century, it was the ruling centre of the Owari clan, one of the three branches of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, and therefore ranked among the grandest castles in Japan during the Edo era. Unfortunately the original structure was bombed to bits during World War II, so the building we see today is a reconstruction made from concrete, built in 1959.

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We were lucky that we got to visit in the summer,because the Japanese government decided to close it in November this year for a major undertaking – to restore the main keep to its original wooden state. As such, the keep will be closed until 2020.

Fret not though – the castle’s palace (Honmaru Goten), which is in front of the main keep, will be completed in Spring 2018 , and will be open to the public for viewing. The palace, which was also destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt using traditional construction materials and techniques.

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Mythical golden tiger-headed carps called Kinshachi are a symbol of the castle and two of them, one male and one female, top either end of the castle roof. They were believed to be talismans to prevent fires… ironic, seeing that the originals were destroyed in a fire (can’t win against the evil of man) and their gold colouring, a symbol of the wealth and prestige of the Tokugawa empire. The carps we see today are reconstructed models, each weighing over a tonne with 40+kg of gold plating.

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Although we knew it was a reconstruction, we couldn’t help feeling awed at how majestic the castle looked! It must have been even more impressive during its heyday. Sitting atop a high stone wall and surrounded by a moat, it would have made mounting an assault on the keep exceedingly difficult. The main keep towers five storeys-high, with curving green roofs and white walls.

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Interesting tidbit: Building of the castle was not done by the Tokugawa family alone. Instead, they portioned it out to daimyos (lords) under them, each in charge of one section of the castle. The lords would leave carvings of their crests so there would be no dispute over who built what. Pretty ingenious.

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Since it’s a popular tourist attraction, visitors will find costumed-actors roaming around the courtyard, like ninjas…

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And historical figures.

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The inside of the castle has been converted into a museum, where you will find exhibits like the above, which details how the giant slabs of rock were hauled to the site by labourers.

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We climbed to the top which has a small observation deck with 360 degree views of the city! Surrounding the castle are the imperial gardens, a huge green lung in the midst of all the developments.

GETTING THERE 

From Nagoya Station, hop on the Higashiyama Subway Line to Sakae Station. Then, change to the Meijo Subway Line to Shiyakusho Station. The total journey time takes 10 minutes. From the exit, it is a three minute walk to the castle.

By bus, the castle’s main gate is accessible by the Meguru tourist loop bus (25 minutes).

Admission : 500 yen (RM18 – USD4)

Hours: 9AM – 430PM (last entry 4PM)

Travelogue Japan: Old Merchant’s Street @ Takayama Historic District, Gifu

Takayama is a gorgeous place. It’s modern enough that you get all the trappings of a city, but rural enough to give it a rustic charm. Takayama’s rich timber sources and skilled carpenters (said to have worked on many castles in Kyoto and Edo) made it an important outpost for the ruling elite (hence, the establishment of the local government office, Takayama Jinya). Visitors will see many original buildings preserved in the old parts of town.

Kanazawa, Japan

The Miyagawa River cuts a swathe through many parts of town, twisting and turning through the landscape like a giant, watery snake. The water is crystal clear, making it possible to see to the bottom of the river bed! In certain spots there are also koi fish.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

The old merchant’s district is a must visit while in town. Consisting of three pedestrian-only streets, the area is lined with dozens of double-storey wooden shophouses, some of which have been converted into museums, teahouses, cafes and souvenir shops. The area gained a reputation as the ‘little Kyoto of Hida’. A unique feature of the buildings are its latticed bay windows. There are also a number of sake breweries here, distinguished by the sugidama (cedar ball) hanging out front.

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The lack of vehicles and ‘modern’ fixtures transports you back to the Edo era!

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Rabbits are a popular symbol of Takayama. The people believed that like the rabbit, which has long ears, a good government should listen to the voice of its people. Rabbits also represented fertility and were a guardian against fires. You’ll find many souvenir shops selling cute ornaments and rabbit-related paraphernalia along the street.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

I love the hina-style rabbit dolls that they had dressed in traditional Japanese costumes. So cute and elaborate! This will set you back a mere 50,000 yen (RM1810 – or USD440!).

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

A museum with old samurai gear on display.

Kanazawa, Japan

As the sky darkened, we slipped into a restaurant for dinner. To cater to a growing Muslim clientele, the resto has halal meat dishes! I really wanted to try the beef, which Hida is famous for, but since our guide had ordered all chicken meals for convenience, I only got to try it the next day at the morning market.

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Beautiful set with rice, tofu, miso soup, salad and chicken, which we grilled over a small fire.

Kanazawa, Japan

Everything was fresh and tasty! I liked the whole DIY vibe where I could grill the meat according to my liking, although the pan did take a long time to heat up.

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Juicy and ready for eating. 🙂

Getting To Takayama 

If you’re coming from major cities in Honshu such as Nagoya, Kyoto or Tokyo, the city is best accessed by Shinkansen (bullet train). Takayama is about 300km away from Tokyo. Useful guide here.

 

 

 

 

 

Travelogue Japan: Takayama Jinya, Last Surviving Government Building From The Edo Era

The Hida region around Takayama was once prized for its valuable timber resources, so it was only natural for the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate to dispatch officials to oversee things at the place. To cater to this, a local government office was built, which is the Takayama Jinya we see today.

As the only building of its kind to be preserved from the Edo era, the Takayama Jinya has been declared a historical asset and national treasure. For over 177 years, Tokugawa samurai have been dispatched from Edo as administrators, tax officers and policemen. During the Meiji Restoration, the building continued to be used by local government officials, right up til 1969. Now home to a museum, visitors can experience life as it was for ruling samurai in the Edo era.

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The spacious compound is decorated with ripple-like sand patterns, which is an emblem of the Tokugawa family that represents the sea.

Kanazawa, Japan

The main building has numerous tatami-mat rooms and sliding doors, which allowed for plenty of natural light to filter in. ‘Employees’ sat on the floor and worked at low tables. The rooms contrasted starkly to old buildings I have visited in Europe, which were often elaborate and covered in detailing. Here, the aesthetic is simple and Zen-like, the furniture minimal.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

It may not look like it from the outside, but the place was massive! Long corridors and passageways opened up into new buildings, interspersed with beautifully landscaped gardens. The living quarters were a bit more cheerful, with more furniture, as well as decorative scrolls and paintings hung up on the walls.

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Kitchen area where meals would be prepared by servants. The servants quarters were also located nearby.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

The Takayama Jinya also had an interrogation room where they would keep prisoners (!) accused of various crimes.

Next to the main building is a rice storehouse built in the 1600s, which now houses belongings and documents of past feudal lords, town blueprints as well as old maps of the region.

TAKAYAMA JINYA 

Opening hours: 845AM – 5PM (430PM from November to February, until 6PM in August)

Admission: 430yen

Getting There 

The Jinya is a 10-minute walk from Takayama Station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelogue Japan: Rail Mountain Bike @ Gattan-Go! in Hida City

They say that once you know how to balance yourself on a bike, you’ll never forget how to ride it. While that’s partially true, the last time I tried re-riding one after 10+ years almost ended up in me being flattened into a pancake (read  story HERE). I was understandably wary when our guide in Japan, Mariko-San, announced in the car that we’d be heading to a ‘mountain biking’ place next. I mean, it’s already difficult for me to ride on flat ground, and now you want me to bike on a mountain!?

image credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

…… Oh. 

Turns out it was ‘sort of’ flat land after all, and the bikes she was referring to were railroad mountain bikes – basically bikes that have been attached to a railroad track on rollers! 😀

This unique activity in the Hida region of Gifu was the brainchild of illustrious locals, who decided to convert part of the disused 2.9km track (which formerly served the Okuhida-Onsenguchi station in Hida and Inotani Station in Toyama) into a tourist attraction. And so, in 2006, the Rail Mountain Bike Gattan Go (a Japanese term similar to ‘clickety clack’ in English) was born.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

There are several ‘models’ to choose from, including family-friendly ones that have a carriage at the back for the little ones.

Since we were a group of four, I took the front with Mariko-san, and the two guys followed from the back. A safe distance needs to be kept between the bikes so the instructors let us gain some ground before releasing the next set.

Before we set off, there was a safety briefing and a brochure to read (in simple English, if you can’t understand Japanese). We also had to wear protective safety helmets. Loose items need to be stored as it will be difficult to retrieve if they fall onto the track. You CANNOT jump off or stop during the ride (kind of like the motorised jeeps in Jurassic Park – and we all know what happened when they stopped lol).

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

And… off we went!

The bikes rolled faster than I anticipated! Every now and then there was a loud “CLANK!” as it went over a notch in the railroad track, but the ride was anything but bumpy. If you’re lazy to walk but would still like to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery of Hida, I 100% recommend riding the Gattan-Go. As the wind rushes through your hair, you’ll see verdant green landscapes on both sides, sometimes passing through high ledges that offer sweeping views of the quaint rural Japanese towns below.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

A vivid red bridge spanning across a roaring river. I couldn’t stop the bike so I precariously balanced the DSLR on my arm while taking 10x shots hoping one will turn out good lol (don’t try this at home kids).

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Riding past the backyards of some homes.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Some parts of the track passed through tunnels that cut across the mountains. The tunnels were pitch black, and I could hear rushing water in the darkness even over the loud clanks of the bike roller against the rails. We also passed by several disused stations, some of which have small shrines next to them dedicated to local deities.

Kanazawa, Japan

End of the line! We had to stop so that the staff could turn the bike in the other direction. There was a basin nearby which was filled with fresh mountain water. Cool, refreshing and sweet!

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Heading back to the starting point with more gorgeous scenery.

The entire trip took us about an hour, but it sure didn’t feel like it!

Kanazawa, Japan

This ‘tunnel’ cookie was almost too cute to eat.

Almost.

Due to Japan’s changing seasons, RMTB Gattan-Go! only operates from April to September from 9AM – 4.30PM (8 slots per day) and October to November from 9AM-3.30PM (7 slots per day).

Price is at 1000 yen per pax.

RAILROAD MOUNTAIN BIKE GATTAN GO 

〒506-1147
Azumo, Kamioka-cho, Hida City

Getting There 

The attraction is accessible via buses and taxi from JR Takayama Station or Okuhida Hot Spring Villages (55-60mins).

Website