Friday, 29 September 2017

Cali Visit (J&M Wedding)

Hello my dear reader. Please enjoy these pics (and a few non-pics) recapping my brief (but amazing) trip back to California in August/September.

Let's start at the airport. No lounge this time, but I got to hang out a bit with Mark before the flight and we opted for some pre-flight Macca's. Good old Georgie Pie!

I've mentioned it before, but I'll mention it again: I really do appreciate this little detail.

Spicy Asian Chicken. Nothing spectacular, but tasted okay and sounded like a better option than "beef pasta". Best part of the meal had to be the Kapiti Black Doris Plum ice cream.

Back at SFO and, of course, enjoying their interesting and engaging exhibits. This one depicted United's close ties to Hawaii throughout its history of flying.

After a sleepless night in a tent in Los Padres National Forest (no thanks to wandering animal sounds), Grant & I set off to look for signs of wild pig in the pre-dawn light. We saw lots of coyote poo and a couple deer, but no signs of the specific animals we sought.

We covered a few miles and several hundred feet of elevation with no luck. Once the sun got high enough, the temperatures soared and we took a break for food and to seek shade. Around mid-afternoon, we set off again to search one last pre-determined area. When we found no recent signs of potential pig activity, we made the call to pack up and head back to civilization (i.e. LA). Our first hunt may not have resulted in success, but we learned a lot and will apply the knowledge towards future hunts.

Pre-dawn LA from Angeles National Forest. We went deer spotting with much greater success than we had in Los Padres. Mercifully cooler weather, but swarms of Canyon flies really reduced the level of enjoyment. Good, preliminary reconnaissance prior to the start of deer season.

Being back in civilization, we decided to make the most of the weekend and met up with Judy and some friends for lunch in Little Tokyo. I opted for the Ikura (salmon roe) cold udon from Marugame Monzo. Simple and flavorful. Not pictured, the delicious tempura soft-boiled egg I ordered as a side.

Next up, Black sesame mochi ice cream from Mikawaya (the brand who popularized mochi ice cream). So yummy.

Then, I got a "Koko Churro" roll from Dulce. Based on their popular Tapioca Roll (crusty exterior, soft/chewy interior), this adds coconut sugar and cinnamon to give it that extra sweetness. Really yummy and something just a bit different.

And finally (at least during our Little Tokyo eating spree), Hojicha soft serve from Midori Matcha Cafe. Pretty legit if you ask me. Their Matcha soft serve tasted amazing too, but I'll give bonus points for the Hojicha variant being less commonly available (*spoiler* foreshadowing).

Later that evening, Grant, Judy & I had a lovely dinner at Bone Kettle in Pasadena. Amazing broth, flavorful meats and generally good food with friendly service. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pics. I did, however, get a picture of our post-dinner dessert from the neighborhood favorite: 21 Choices. I went with their Organic Peanut Butter flavor. Simple and tasty. I'm not overly sentimental about LA, but I've missed 21 Choices so much!
On Monday morning, after a quick bit of archery practice at the range, Grant dropped me off at BUR for the flight back up to SFO. Just before checking in, I managed to grab a quick bite and chat with Traci. So glad we could catch up since it has been such a long time since our last! Oh, and if you happen to like comics and podcasts, check out her great podcast: Comic Potluck!

Back in SF again, I met up with Sue & Ant at the Ferry Building before embarking on a quick, afternoon tour of some of the city's landmarks. After a drive down Lombard Street, we made it to the Painted Ladies. You may recognize them from the opening credits of Full House.

Seeking something different for Sue & Ant to try, we first attempted to go to Burma Superstar on Clement St, but faced a 45+ minute wait (not something us hungry people fancied). Instead, we ended up around the corner at Cajun House for some good old fashioned seafood boil. House fried rice, Cajun shrimp and Lemon butter Crab legs. Yum.

The next day began with a stop at Tartine. While there, I had to indulge in a Morning Bun. Incredible.

On our drive down to Facebook for lunch, Sue and Ant got a hold of my phone and changed my wallpaper to this. Charming. :-) After an intensely filling meal, we visited Stanford for a quick campus tour including stops at the Rodin Sculpture Garden and the Memorial Church.

That evening, I met up with Jason, Susanna and Ed for dinner in San Mateo. After discovering (to our disappointment) that Bonchon doesn't open on Tuesday nights (yeah, really), we ended up at Koja Kitchen for their Asian fusion fare. Again, good food and great company.

The next day, I took the BART out to Berkeley for an awesome breakfast and catch up with Brent. I wish we had more time to chat, but he had a busy day and I'm glad he set aside a bit to spend with me. Anyways, after that I met up with Deryck and Kevin for some lunch and we ended up choosing to go to the Tartine Manufactory. Man, their baked stuff tastes amazing.

For dessert, I picked out a slice of their Tres Leches cake (since I already had a morning bun the day before). It did not disappoint. Oh, and we ate this before actual lunch since they served it to us first. Oops.

After Deryck returned to work, Kevin and I met up with Jason for an early afternoon scoop at Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous. I tried their fantastic black sesame. Very nice.

And then, Kevin and I finished the afternoon at Urban Putt (indoor mini putt). We completed the "Pink Putter Challenge" by playing the course with their shortest available putter (the pink one) and got our photo taken to be put up on the wall. Gangsta.

And at the end of the day, I had dinner with the F&P gang (and those associated) at Fish in Sausalito. We managed to split the Kiwis on the left and the Americans on the right. Good times all around.

The next day began with a Ham & Cheese croissant from the amazing Arsicault Bakery. Legit.

Then, I went back to my old 'hood for lunch at Los Gallos with the old work crew. Al Pastor tortas = yum. Great seeing all the Abbott folks even if just for a little bit.

After that, I spent a bit of time hanging out with Nick at the local Starbucks talking story before heading back to the City. Then, onward to dinner at old favorite Izakaya Sozai with Deryck. Get ready for some food pics. We started with the Agedashi tofu. Delicious.

Next, we got the Shishito peppers. Always a nice dish, and one I haven't had in a while!

Then, grilled skewers! Pork jowl on the left, chicken meatball on the right. Tasty.

My main dish: Salmon Sashimi, Ikura and Okra Ochazuke (rice with tea). Very yummy. I just wish I had a slightly bigger portion.

Finally, dessert: fried mochi, azuki (red) beans and vanilla ice cream. They ran out of their Jasmine tea ice cream (supposedly good), so I'll have to try that next time!

We made it to Friday! Deryck and I decided to check out ‘āina for some local kine food in California. We started with their housemade "Spam" musubi. Safe to say, the fanciest version I've ever had.

Next up, Guava jelly filled malasadas. Pretty damn good, I must say. And super visually appealing.

Deryck chose the Chicken katsu with udon "mac" salad and an omelette as his main dish.

I went for the Short Rib "Loco Moco" with a rich mushroom gravy. Supa ono!

After lunch, Deryck headed back to the office and I went to check out the SFMOMA (my first visit since their major renovation). A few of the things that caught my eye included this installation, "Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift" by Richard Serra.

And of course, I enjoyed seeing a couple of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings which I hadn't seen before ("Canyon Mountains" on top, "Flatland River" below).

That afternoon, Liz, Sue, Ant and I headed to AT&T Park to see the Giants take on the Cardinals. On Star Trek Night no less (bonus points if you can spot Locutus in this picture).

All smiles early when the Giants had the lead. And, of course, rocking the appropriate color on Orange Friday.

Obligatory Gordon Biersch Garlic Fries while at AT&T.

Pre-wedding Tacos at Nopalito in the Inner Richmond with Sue & Ant. I opted for the Tacos de Pescado al Pastor (and a Horchata, because why not). Nom nom nom.

The F&P gang back together again to celebrate Jess & Mark's nuptials. The Barn made for a stunning reception location!

The First Dance. Congrats you guys!!!!!

The OG Flatmates (i.e. Me & the Sisticles: Angela and Jess). What an awesome night!

Since I'm here in the Bay, my trip would not be complete without seeing my various Hānai Families. That started earlier in the day with a lunchtime visit with the Inouye/Lees and the Inouye/Wongs. So glad I got to see everyone (and meet Benji)! Then, a quick catch up with some old former Abbott folks, Chrysbe, Harman, Nic (+ Justin & Reilly). Finally, dinner with T, Amy, Troy, Evan, Sonya, Lori, Bernie, L, Cindy, and Brooks (oh, and how can I forget Buster at the bottom center). Miss you all so very much!!!

NZ spoils me with some seriously delicious ice cream, but I still miss the homemade amazingness of Cindy's ice cream. Hojicha (!), Green Tea, and Strawberry this time around. So good. Thank you so much for the ice cream (and whisky cake) Cindy!

All good things must come to an end. The last day came and went so quickly that I apparently didn't take any photos. I had breakfast/lunch & boba with Deryck, Brad & Patti at the surprisingly tasty Burmese restaurant Mingalaba in Burlingame. Then, dinner with Deryck, Sue, Ant, Nick, Jessie, and Evelyn at our favorite, Fat Wong's in San Bruno. Afterwards, Deryck, Sue, Ant & I went to the airport where I did a bit of luggage reshuffling, farewelled my brother, and chilled with Sue & Ant before running to my gate to make my flight. Then, back to NZ I went...

Thanks so much to everyone who spent a bit of time with me on this trip, particularly Deryck, Grant & Judy for the accommodation. Much Love and Aloha. See you all again soon.

Monday, 31 July 2017

HK/Japan 2017

It kinda, sorta started as a joke back when Grant & Judy came to NZ for their honeymoon. Grant mentioned I should come along to Japan on a trip he planned with his family. Over the subsequent several weeks, the chatter got more serious, we talked to a few other friends who expressed interest and before long we had a full fledged tour group meeting up in the Land of the Rising Sun. I even got a quick stopover in HK beforehand! Check it out!

The little things matter and I always enjoy seeing this cheerful welcome when I board an Air NZ flight.

The meals taste pretty decent too. Chicken with peas and mash. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the ice cream the most.

Good morning Asia!

My breakfast of eggs, beans and sausage. Simple and delicious.

Wheels down in HKG. Good to be back!

Previous trips to HK have included hikes around the Sai Kung area but never yet all the way up to 馬鞍山 (Horse Saddle Mountain). Despite the wet weather, Aunty Karen and I decided to tackle the peak.

So a couple hours removed from landing at the airport, we hopped onto the trail.

And as we climbed up higher and higher, we got increasingly more spectacular views. Hello Sai Kung!

And after an hour and a half, 5km, 540m elevation gain, we made it to the top! What a spectacular view from Sai Kung (on the left) out to Sha Tin (on the right).

Victory! Me, Aunty Karen, Bess & Barney at the top!

A familiar sight on the way back down to SK: one of the many cows that live in the park.

We couldn't have decided on a better post-hike reward. Tim Ho Wan for their signature baked bbq pork buns. Despite my predilection for the steamed version, these may be the GOAT.

Yeah, they might be just a bit tired from all the distance we covered today!

Day two started with some electronics shopping in Sham Shui Po before making it to the mall at Langham Place. We saw these dudes advertising for a new restaurant that opened (specializing in those molten custard buns).

Then, time for a nice hearty lunch: whole crab congee. Wow.

Then dessert: Japanese style soft serve (cream & matcha swirl). So amaze. This won't be the last picture of soft serve or ice cream...mark my words.

Next on the agenda, a stop at PMQ (a cool mixed-use art/design space at the old Police Married Quarters). They had this exhibition by Ron English called "Popaganda", which endeavored to show a more nefarious side of many well known pop culture icons. Quite interesting.

Always good to catch up with old friends and I'm glad Adriel and I got a chance to meet up for dinner at 33 Café y mucho mas. Very tasty Colombian food all the way in HK. Who would've thought?!

And to finish the night, we dropped by COEDO for some conversation and Japanese craft beer. Thanks again for meeting up and I look forward to wherever we end up crossing paths again!

Day three consisted mostly of a trip across the border to Shenzhen. Cheap food, shopping and a foot massage made for a really nice day. I only documented our meal which consisted of perhaps the best bbq pork I've ever had and some other delightful eats like fried steamed buns and veggie stir fry.

On Day four, we had a leisurely start and stopped by another mall for some last minute shopping and lunch at Shanghai Popo (Shanghai comfort food) before heading to the airport. We started with Xiaolong Bao (soup dumplings) and hot/sour soup.

Next courses: salted egg yolk covered prawn balls and wok-fried green beans. So good!!!

Once at the airport, despite being so full from lunch, I couldn't help but stop by McD's for a snack: taro pie! It's becoming a bit of a tradition that I eat something from the HKG McD's at least once during my trip...

What a remarkable rubber ducky sculpture made up of canned food.

And just like that, the HK part of my trip came to an end. On to the next leg (and next airline) of the trip!

JAL, wow. Impressive meal including beef stew with veggies & pea mash, soba noodles, salad, arare (rice crackers) and fruit & ice cream. 10/10, would fly again!

Good evening Tokyo! My first time flying into HND! After landing, catching the express train and then a bit of getting lost finding the Air B&B, I finally met up with the rest of the group. Most everyone (having arrived earlier in the day by plane) was ready for bed, but Brian L, Brian W and I popped down to the yakitori place for a beer and some chicken skewers. Apologies for forgetting to take pictures of that.

Day 1 in Tokyo began with a journey to the National Art Center for an exhibition that happened to be ending that weekend. Unexpectedly, we arrived to see an enormous line which took about 30 minutes to make our way through...on a random Wednesday no less. As a preview of the exhibition inside, and on a happier note, we saw this amazing Kabocha (Japanese squash/pumpkin) sculpture.

So, what did we wait so long to see? This. As you may or may not have known or guessed, Yayoi Kusama commonly uses a polka dot motif in much of her art. This exhibition, My Eternal Soul offered a look through the entirety of her career including early (more traditional) artwork, some art from various periods of her life (including NYC residency and return to Japan) and even some art created specifically for this exhibition. I snapped the above pic in the audience participation room where visitors may stick dots wherever they please.

This giant sculpture sat in the center of this giant space filled with an impressive amount of her art (and an equally impressive number of visitors).

Stacy, Me, Brian L and Raj outside the National Art Center. They even wrapped dots on many of the trees in the area.

And then we made our way to a restaurant for a late-ish lunch. We had an area that we wanted to head to (Omotesando) but decided to kind of pick whatever place looked most interesting. Quite fortuitously, we ended up at Tonkatsu Maisen. Stacy, Brian W and I wait (with varying degrees of patience) for our food.

I picked the Kurobuta pork katsu lunch set. It turned out to be more of a pork mince, but it tasted great, had a nice juicy texture and didn't cost as much as some of their other Kurobuta options.

After a filling lunch, I needed a coffee. But not just any coffee...a lattest from Lattest (their signature drink: espresso shot over cold milk). Though I'm not a regular coffee drinker, I quite appreciated the flavor (and the energy boost). In hindsight, maybe I should've got a more traditional hot coffee so I could've gotten latte art...

I had a bit of an ulterior motive visiting this specific coffee shop as it also happens to be the place of employment for my favorite member of Terrace House: Boys & Girls in City (a great show on Netflix if you haven't seen it). Thanks for the coffee Mizuki! Also, thanks to the rest of the group for indulging me this slight detour. :-)

And after that brief stop, we continued onward and headed to Meiji Shrine next. Me, Raj, Brian L, Stacy & Brian W at the entrance to the park.

A wall of decorative sake barrels donated to the shrine. Quite an impressive sight!

We got a bit of cloud cover this afternoon, but the view skyward through the trees still had a dramatic appearance.

And then on to Yoyogi park where we sat for a while to rest and people watch. We saw some interesting sites including some people posing oddly near a bridge, a skateboarding dog and this cute family of ducks.

After wandering through the park, we headed over to Shibuya. While there, we made an obligatory stop at the Hachikō statue. If you don't know the story, click here.

And of course, we had to check out Shibuya Crossing. We went upstairs in the Starbucks for this vantage point (thanks for the tip Nhi).

We explored Shibuya and did some shopping in mainstream stores like Uniqlo and Muji. Then, we wandered around trying unsuccessfully to find a recommended okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) restaurant. In the end, we found ourselves at Sushi Zanmai for some casual dining. Each of us got this Toro set (negi-toro, seared o-toro, akami, chutoro and o-toro) and some a la carte sushi as well.

Dessert from a shop called SILKREAM, where they serve a particular brand of soft-serve called Cremia (made from special milk from Hokkaido and served on a langue de chats cookie cone).

Heading back to our home base after a long day, we stopped at the foodcourt adjacent to the subway and picked up a second dessert: a pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tart) fresh out of the oven. "Burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth" hot. Love these things.

Tokyo Day 2 began with what Anthony Bourdain calls the best egg salad sandwich in the world from Lawsons. From the perfectly fluffy white bread to the smooth, silky egg salad, I am inclined to agree with Tony's conclusion.

Then we headed to the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market. And for whatever reason, I ate an omelette on a stick first.

Don't worry, next up we got O-toro. Apologies to the bluefin tuna population of the world. I know I'm not helping you out, but you taste so damn good.

In fact, we all owe the bluefin tuna population a sincere apology...right after this bite...

If you like raw fish, you'll really like visiting this place.

Hey, not tuna! Grilled eel on a stick tastes delicious too.

Something that didn't come from the sea! A really nice strawberry soft serve to cap it all off.

Next on the agenda, some shopping in Ginza. We stopped in the Nissan boutique to get a glimpse of some beautiful cars, including this futuristic Nismo concept car.

Upstairs, we also got to see this pristine, classic Skyline as well.

At the Nissan Crossing cafe, we could not resist the desire to get this fantastic latte art. I opted to honor my old R32 from my Dunedin days. Brian W and Stacy got their faces printed. That photo came out surprisingly well.

We then stopped off at Ginza's newest mall: Ginza 6. Inside, we marveled at the Yayoi Kusama installation hanging from the ceiling center. We also wandered through the myriad of stores (including Tokyo's first Lululemon) before we could shop no more.

The distinct Ginza Wako department store on a sunny Tokyo afternoon. It had rained quite heavily just a mere few hours earlier (fortunately, the only bad weather we experienced during our trip).

A light snack and a red rice ale from the Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab at Tokyo Station. Glad I got to have my favorite Japanese beer while in Japan. I needed something light because we had dinner reservations relatively late in the evening...

Determined to experience an authentic omakase dinner while in Tokyo, we (Brian L, Grant, Raj and I) made a reservation weeks in advance for Harutaka in Ginza. We arrived a little early and they seated us in a private room due to the counter being full. A 20-course journey through traditional Edomae-style sushi ensued. Halfway through, we even got invited to take seats up at the sushi counter to watch Chef Harutaka Takahashi work his magic (honed during a 13 year apprenticeship at the one and only Sukiyabashi Jiro under the master himself). Truly a privilege to see such artistry in action. Have a look at some of the highlights:

Akami (the lean meat of the bluefin tuna). Probably the most beautiful red hue of tuna I've ever seen. You'll notice that the sushi came in groups of four while we sat in the private room.

Naturally, the next piece served would be the slightly fattier chutoro (medium fat).

You all know what comes next: O-toro. The beautiful ribbons of fat blending with the pink flesh. Expertly draped over the bite of vinegared rice. A heavenly mouthful.

Aji (horse mackerel). The thin cuts along the surface of the fish helped provide some interesting texture and pockets for the shoyu seasoning to hang out. Amazing and a great example of something my ignorance would've caused me to miss out on if I been given the choice.

Uni #1 (sea urchin gonads...unknown origin). You'll notice at this point in the meal, we've migrated to the counter. Just want to point out the exquisite tableware. Anyways, I usually find uni to be hit or miss. This time, I must say this bite of ocean brought a lot of joy.

Akagai. Okay, I'm pretty sure I have not previously heard of, let alone eaten, ark shell. What a tasty mollusk. Stunningly beautiful presentation as well.

Katsuo (bonito) which was lightly torched (aburi), giving it a nice smokey flavor. Really excellent from a fish I'm pretty sure I've previously only tasted as dried fish flakes garnishing other dishes.

Uni #2 (also of unknown origin, though different than the first one). I just ate it and enjoyed without question.

Last but not least, possibly the most elegant piece of tamago (omelette) I've ever had. Aesthetically pleasing (due to its even browning, uniform consistency and pleasant geometry) and delicious note to finish the wonderful symphony we enjoyed.
In conclusion, while every piece didn't rock my world, the meal as a whole impressed and I'm certain that I've had some of the best bites of sushi I've ever had the pleasure and privilege to experience in my life to date. I'd say omakase in Tokyo should not be missed. And if you get a chance to book Harutaka, go for it. You'll have a great time!

Tokyo Day 3 began earlier than most others as Brian W and I woke up to make the journey to Sugamo to ensure that the group would be able to get tickets to Tsuta (the first ramen restaurant awarded a Michelin Star). After securing our spots at noon, we went back to the Air B&B (via Don Quixote...where we shopped up a storm). Everyone else got up, we headed out the door and stopped at the park near the Imperial Palace for a photo opportunity prior to continuing back to Sugamo.

When we arrived back at Tsuta, we lined up with the other patrons who had noon tickets and waited patiently while the previous guests enjoyed their ramen in the 9 seat restaurant. When we finally got inside, we bordered on hangry. I ordered a niku meshi starter (chashu pork over rice) and boy did it taste delicious and whet my appetite for the masterpiece to come.

Without further ado, the main event: Ajitama shoyu soba. This particular ramen comes with a slice of chashu pork, a seasoned boiled egg all within a soy-sauce flavored broth (where the soy sauce has been aged for two years in cedar vats) complemented by some red wine and black truffle oil. The noodles hard hand made in-house. Hands down one of the best bowls of ramen I've ever had (even considering I heavily prefer pork broths). The flavors shone through without being overpowering or ever verging on being "too salty" (even with all the strong, savory elements). Simply spectacular and worth the effort to travel a bit (~15 minutes or so by train) out of the "downtown" Tokyo area. Go do yourself a favor and make this a stop on your Tokyo itinerary!

After that filling lunch, we briefly split up: Raj & Brian L headed to Asakusa to get a jump on the Sanja Matsuri (festival) while Brian W, Stacy and I stopped off in Kappabashi-dori (Kitchen Town) for some knife shopping before heading meeting up in Asakusa. With our shopping mission accomplished, we arrived (unfortunately a bit late for some of the earlier activities) at Senso-ji (shown above). Around the corner, we also saw a ceremony going on at the Asakusa Shrine.

On the walk back to the subway station, we got to see a bunch of special food and entertainment booths being setup in the streets for the festival. I particularly enjoyed seeing these gentlemen Taiko drumming (or I guess just sitting around and drinking beer until the parade starts).

After taking the scenic route through Akihabara, we got the whole gang together for dinner at Andy's Shin Hinomoto (a funky izakaya joint run by a British guy). In addition to Grant sneaking away from his family to hang out, I also got to meet up with some local Tokyo-ites (and former, fellow Honolulu raised dudes) Barrett and Yoshio. We had some tasty food, drink and lively conversation. Glad I got to see these guys in their new home and even more so since it has been a year or more since we met last met up. Hope to see you both again soon!

On our last day in Tokyo, Brian W and I woke up early again. This time, we went for a run from the Air B&B down through Shiba Park to the base of Tokyo Tower. Amazing way to start the day (particularly with all the eating we've been doing...and in spite of the high temperature so early in the morning).

We had a bit of a mixup buying train tickets at Tokyo Station (while convenient, those ticket machines can be a bit confusing) so while Brian L, Raj and I got our Shinkansen (aka bullet train) tickets, the other guys had to catch the next train. It also meant that I didn't have enough to buy a bento at the train platform. :-( On that note, goodbye Tokyo!

On arrival at Kyoto Station, we had time to wait for the next train to arrive. Since we didn't bring food to eat on the train, we had to find lunch. Luckily, Kyoto Station has an area dedicated to Ramen lovers! Ramen Street, on the 10th floor of the station, has no fewer than EIGHT ramen shops. Featuring different ramen styles from all over Japan, you can satisfy just about any ramen craving you can think of! We settled on Menya Iroha (due mostly to the short line). I opted for a chicken broth based ramen (for something different). Pretty yummy. Would love to come back and try out some of the other ramen shops here next time!

When the others arrived, took care of some logistics at the train station ticket office before walking to our Air B&B and checking in. We dropped off our stuff, freshened up and then set off to make the most of the last few hours of daylight. Brian L, Raj and I hopped on a bus and headed for the Higashiyama area. First stop: Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion). We managed to sneak in just before the last entry for the day. We got a nice walk through the gardens and saw the aforementioned pavilion.

After leaving Ginkaku-ji, we followed the Philosopher's Walk which meanders through Higashiyama beside this canal. Many of the famous temples in this area border this walkway, but unfortunately they had all closed by the time we passed by. Regardless, we got to see this beautiful path in the golden light of the late afternoon.

After completing the Walk, we set out to find some food. In the vicinity, we found the highly recommended (and quite unique) restaurant Okariba, which specializes in traditional fare from the Nagano region. Bit of a hole in the wall, and looked quite dark inside, but you could smell amazing things being prepared over the charcoal grill. We had to order their specialty: inobuta skewers (bbq wild boar). Very delicious meat!

And to finish, we ordered the grilled gohei mochi coated in a sweet/savory sauce. Then we went on our merry way towards the Gion/Pontocho part of town.
Funny story: while walking through Pontocho Alley, we unexpectedly ran into Grant's parents and sister! Though we only spoke briefly, I'm glad we got to catch up!

We wandered further into the Gion/Pontocho area and went searching for the next course of dinner. After getting turned away from Kichi Kichi Omurice, we ended up at Anzukko, a restaurant specializing in gyoza. Our meal started with this fresh bit of tofu (a popular ingredient in Kyoto cuisine).

The main course: pork gyoza (aka pan fried dumplings) served in a cast iron skillet. Still sizzling. Crispy, juicy and delicious.

And in a final act of gluttony, we wandered around till we found an open store for dessert. The store we found? Second House (a teahouse an bakery). The dessert? A matcha green tea mille crepe cake. After that, we decided to head home and call it a night.

Day 2 in Kyoto (though, our first full day) started with a train trip out to Arashiyama. Out in the western part of the city, we made the journey there to see the famous Bamboo forests.

Many of the temples in the area have hordes of tourists, so we picked one of the quieter ones to visit first. While probably known best for stunning Autumn foliage, Jojakko-ji also has beautiful buildings on the hillside.

Next up, we ventured back through the Bamboo forest (and the increasingly crowded pathway).

We meandered through Kameyama Park and found this amazing lookout facing west down to the Katsura River.

After we walked out the other end of the park, we went to see the renown Tenryu-ji to see the beautiful temple and the even more amazing gardens.

By this point in time, we had started to get quite hungry. So we discussed where we might want to go for lunch.

After much deliberation, we decided on Saga Tofu Ine where we could sample some Kyoto cuisine (namely tofu, the regional specialty). I chose the Yuba (tofu skin) set. This included yuba in soy milk, sesame tofu, miso soup, multigrain rice, pickles, mochi and, my favorite, Hon-warabi (sweet bracken starch dumpling, a speciality of this region).

After lunch, we crossed over the Katsura River (via the Togetsukyo Bridge) and up the hillside to reach this amazing viewpoint of the city. And in addition to this gorgeous view...

Wild monkeys! After all, what else would you expect to see at the Arashiyama Monkey Park?

After having some fun watching the monkeys run around, we snapped this group pic prior to walking back down the hill.

What better post-hike, pre-train reward than a matcha green tea soft serve?

From the train, we transferred to a bus and that brought us to our final destination for the day: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). With respect to beauty, and taking into account both the temple itself and the surroundings, I reckon this tops all the other temples I saw on this trip.

After a busy day of sightseeing, we headed back to the town center to seek out a great dinner place. Brian L, Raj and I eventually picked Wagyu Beef Sakai. We all ordered the same set menu, sat back and waited for the fun to begin. First up, a starter with raw tuna, cooked shrimp, shaved parmesan, toasted bread and a delicious cream cheese.

Then, we saw a preview of the glory to come. Look at that marbling!!!

Next up, a creamy potato potage/soup.

Heck, why not throw in some greens so that we can have something "healthy" in this meal? Nothing too fancy, but the bacon and onion dressing added some really nice flavor.

The Main Event! Melt in your mouth delicious. The quality of the beef really shines through in an epic combination of taste and texture. For good measure, they gave us a mini charcoal grill so that we could finish the steak to our desired level of "doneness". Yummy.

The penultimate course: onigiri (rice ball) with some raw beef and tsukemono (pickles). Not pictured: the rich, flavorful consommé poured over the rice ball to enhance the flavor and alter the texture. Really, really nice dish.

For the grand finale, an amazing dessert box filled with sesame pudding (similar to panna cotta), a chocolate cake (hiding under the leaf) and (the best) kinako (roasted soy bean) ice cream with kuromitsu syrup. Probably the best ice cream I had this trip because of the uniqueness of the flavor. It even inspired me to attempt to make some at home (at this very moment I have a small container of the experimental batch in the freezer).

And the denouement of a fantastic meal: iribancha tea. Unlike other Japanese teas, they don't roll the leaves. They then roast it on a hot metal plate. By heating the unrolled leaves, this allows the tea to develop a more toasty, smokey flavor (and virtually eliminates the caffeine...leading to the alternate nickname "baby bancha" since a baby could theoretically drink it--so says the internet). Very nice and a great introduction to another Kyoto specialty.

Day 3 in Kyoto started with a morning train ride to Fushimi Inari. Famous for the bright orange torii (gates). One of the most photographed places in Japan (if not the world), moments like this (without people in the frame) did not come often. So. Many. Tourists. With that said, what an awe inspiring place filled with such wonderful and unique visuals. Definitely a highlight of this trip.

Over about a 4km trail up and down the mountain (gaining 200+ meters elevation) you will pass through 10,000 torii. I would highly recommend completing the full walkway up to the shrine at the top of the mountain (pictured above). While it doesn't seem all that impressive, the pathway takes you by some really beautiful areas, and you get to see a nice view of the southern boundaries of Kyoto. Importantly, the crowds thin out and you get a bit more alone time with the mountain and the torii.

The gang amongst the torii.

After that amazing visit, we hopped back on the train and headed southbound to Nara. Being lunchtime, we headed straight for food. In this instance, we dropped into Kameya for okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes). Yum.

Then, we hit Nara Park to see one of the main attractions of the city: the deer. Considered sacred, the deer roam freely across the park grounds (terrorizing unsuspecting tourists when they like). Brian L had to assert his dominance early to prevent the possibility of attack.

Next up, we wandered over to the next stop on the tour of Nara (where we snapped a group pic with our new friend Bambi-chan).

The epic Todai-ji (up until 1998, the largest wooden structure in the world). Such an amazing, grand building.

Inside the temple, you see this enormous bronze Buddha statue (the largest in the world). This photo really doesn't do it any justice. Genuinely impressive.

Inside the temple, you can buy various knick-knacks (for luck, as a nifty souvenir or whatever reason you like). I got a random fortune and tied it onto this post outside (as I saw others do). Only time will tell if it comes true. :-)

Another great group shot on the steps leading up to Nigatsu-do (Hall of the Second Month)...another large structure in the Todai-ji complex.

Yup they're really everywhere.

Walking back to the train station from Nara Park, we made sure to swing by the Kofuku-ji complex. What a cool looking 5-story pagoda.

When we got back to Kyoto, we sought out some sort of delicious dinner. I suggested Ichiran since I hadn't yet been. Despite having gone their first night in Tokyo (before I arrived), the guys agreed! So, after you pay for your ticket, you can customize the ramen to your liking (e.g. noodle firmness, soup strength, green or white spring onions, more or less chili sauce, etc). They make the ramen per your specifications and voila! A personalized bowl of tonkotsu ramen (my favorite style). Impressive that for such a high volume restaurant, you get such exceptional quality.

Three happy customers.

Despite being full of noodles and soup, we felt obliged to find a nice, hearty dessert. And boy did Sanjiya deliver: green tea crepe with matcha soft serve topped with mochi, azuki beans and kinako powder.

Day 4 in Kyoto, like Day 3, involved an excursion out of the city and into the wider Kansai region. After saying good bye to Brian W & Stacy (who began their journey back to the States), Brian L, Raj and I hopped on the train to Himeji to see the famous castle. Unfortunately, due to some accidents on the train network, we experienced our only delays during this trip. We arrived over an hour later than expected, but the moment I saw the castle (which you can spot in the distance the moment you exit the Himeji train station) those negative feelings evaporated. I'll admit I had low expectations for this visit (after reading less than complimentary reviews online), but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Such a photogenic castle even if it lacks the historical prominence of the other castles in Japan's past/present capitals. The surrounding buildings and gardens also contribute to the positive experience.

Speaking of beautiful gardens... And, yes, Brian L is kneeling down on the rocks in the middle of a stream (such clear water).

After the castle and garden tour, we fancied a hearty lunch and ended up at Menme. They specialize in Udon, so I ordered exactly that (along with a simple onigiri). Honest and delicious. Exactly what we had been seeking.

Dessert from one of the stalls near the train station. I love mochi.

Next, we hopped back on the train and headed to Osaka. From the train station, we hopped on the loop and decided to explore the Shinsekai area. The funky neighborhood (modeled after New York and Paris) has a negative reputation, but we didn't really get that sense as we walked through. For our afternoon snack, we stopped at a shop serving takoyaki (diced octopus in a batter ball). Another Japanese delicacy sampled and checked off the list!
Next up, we walked to the famous Dotonbori district known for flashy lights and even flashier billboards.

And why not get another snack: taiyaki (fish shaped waffle batter filled with sweet azuki beans). Yum.

A relatively quiet photo of the canal at dusk. It would get a lot busier as the night went on.

So the sun set and we decided we might as well find a place to eat dinner. Craving another nice beef meal, we sought out a Kobe beef place and ended up at Tsurugyu for yakiniku (grilled meat). First up, I believe this to be boneless kalbi.

How glorious the sound and smell of sizzling meat over white hot charcoal.

Next up, beef cheek and a beautifully marbled loin (I think...). After seeing our amateurish efforts with the first meat course, the surly (though well-intentioned) waiter came around to take over cooking duties. He described in detail (in basic, but clear English and hand gestures) how we should cook minimally and which particular sauce paired best with each different cut of beef. Thank you good sir for educating us simpletons.

Lastly, we cooked up some bulgogi. So much yum.

Not content with a single dinner (and wanting to make the most of our last night in Japan), we ended up at a fancy conveyor belt sushi place: Chojiro. This place gets my vote for being quite good quality for a very reasonable price. First up for me, the Hokkaido Set featuring specialties of Japan's northern island: Uni (Sea urchin roe), Ikura (Salmon roe), Amaebi (Sweet shrimp...and bonus crunchy, fried shrimp legs!), and Salmon. Very, very yummy. Despite having already enjoyed a fantastic bbq dinner, I enjoyed these delectable pieces of sushi also!

And finally, for "dessert", Fatty Salmon. And on that note, we tapped out. We hopped on the train leaving Osaka to head back to Kyoto.

Early the next morning (5am), I woke up to take the Haruka Express train from Kyoto Station to KIX (Kansai International Airport). Again, I can't stress how brilliantly efficient the Japanese rail system makes travel. Take note America (and NZ for that matter).

The first plane (Cathay Pacific) on the long journey back to NZ. More on that later...

Last Melonpan of the trip. Thanks for the hospitality Japan. またね

So. Long story short, Hong Kong had a heavy storm blow through and it caused an airplane to skid off the runway. Naturally, this caused all sorts of crazy delays to inbound (and outbound) flights like mine. Rather than risk getting stuck in the air circling HKG, the pilot opted instead to land in TPE (yes, Taipei, Taiwan) where we then waited for 2 hours on the tarmac for the weather to clear. Glad I picked the later departing flight from HKG... All I got during the long wait? This measly Pineapple Cake.

I met Aunty Karen at HKG, we had a delicious (if rushed) meal and then we went to the gate to wait for our flight to AKL. Any aviation buffs might recognize our plane to be an Airbus A350. My first time on that new aircraft! Very exciting!

Aunty Karen graciously swapped seats with me so that I could enjoy the comforts of Business Class. Thank you so much!!! So, I'll guide you through the meal service. Dinner began with antipasto, garlic bread and a light salad.

Then, onto the main course: rack of lamb with risotto. Nom nom nom.

A nice fruit plate after.

And to finish: a light cake and salted caramel mousse (the better of the two). Then, I had the privilege of enjoying a lovely night's rest on the lie flat bed. Heaven.

A bright morning somewhere over the Pacific. I could tell because I looked out the window in the bathroom.

Dim sum breakfast? Yes please!!!

And here I am back in Aotearoa. We even got a beautiful view of the wild, west coast on approach.

All in all, a fantastic, epic trip to HK and Japan. I enjoyed a lot of food, fun, friends and family. Not much else I could've hoped for. Thanks to everyone who made the trip special. I hope I can visit again sometime soon. Until next time...さようなら!