Saturday, December 29, 2007

Japan 2007: Kaiseki and Ryokan in Nikko

In between nights of schlepping it between youth hostels in Japan, we treated ourselves to a night at a nice hotel. More specifically, a traditional inn in Nikko.

Check out that kaiseki! With so many dishes, I thought it most efficient to organise the photos from Nikko into slideshows. As an aside, I lost many of these photos when they were bizarrely and randomly wiped from the computer. In an amazing show of technical wizardry, Sandra managed to retrieve them from the camera even though they'd already been deleted from the memory card. Thank-you, thank-you, you genius! However, a few of them were unretrievable, leaving me with only blurry alternatives. Please excuse these!

Nikko is a town approximately 2 hours north-west of Tokyo. Being home to numerous hot-springs, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and the famously impressive (some would say gaudy) Toshougu mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nikko is popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists. Toshougu tends to get incredibly crowded by the middle of the day, so it makes sense to leave Tokyo bright and early (say, 8am?), or to stay the previous night in Nikko. We did the latter. Below we have some photos of the Toshougu.

If you do make it out to Japan, I would highly recommend a stay in a ryokan. A nice night of relaxing may be the perfect antidote to days of frenzied shopping and sightseeing. A proper ryokan is deeply fabulous, with gorgeous food, rooms, baths and fluffy fluffy futons, but can also be very expensive. On the other side of the scale, a shitty cheap ryokan will provide little more than a traditionally styled building, and probably won't be worth the trouble.

In the end, we chose a place between these 2 extremes - the Nikko Green Hotel, which looks like a western hotel on the outside, but has wonderful Japanese style rooms, onsen (hot spring baths) and Japanese kaiseki dinners and breakfasts. We were recommended here by a friend who'd stayed here a few months earlier. (Actually, it was the same friend who told me about the cheap Paul Bocuse Brasserie lunch... what a legend!)

Whilst all ryokan are slightly different, and each will have their own character, they all share some basic features.

1. After you check in, the maid will show you to your room, show you the amenities, and explain where the baths are, where and when dinner is served, how to wear your yukata (cotton relaxing robe) and so on. If you need help understanding anything, now is the time to ask. Sometimes they make you tea, otherwise they will point out tea-making facilities to you.

Free corn!

2. Take your bath! Japanese public baths are fantastic, an integral part of traditional Japanese culture and just so relaxing. By the way, an onsen is a bath with natural hot spring water, and an ofuro is a regular old public bath. Both good! (Guide to onsen and ofuro etiquette here.) You can actually take your bath whenever you want - at our hotel the baths were open from 5 in the morning until 11 at night - but we found this time to be the most convenient.

3. At the appropriate time, head down to the dinner area. This may be served in your room, or in a restaurant within the hotel. Enjoy your kaiseki!

See above for a photo of the entire table, see below slideshow for closeups. (Click on the speech bubble in the bottom left hand corner for captions).

Overall, I enjoyed the meal, even though I found some items too unusual even for my taste. There were some items whose names I couldn't get; the staff spoke less English than I do Japanese, which made finding out the names of dozens of dishes extremely difficult.

4. While you are eating, maids will come to your room and set out the futons for sleeping. So come back and sleep, full, relaxed and content. Aaah...goodnight everybody...

5. ...but make sure you set your alarm and make it down in time for breakfast! I enjoyed the breakfast even more than the dinner. Having a nice, big, hot, nutritious breakfast was a brilliant way to start the day. (Again, click on the speech bubble in the bottom left hand corner for captions).

Above all, relax!! Don't get too worried about the little details, and simply ask the staff if you need help or clarification. (The staff at the Green Hotel were particularly helpful!) The point of staying in a ryokan is to relax. As all the staff say, go-yukuri shite kudasai! (Take it easy).

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Germany 2008: Christmas Dinner

WHITE CHRISTMAS!!! I woke up to this view on the morning of the 24th. Beautiful, isn't it! Apparently it's only a light covering of snow, but it was good enough for me!

In Germany, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, and is followed by 2 more days of Christmas. For dinner on the first day of Christmas, we headed over to Grandma's house and enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner with the extended family.

Pute. (Turkey. massive, and basted in beer).
Soße. Gravy.
Rotkraut. Red cabbage. How I love red cabbage!
My plate, including 2 types of potato dumplings: Kartoffelknödel and Semmelknödel.

Lebkuchen mousse.
Espresso mousse. This had small amaretti biscuits studded within, which softened and melded fabulously with the mousse.

So, knocked out by an incredible amount of food, we retired upstairs to the TV room, drinking drachenglut (dragon blood wine) deep into the night, and watching a Spice Girls special on Uncle Reiner's satellite. Wunderbar.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Germany 2007: Christmas Markets!

Weihnachtsmärkte. German Christmas markets. I have to tell you, I have been dreaming about Germany's famous Christmas markets ever since I bought my ticket here, back when the weather at home was just warming up, and the truckloads of Christmas stollen and marzipan began arriving at my work.

Before this year, I'd never done a traditional Northern hemisphere Christmas. For much of my young adult life, we were in Penang each Christmas, sunbathing and drinking happy hour cocktails. More recently, Australian Christmas meant braving the hot weather (or unseasonable rain and cold, as the case may be) and going ahead with a turkey and all the trimmings. Needless to say, I was very excited about the prospect of a proper, white Christmas.

Weinachtsmarkts appear all over Germany in the days before Christmas, usually located around a church. They feature stalls selling Christmas culinary specialities, hot drinks, arts and crafts and so on. (By 'arts and crafts', I mean that usual crap people flog at markets, but Christmas-themed!) It is an essential part of a German Christmas to visit at least one Christmas market over the holiday period. As the sky gets darker, the lights get brighter, and the whole market looks gorgeously festive and beautiful.

My host mother very kindly took us to the Deidesheimer Weihnachtsmarkt, a largish Christmas market in nearby Deidesheim (duh).

First stop! Heiße Schokolade mit Sahne! (Hot cocoa with cream!)

It's colder than my smile may suggest.

Heiße Maroni. (Hot chestnuts.)

That great German winter staple, Glühwein (mulled wine).I have made it myself once before, but as with many things, they taste so much better in context. There is just something magical about walking around in the crisp night air, until you are so cold that all you can think of is some hot, sweet, strong Glühwein to warm you up from the inside.

You can get Kinderglühwein (non-alcoholic mulled wine), made of warm, spiced grape juice, for the kiddies or teetotalers, which tastes much better than it sounds. I haven't come across many teetotalers in Germany, but I guess it's good to know your options.



I suppose the literal translation of this is "fire cake", but this "cake" is closer to a thin crust pizza. As you order it, they stretch the dough out over a wooden paddle, slather it with crème fraîche, onions and ham. Then it is baked in a wood fired oven, and chopped into pieces before your eyes.
Sometimes, burning the roof of your mouth can be really rewarding.

There were also stalls selling what we Aussies might consider staple German market food - hot sausages in rolls, doughy salty Bretzel etc. What interested me more, however, were the cold rolls. Some were filled with herrings or other fish, but they also had some called Bratwurstfilzl: raw bratwurst meat, stuffed into a super-crusty roll with slivers of onion.

I only had a tiny bite of my host mother's Bratwurstfilzl; I was curious, but not game to try a whole one. Oh man, it was GOOD. Better than a regular cooked sausage! I would have bought my own if I weren't getting full by this stage. Luckily, I have been assured that this raw sausage thing is a normal, everyday thing that can be bought at the local butcher and eaten for lunch at home. Does anyone know where I can get this in Melbourne? I'm not sure if Melbourne's butchers sell Bratwurst fresh enough to be eaten raw, but if anyone knows of one, please let me know!

Now we come to the sweets. Some sweets that feature prominently include candied nuts, chocolate-dipped fruits (visit here if you're craving quality chocolate-dipped fruits in Melbourne), sugary sweet Schneebälle (snowballs), Lebkuchen, waffles and crêpes. I've noticed that people here tend to fall into the 'waffle' camp, or the 'crêpe' camp, and quite strongly too. For now, I am quite happy to sit on the fence and eat both waffle and crêpes to my tummy's content.

Mmm... waffles cooked on a pan taste so much better than domestic electric ones! You just need that intense heat to get the crispy edge. These waffles had a hint of Zimt (cinnamon) through the batter, and, covered in Puderzucker (powdered sugar), were very delicious indeed.

Schokoladenapfel. (Chocolate apple). I couldn't resist buying one to have at home later. My Schokoladenapfel was covered in chocolate, sugar and some sort of crispy sweet thing.
This totally makes up for my bad childhood experiences with feral toffee apples. (EW, why would you want to eat something so gross??)
Sad to say, this is possibly the healthiest thing I've eaten during my whole time in Germany.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Japan 2007: Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musée

For my first proper post from Japan, let me start with something decidedly un-Japanese - Lunch at Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musée.

Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musée
3rd Fl., The National Art Center Tokyo
7-22-2 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo

This Brasserie, Bocuse's first overseas branch, is located in The National Art Center of Tokyo, a short walk from Roppongi station in the trendy district of the same name. I was recommended to this restaurant by a good friend of mine, who ate there whilst was living in Tokyo earlier in the year. They have a fantastic lunch special - 3 courses for ¥2,500, which translates to a bargainous $28. They also have a ¥1,800 lunch set, where the 2 courses are chosen for you. On this day, the set was roast beef with potatoes, followed by crème brûlée. A fabulous choice if you are not hungry or want to save a few hundred yen.

I went there on my second last day in Tokyo. I was alone in the city, with Sandra having left for Germany a couple of days ahead of me, and needed to kill time. One of the great things about dining in Japan is that you can walk into any restaurant, ask for a table for one, and have it be considered completely normal. Whether it be at a cheap noodle joint with a communal bar, or a swanky European restaurant in Ginza, solo-diners in Japan are numerous and well catered-for.

Now, back to this particular restaurant. The Brasserie does not accept lunch reservations, and as such, there is always a massive queue. The wait can be minimised if you arrive early (11am is recommended), and if you don't mind sharing a table. Now, I thought this meant sitting on a long communal table, or at a bar, but when I was ushered to my seat, it turned out that I was sandwiched between 2 Japanese couples (older, wealthier, definitely classier), on a small round table. Eek! Thank goodness, they didn't try to make conversation with me, and just politely let me enjoy my lunch. What did I tell you about solo diners in Japan? Normal! Not weird or pitiable at all.
The diners at my table didn't even bat an eyelid when I started taking photos of my food.

Pommery champagne. ¥1,300.
Cauliflower Soup. Richly flavoured and very creamy.
I thought the presentation of the croutons was incredibly cute! You'll notice a basket of crusty baguette in the background, and my own reflection in the spoon.
Coq au vin bourguignon. The portion was very small, but so intensely flavoured that it was the perfect amount. Tender meat, falling off the bone, with a deep, dark sauce, pieces of bacon, onion and mushroom. It reminded me of my much-loved dinner party staple, Nigella's Pheasant with Gin and IT.

For dessert, I couldn't go past the crème brûlée.

Tap, tap, crack.

Sinking into the velvety depths, completely contented after a perfect lunch...

Thank-you to Markii for the brilliant recommendation! For those of you who make it out there, I'll pass on your thanks to him too.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ich bin in Deutschland!

Hello All,

I am in Germany!! I arrived 2 days ago, after 24 solid hours of travelling. Despite some ridiculous excess baggage charges on the way over, (who knew cheap clothing could weigh so much?), I am happy and settled in. I'll be staying in the Hesse region for 6 weeks, with my friend Sandra and her family.

Please be patient while I sort through the hundreds and hundreds of photos I took in Japan, (and adjust to the sub-zero temperatures!), and enjoy some photos of the first couple of meals I had here!

xox Sarah

Looks so wrong, tastes so right. My first meal in Germany, fresh off the plane. Real German Brot with fleischkaese, salami and leberwurst. Yum.

The bread rolls you see in the first photo became breakfast, served with a selection of cold cuts, butter, cherry jam, nutella, cheese, and honey.

A hot German lunch. Bratwurst! Served with boiled potatoes, gravy and creamed cauliflower.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sarah in Japan

Sarah loves:

- Massive bowls of tasty noodles for less than $8
- Being able to walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for 1, without feeling like a Nigel-No-Friends
- The plethora of cheap and tasty pre-packaged food available at convenience stores and supermarkets
- Hot drinks from vending machines!!
- Japanese style baths
- Mr. Donuts

Sarah misses:

- Real, crusty, sourdough bread
- A proper cafe latte (No. 5 in Flinders Lane, Romeo's in North Balwyn, Castro's at Melbourne Uni or Convent Bakery on Bridge Road)
- Twinings English breakfast tea
- Her own kitchen

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Apologies for the break in posts! I have been in Japan for the past week, and between temple visits, inhaling bowls of ramen, and limited internet access at hostels, have not had time to blog. I'll be back online with some seriously fast internet once I'm in Germany in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, enjoy this small preview of what we've been eating in Japan!

douzo yukkuri goran kudasaimase!