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Japanese Festival – Nihon Matsuri 2022 @ Stadium Bukit Jalil, KL

The past two years have been tough for businesses, especially those involving events. But with restrictions now lifted and most sectors essentially back to ‘normal’, events are back in full swing. In fact, like the ‘revenge shopping’ phenomena (where people splurge to make up for not being able to spend during the pandemic), I think we’re having ‘revenge attending’, where crowds are flocking back to events after months of repressing their need for social activities.

I’m still cautious about going to crowded places (not just because of COVID, but also because I don’t like people in general. LOL). But there was a “Nihon Matsuri” (Japanese festival) happening in town that the Hubs expressed interest in attending after seeing banners of it along the highway. It didn’t look like a very big scale event (unlike Bon Odori three weeks ago, which saw a 50,000-strong turnout), and it was going to be held in an open-air space ie the carpark at Stadium Bukit Jalil, so we thought we’d check it out over the weekend.

The event, organized by local events and comms company Trumpet International, was held over five days from July 27 to July 31. We went on the second last day, which was a Saturday night. In retrospect, I think this was a bad choice, because although it was an open-air venue and it was not ‘packed’ in that sense, there was still a massive weekend crowd. There was also a RM10 entry fee. For the price, I think it would have been nice if they had given us a complimentary bottle of mineral water or a cheap fan or something, at least.

So what was there to see at the festival?

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The first thing we saw at the entrance was a series of torii, or traditional archways found at Shinto temples, complete with ‘blooming’ cherry blossoms, as well as Japanese-style lanterns. It looked great for photography, but since there were so many people queueing up to go in, it was difficult to get a good shot without people in the frame.

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An Instagram-bf hard at work capturing his partner’s photo
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The organisers had spaced everything far apart so there was lots of room for people to mill about, which helped with crowd control in some areas. When I wasn’t comfortable with an area because there were too many people clustered there, I at least had the option to move to another space, which would have been difficult in a closed setting.

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Standing alone in a corner was a makeshift sushi bar, serving omakase for RM349+ per pax.

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The plebs, on the other hand, had the choice of regular tarpaulin booths selling street snacks such as Sushi, tempura, takoyaki, bento, and grilled meat on skewers. The queues were extremely long, and I think most of them ran out of food by 9PM even though new visitors were still coming in.

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The festival’s central area featured cherry blossom ‘trees’ decorated with fairy lights, and raised wooden platforms for dining, giving the place a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) feel.

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Photo wall featuring a mix of traditional Japanese artwork and modern pop art.

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Another popular photo fixture featured rows of white lanterns. Japanese lanterns tend to be capsule-shaped compared to Chinese lanterns, which are usually spherical.

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There was a booth offering yukata rental services, and I saw many ladies walking around in beautiful, colourful dresses. There was also the occasional cosplayer.

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Ema (wooden plaque) board where visitors could hang up their wishes!
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We came at a good time and managed to catch two performances. The first was a Kendo performance with swords. It was meant to be a meditative performance, so there was no music. I think the idea was to showcase the beauty and grace in each movement, as the practitioners sliced through the air with their swords, sometimes swift, at times steady.

The second performance we watched was a Taiko performance. They even inserted some modern theatrical elements into it, playing out a storyline between the students and the master on the large drum.

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One more Instagrammable spot before leaving was the exit tunnel, which had hundreds of colourful paper wishes hanging from the ceiling.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, but I definitely feel that they could have had more booths to justify the RM10 entry fee. There were about 20 food booths at most, and each had an almost hour-long queue; and there were only 2-3 game booths (which were all obviously crowded). Still, it was a nice activity to wile away time over the weekend, and we got to experience a slice of Japanese culture as well.

PS: I hope you liked this post! Please consider supporting my blog via Patreon, so I can make more. Or buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal @erisgoesto.

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9 Culinary Experiences Across Asia for Food Aficionados

With leisure travel picking up again across the globe, now is the best time to pack your suitcases and check in for a stay at these luxury hotels in Asia — where a relaxing vacation and the best gastronomic experiences the region has to offer, await.

Alma Resort Pays Tribute to Vietnam’s Sidewalk Culture

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In homage to the Vietnamese pastime of sipping-brews-on-pavement, Alma has launched Cam Ranh’s most happening venue, Chill’s Snack & Bar. Open 5pm-10pm daily, the street-style venue is anchored by two American-style food trucks near the resort’s vast amphitheater. The menu features popular street beverages such as Vietnamese coffee, fresh fruit juice, and milk tea. Signature coffees are coconut coffee and coffee with fresh milk and tapioca pearls.

Chill’s serves cocktails such as ‘Amphitheater Sunset’ with tequila, orange, grenadine, crème de cassis and lime. The likes of seafood pizza, fruit, shrimp salad, meat sandwiches, cheese sticks and lemongrass chicken feet are written up on the menu board daily. Entertainment includes nightly movies screened under the stars, live music, fire twirlers and flair bartenders.

Meliá Chiang Mai Offers an Array of Exciting Dining Offerings

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A Sunday brunch with fresh seafood on ice, buffet dinner replete with a paella cooking station, and mojito menu with a Spanish and Thai spin are among Meliá Chiang Mai’s new dining offerings from 1 July to 30 September. Staged on the first and last Sunday of the month, ‘Brunch del Domingo’ features Spanish, Mediterranean and Thai offerings including charcuterie, chilled prawns, Mediterranean salads and a live cooking station.

Highlights of “¡Es viernes!” international dinner buffet, held on the first and last Friday night of the month, include tapas and pinchos, and live cooking of gambas al ajillo and grilled river prawns. The mojito menu adds wild berries, passionfruit, pineapple, watermelon and lemongrass to the cocktail’s traditional ingredients. 

Immerse in the Local Culture at Azerai Resorts

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Azerai has launched a new experiences menu with a strong culinary focus to help immerse guests in the local culture at the brand’s three resorts in Vietnam: Azerai La Residence, Hue in the former imperial capital, Azerai Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, and the beachfront Azerai Ke Ga Bay.

At Azerai La Residence, Hue, the resort’s new Perfume River boat offers a “Private Dinner Cruise” featuring fine Vietnamese and Western cuisine. At Azerai Can Tho, “Romance Under the Banyan Tree” features a lantern-lit, five-course meal for two. And at Azerai Ke Ga Bay, the “Monastery and Iconic Fruit of Binh Thuan” includes stops at an exotic dragon fruit farm, Ta Cu Mountain, and local salt fields.

An Omakase Dining Experience at Tanah Gajah, a Resort By Hadiprana in Bali

With any meal the conversation can be just as important as the culinary offering – especially when Chef Dean’s involved. The seasoned Singaporean chef, who has been guiding Tanah Gajah’s culinary direction for over a decade, infuses his personality into all his delectable dishes. With his Omakase Dining Experience at The Tempayan, guests get to see more of the chef than just the magic he creates on each plate.

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Omakase, which translates as a meal of dishes selected by the chef, ensures that the five-course menu he offers uses only the freshest seasonal ingredients, while also giving guests the opportunity to learn about local produce and dishes. The experience also includes a guided tour of Chef Dean’s passion project, the resort’s expansive organic garden. The cost is IDR 750,000 ++ (USD50) per person. 

French Fine Dining at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

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Le Beaulieu, the award-winning modern French fine dining restaurant at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, and its refined al fresco extension La Terrasse have celebrated their reopening following an extensive seven-month refurbishment. With an elegant and sophisticated new design, alongside renowned French gastronomy and a wide selection of wines, the signature restaurant at Metropole Hanoi ties together the hotel’s 120-year-old storied past with a contemporary new look that manages to meld the opulent, the classical and the modern in a single scheme that’s long on white, gold and heathery blue-grays. Operating in its current space since 1901, Le Beaulieu is believed to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Vietnam. And now, after this renovation, the newest.

Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh unveils its latest menus

Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital’s newest international branded hotel, is leading the charge as the city’s culinary scene picks up pace following the pandemic. Opened in 2021, the property has gained an exalted reputation for dining through its range of exciting outlets. Two of these — all-day-dining outlet The Market Cafe Restaurant and Lounge and signature venue FiveFive Rooftop — have recently unveiled new menus.

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FiveFive focuses on fresh, sustainable seafood and local produce. Highlights of its new menu include a delectable set dinner featuring dishes like Kampot crab on toast and seared Hokkaido scallops. The Market Cafe Restaurant and Lounge, meanwhile, is reupping courtesy of items such as sustainably sourced Dover sole with brown butter and capers and a selection of plant-based dishes.

Banyan Tree Samui Welcomes Aficionados of Thai Cuisine

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Banyan Tree’s signature restaurant, Saffron, has initiated a Thai Tasting Menu, ideal for those on the island who wish to introduce friends and family to Thai classic cuisine in a luxurious ambience. Overlooking the sapphire sea from an exquisite venue above the resort, Saffron’s newest menu features an array of favorites: from appetizers of por pai pho (crabmeat spring rolls in a mango salad) and mieng som-o (pomelo, cashews, coconut & ginger wrapped in betel leaves and topped with a tamarind sauce) to entreés of grilled salmon in galangal and lemongrass or a sizzling plate of roasted peppered pork spare ribs. Dessert is the ever-popular dish of mango in sticky rice and coconut. Price is 1,800 THB (USD50) nett per person. Open daily 6pm – 11pm. For reservations, call +66 077 915 333 or email: saffron-samui@banyantree.com

A New Chef and New Menu at SOL By Meliá Phu Quoc in Vietnam

SOL By Meliã Phu Quoc is embracing new beginnings with Spanish chef, Sergio Nieto Garces, joining as executive chef. Garces will bring more Spanish flair to the oceanfront resort elevating OLA Beach Club to the pinnacle of Spanish gastronomy on the island. In July OLA Beach Club will launch a new menu, inspired by Garces’ own fascinating culinary journey.

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The talented chef trained under some of Spain’s foremost culinary experts, including Martin Berasategui, who holds 12 Michelin stars – the most of any Spanish chef. In Madrid, he worked as executive chef of Jose Luis group, opening branches in Marrakech and Tokyo. At SOL’s OLA Beach Club Garces will serve up contemporary Spanish cuisine. Highlights from the new menu include Andalusian style marinated chicken paella and creative vegan fare like almond soup with smoked beetroot tartare. 

Palace Hotel Tokyo Blooms for Tenth Anniversary

To celebrate Palace Hotel Tokyo’s tenth anniversary this year the Forbes Five Star property is going back to its roots. For the summer the hotel’s popular bars will be serving up “Blooming,” a new cocktail inspired by its original Triple One (1-1-1) cocktail, which first debuted in the hotel’s opening year.

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The new blend mixes Palace Hotel Tokyo’s signature 1-1-1 sake by Hakkaisan, Yuzu liqueur, Lillet Blanc, and Sakura liqueur to deliver a clear, sharp taste with a flowery Japanese aroma. The limited-time cocktail will be on offer at Palace Hotel Tokyo’s Royal Bar, an old world-style cigar bar with the most comprehensive Japanese whiskey selection in the city, and the chic Lounge Bar Prive, where guests can take in views of the Imperial Palace gardens by day and the surrounding city skyline by night. 

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.

 

 

MUSASHI: Music From The East – A One Night Only Performance In Kuala Lumpur

Curious about the sounds of traditional Japanese music? Four master musicians will be in town on February 11 for MUSASHI: Music From The East – a one-night only performance at Rex KL.

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Here exclusively on invitation by The Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur, the four are Nobuto Yamanaka on the tsugaru-shamisen (a three-stringed instrument with a distinctive lilt, inspired by the Chinese sanxian), Satoshi Katano on the shinobue (bamboo flute), and Taka and Junya Tsukamoto on the Wadaiko (Japanese drums). The show will feature a wide range of Japanese songs, from traditional to the contemporary.

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Nobuto Yamanaka (tsugaru-shamisen)

After graduating from intermediate school at the age of 15, Yamanaka became a live-in apprentice to the late Tsugaru-shamisen master Yamada Chisato for four years, before becoming a master of the tsugaru-shamisen.

In 2018, he was inducted into the hall of fame after becoming a three-time winner in the A-class division of the Tsugaru Shamisen World Tournament, as well as three time champion of the Tsugaru Shamisen’s National Competition. His powerful style of playing and well emoted sounds has earned him a reputation that transcends the shamisen, and he is frequently involved in performances of different genres. To date he has performed in over 38 countries.

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Satoshi Katano (Shinobue – Bamboo Flute)

Born in Chiba, Katano began playing music when he was just nine, influenced by his father. He started a solo career as a shinobue player in 2008 and won the National Yokobue (Cross Flute) contest in 2013, and the All-Japan Yokobue Contest in 2017 and 2019, among other accolades. Currently based in Fukuoka, he continues playing the Shinobue while working as a boatman.

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TAKA (Wadaiko – Japanese drum)

TAKA is an award-winning Wadaiko player and Japanese calligrapher. He started playing Wadaiko since he was seven years old. After graduation, he started to work as a solo Wadaiko player in earnest, and opened a Wadaiko class “DAGAKU” in 2009. In 2013, he formed a performance group “Wadaiko Akatsuki”.TAKA won the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Award as the best Otaiko (large drum) player at the “World Wadaiko Uchikurabe Contest” in Okaya Taiko Festa in 2015. In 2017, he won the same prize in the ensemble taiko drumming section. In 2019, TAKA was awarded the Prefectural Governor Award as the best drummer in a single drumming contest in “OTAIKO HIBIKI Festival”. He is currently studying tsugaru-shamisen under master Yamanaka Nobuto.

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Junya Tsukamoto (Wadaiko – Japanese Drum)

Tsukamoto started playing the Wadaiko when he was just five.  In 2012, he performed with Kanjani Eight (a famous Japanese boy band group) on Kohaku Uta Gassen, a famous Japanese TV show. He then joined
“Wadaiko Akatsuki” in 2013 and won an Excellence Prize in the soloist division of “Fujisan Otaiko Uchikurabe Contest” the following year. In 2018, he toured three countries in Central and South America and has performed in over nine countries to date. Not one to rest on his laurels, Tsukamoto is studying both the tsugaru-shamisen and shinobue instruments.

MUSASHI: MUSIC FROM THE EAST 

Date/Time: 11 February (Tuesday), *8:30 PM
*Time subject to change

Venue: REXKL, 80, Jalan Sultan, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur

Admission: RM45 (General), RM25 (Students, Senior, Disabled, JFKL members) via peatix.com

For more information, visit jfkl.org.my/events/musashi-music-from-the-east/ or fb.com/theJapanFoundationKL/

 

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).