Monday, January 25, 2010

A camera clicks from the other side of the ocean.

It makes itself seen here.

While wandering through the palaces of Seoul, I looked down to see this little bit of prettiness.
A sea of snow
I couldn't help but to be reminded of waves receding from a shore, except the shore's frozen over. Actually, I'm not quite sure why I took this picture. But I like it. (It could have to do with the fact that I didn't take a single picture at the palaces that was worth a damn)

Walk through a subway station in the dead of night, and it can get a little bit creepy. Lights flickering, not a soul in sight, with only the occasional screech of a train to break the silence.
Creepy, creepy
And with this, I add another shot to the many, many hallway pictures that I've taken. I haven't gotten sick of them yet.


I met up with my friend Min while in Seoul, which was nice to see an old friend while on another continent. After a hearty dinner of Korean bbq, we visited some cutesy little cafe for some fondue :D
ManjuChurro Fondue :D
You drop the little disks of dark chocolate into the small cup, where the candle beneath it melts it down do a rich, creamy consistency. Dip some churros, poundcake, and fruit into the dark chocolate, and life is good. Afterwards, pour some steamed milk into the leftover chocolate, mix it up, and enjoy a nice dessert to your dessert.

We then proceeded to meander around Seoul on an epic bar crawl, imbibing our way across the city. While there were some fun ones here and there (and ever order a cheese plate at a dive bar), my favorite by far was Moon Glow.
Moon Glow
You walk down a flight of steps in a quiet little street, greeted by hazy air, dim lights, and some sweet jazz. This place could've come straight out of a movie. The bar is run by Shin Kwan-Woong (on the piano) who is quite renowned in the Korean jazz scene, from what I was told. He's a part of the first generation of Korean jazz, and he has the skills to go with the title. He never watches his hands - his eyes are closed, with his head turned slightly so that his ear is the closest thing to the keys. He'll occasionally look off thoughtfully, as if staring at a distant mountain. You can just see him feel the music. While the rest of the guest band was wearing tees and jeans, he was still decked out in his black suit. The man was the boss, and there was no denying it.

If there's only one thing I can see in Seoul for the rest of my life, Moon Glow's the place.

A Slice of Korea - Insadong

Random little anecdotes from a lovely little peninsula in the East (click the pictures for a larger image).

The streets of Insadong are laden with old shops and stands with goods from simpler times. Tea pots, scrolls, calligraphy supplies, and traditional foods are just a sampling of the wares to be found here. I really don't know what any of these foods are, but I feel like they'd go great in some all-natural home cooking. Yum.

Colors, Textures
More of Insadong, my favorite part of Seoul. A little touristy? Yes, without a doubt. But there's still a strong sense of culture to be enjoyed there. One thing that was a bit out of place but still beautiful were these lovely pashmina scarves. I wouldn't be caught dead in one, of course, but I enjoyed the beautiful colors and textures.

While wandering down one alley, I stumbled upon the Beautiful Tea Museum (also known as Tea Story). The teahouse itself is modeled in a traditional Korean architectural style, with an open air courtyard in the center where patrons are free to enjoy their tea. The lighting is soft and dreamy, dancing across the natural grain of the unstained wood. I practically stayed here all day, enjoying a steaming cup of yuja-cha and green tea-flavored tteuk.
Tea Story - Beautiful Tea Museum

Around the walls of the teahouse is the "museum" portion of the Beautiful Tea Museum. Tea pots and cups created by expert craftsmen, each once an objet d' art.
Tea Story - Beautiful Tea Museum
Annoyingly, this museum just showed me more things that I'll have to enjoy at some point in life.

There was so much more in Insadong that I was able to enjoy - receiving an after-hours tour of a sword museum (and playing with a good number of them), eating lots and lots of food, and watching calligraphy masters at work. But I don't have pictures to do those things justice, so I'll just have to keep them in my mind's eye for now.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Om nom nom (Korea edition)

In my excitement of getting Japan pictures online, I had put Korea pictures on the back burner. So here we go... food from Korea.

Sun-dae :D
I used to be grossed out by the concept of this interesting sausage when I was younger, but now I just don't give a damn. It's delicious. I also just realized that it's spelled the same as "sundae," as in the delectable ice cream concoction. Har har.

Korean street food :D The sheer variety of street food in Seoul is staggering. Stop by any random stand (or improve your dietary standards and hit up a pojangmacha) and you will be met by everything from giant clumps of french fries on a stick to the good ol' cup of silk worm larvae. I only wish LA had this amount of food on every corner.
Gonzalez Kebab
Gonzalez kebab - chicken, assorted veggies, a nice helping of assorted sauces, all wrapped in a nicely toasted tortilla. Definitely nontraditional, but no less delicious. Only problem was that it lost its heat in the cold Seoul air, at which point it failed to be as delicious as it was when I first bit into it.

Om nom nom
A spicy sausage wrapped in odeng and bits of spam, with a bit of ketchup mixed in with chili paste. I'm not going to bullshit about how the flavors meld in some vague, complex way. No, this thing is meaty, salty, and delightfully filling. Quite possibly the greatest invention in street food since hotteuk. Speaking of which...

호떡 (Hotteuk)
Can't get enough of this stuff. Sure, the versions of it in LA are quite tasty. But there's nothing quite like getting the original, piping hot and ridiculously inexpensive.

And candied strawberries in Myungdong. Not quite my cup o' tea, but my sister seemed to have enjoyed them.
Candied Strawberries

Om nom nom. Korean street food. My mouth waters at the thought of it. Cheap, quick, delicious, and most importantly - unhealthy. Yes. It turns out that a large percentage of the Korean food that I enjoy is considered to be "poor peoples' food." It originated during Korea's harsh times that started around the early nineteenth century, when people would have to scrounge for food and do with what they have. Hence, the abundance of stews that seem to have a bit of everything, lots of fermented foods that were easy to store, and soups that are made of leftover animal bones. I had never really thought much of it, but the Korean diet that I was raised on gives a small look into what people had to do to survive during times of crisis. It's quite a sobering thought.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just keep swimming...

Disney Sea. Hands-down the most aesthetically pleasing Disney park that I've ever seen. I can't say much for the excitement factor of the rides, but the facades are unmatched in the Disney park pantheon.

Mt. Prometheus - Day and Night
The centerpiece of the park is Mt. Prometheus, a massive volcano that overlooks the entire park. At night, it periodically "erupts" in a show of fireworks and flames and is quite amusing to watch. I mean, when are pyrotechnics ever not amusing?

Disney also did a nice job of recreating Venice (with gondolas and all). Mind you, the Disney version is also probably significantly cleaner than the actual city. And want to hear something fun? Ride the gondolas and take in Japanese gondoliers singing Italian songs in thick asian accents.

The park's nighttime entertainment is similarly top-notch. BraviSEAmo! is a tale of a spirit of fire and a spirit of water and their quest to be together despite their differences. Flames, water jets, colorful lights, and beautiful music. What's there not to enjoy? This particular beast is the spirit of fire, a massive metal phoenix that sets the entire center of the park alight. This picture fails to do the show even a bit of justice, sadly.

And I'm just sticking this here to annoy Emi. Although, it was nice to have some company in Japan.

I really have to go back and try some Sea Salt ice cream, though. KH II fanboys, rejoice. But anyways, that park is just a bastion of eye candy. And best of all, their merchandise is significantly awesomer than the crap in the states (Chip and Dale onesie, anyone?)


And now, a random smattering of pictures and things from Japan. I really have to get to my Korea pictures too. Bleh.

I wish
People write on these wooden tablets sold at shrines, then place them with all of the other tablets for good luck. On these were wishes for success, health, friends and family, love, and everything in between. Glancing at the multitude of tablets was like taking a peek into the dreams of an entire world, and I couldn't help but smile at the things that I read.

Traveling during the winter has its pros and cons, as do most things. It was cold enough to keep away most large crowds at parks, temples, and shrines. Hot sake tasted delicious in that particular weather. However, most of the foliage was gone for the season - cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, and lotuses were few and far between. Thankfully, I was able to find a little bit of color amidst the sea of grey and brown.

Streets of Kyoto
Some streets in Kyoto were a slice out of the 1800s, with traditional storefronts, muffled foot traffic, and the occasional geisha running to and from appointments. This was the Japan that I was hoping to witness, and I felt extremely fortunate to be able to walk down these streets with beauty and an undeniable classiness around every corner.

Kiyomizu Dera
Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most famous temples in Japan. It is particularly (ridiculously) large, spanning across a good chunk of mountainside. This is just one (very tiny) portion of the greater temple complex.

Kodai-ji, my favorite shrine in Kyoto. The gardens here were designed by an illustrious tea ceremony master named Sen-no-Rikyu, and there's a strange quality to them that I can't quite put my finger on. An almost ethereal atmosphere where I wandered the grounds in a daze. I had never experienced anything like it before.

More Kodai-ji.

Bamboo is the subject of an obsession that I've had for several years, but I can't quite figure out why. Hm.

Fushimi Inari Jinja
Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, famous for its numerous tunnels covered by hundreds of torii gates. Walking through these corridors, one is bathed in a peculiar orange light that makes everyone look like they are the victims of a bad tan.
This is one of the places that I knew I HAD to visit in Japan, and I'm infinitely glad I got to meander through the shrine.

go into the light.
Umeda Sky Building, Osaka. Go into the light.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Om nom nom (Part 2)

More delicious goodness from the Land of the Rising Sun :D

Let's begin.

While in Osaka, I met up with a martial arts friend who took me to a great izakaya (I love those places) in the covered arcades right by Osaka station. The walk down the stairs into the restaurant was...interesting. Spiky, hardened grasses protruded from the walls of the stairwell that led into the restaurant, which would be quite hazardous if encountered during an inebriated state. Anyways, the food:
-Top left: Ostrich meat cooked rare, covered in a Japanese style-mayo, avocado slices, and nori. Turns out that I'm a huge fan of ostrich.
-Bottom left: Skewers of the most random parts of chicken that I never would have expected to eat. Heart (surprisingly flavorful, and a bit firm), liver, esophagus (quite chewy), and the normal bits and pieces. I didn't encounter a part of the chicken that wasn't at least palatable, though.
-Right: A flight of five clumps of minced chicken meat with an array of toppings. I won't name all of them, but the one in which I dipped it into raw egg was quite delightful.

Huge Mitarashi Dango
Enormous mitarashi dango bought from a stand in Arashiyama, Kyoto. These were the best dango BY FAR that I had in Japan. The dango itself was hot and gooey with just the slightest tinge of sweetness. The sauce itself mixed the saltiness of the soy sauce with even more sweetness from the sugar base, creating a snack that was absolutely perfect to eat while wandering through the bamboo forests of Kyoto. I immediately went back for a second one, thanking the girl that made them profusely.

Fresh soba!
After visiting Fushimi Inari shrine, I had a hankering for soba. To my utter and complete joy, I walked by a restaurant where a large window showed a chef making soba noodles by hand (not uncommon, I know, but still cool). I took an immediate turn straight into the restaurant, where I spent a good five minutes speaking terrible Japanese with the Japanese-only speaking workers. Oh well. The soba tasted just as fresh as I had seen firsthand. It did well in absorbing the soba tsuyu on the side, which itself was tasty but not remarkable. With a few cups of green tea, I was satisfied and on my way.

The famous Kagizen Yoshifusa sweets shop in Kyoto serves a peculiar dish called Kuzukiri, in which arrowroot noodles in iced water is served with a black sugar dipping sauce. The noodles have a somewhat slimy, gelatin-like consistency and not too much flavor. The dipping sauce had a lovely caramelized flavor that I found surprisingly complex for what I initially assumed to be a simple sugar syrup. But the details of the dish are what impressed me the most. It was served in a set of stacking bowls, made from wood and lacquered with urushi. The bowl enhanced the overall aesthetics of the meal, and I wouldn't be surprised if the bowl was older than me. The ice used wasn't just some random ice from some refrigerator's ice machine; the ice was comprised of substantial chunks and were crystal clear, to the point that they became invisible in the water. It was the sort of ice that I wouldn't mind using for a top-shelf cocktail, and heightened the perceived value of the dessert.

Modan Okonomiyaki
Modan Okonomiyaki from Chibo in Osaka. The restaurant was recommended to me by both the hostel owner and Lonely Planet, so I gave it a shot. Seeing as Gaja in Lomita has you prepare your own okonomiyaki, I assumed that the procedure would be the same in Japan. Turns out that only the cheaper places have you do that, which takes out a little bit of the fun of the meal but is worth it in terms of taste and appearance. The shrimp, pork, yakisoba noodles, and other things thrown into the okonomiyaki were fine and typical, but the fatty beef was something else entirely. It was salty and chewy, slowly melting in my mouth as I savored the flavor of the delightfully unhealthy pieces of fat. I died in that restaurant. On a different note, the meal actually looked exactly like it did in the menu picture. Impressive.

Osaka is famous for its okonomiyaki. After eating at Chibo, I can see why.

Ippudo Ramen!
Ippudo in Tokyo. This was one of the several Ippudo locations throughout Japan, nationally renowned for their Kyushu-style ramen. It is customary to pile a tower of seasoned bean sprouts onto the ramen, then crush fresh garlic into the broth. I did both with cheerful abandon, mixed the concoction, and slurped away with gleeful abandon. This was the single most flavorful broth I ever drank in my life, and is what I feel embodies the idea of umami. The noodles were a bit hard, but the chashu was sublime as was every single drop of the broth which, to this very moment, I can taste on my tongue. I wish to never lose it. The workers here were exceptionally friendly, and I also managed to eat my bowl at the same rate as the regular (he had a frequent eater card) next to me. I felt a tiny bit accomplished, not gonna lie.

That concludes the noteworthy meals I had in Japan. Looking at this post now, I could go for some really good Japanese food. Oh well.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Om nom nom (Part 1)

I had the pleasure of eating my way across Japan. Quite literally. I'm pretty sure 90% of my budget was allotted for food, and I'm definitely sure that I used up most of said budget. From the street food and tiny train station restaurant of Tokyo, to the legendary gastronomical delights of Osaka, to the haute cuisine of Kyoto, I ate and ate and ate. Here are some of my favorites.

One of my goals in Japan was to eat as much takoyaki (octopus wrapped in a ball of gooey batter) as possible. I accomplished this goal, to the dismay of my innards and wallet.
-Top right: A random takoyaki stand in Seoul, which had surprisingly fresh ocotopus
-Top left: Takoyaki outside of Hie-jinja in Tokyo. Good, but a bit unremarkable
-Bottom right: Takoyaki from Donai-ya in Amerikamura (America Village, named for the black market trade there post-WWII). This place gave 8 in a batch instead of the usual six :D
-Bottom left: HUMONGOUS takoyaki outside of some shrine. Whereas most places used small chunks of octopus, this stand used half of an entire leg for each ball. Definitely felt more substantial, but the giant pieces of sea creature deliciousness seemed to throw off the balance of the batter. They were also noticeably harder to eat than lesser takoyaki.

More izakaya food
I shared my first dinner in Tokyo with Ricky (Saaya's bro) who was nice enough to let me crash at his place. He also took me out to an Izakaya (Japanese version of a pub, sort of) that was popular with students from his university. We ordered lots of tiny little plates of food, but these were two of my favorite. Pig tongue, chicken skin, and chicken skewers that were greasy and delicious. If I had the option, I would buy these in bulk and walk around with a bag full of them, munching on them as I went about my day. In the background is a plate of lightly fried housemade tofu topped with an assortment of vegetables. The tofu was soft and creamy, a bit like flan.

Mabo Tofu
Mabo Tofu from the Vulcania restaurant in Disney Sea. That park was quite impressive (especially for Disney fans) and I'll write about that in a later post. The mabo tofu itself was surprisingly good for theme park fare, and quite filling. The cast members warned me of its spiciness several times, but I was not impressed. Still tasty, though.

Yuba Udon
Yuba, a specialty of Kyoto, is the skin of tofu, made through an extremely painstaking process that I probably do not have the patience for. The texture is unlike anything that I would expect from something tofu-derived - it's stretchy, for one. I had it served over udon in Kyoto in a peculiar restaurant owned by a man who looked like an extra on Miami Vice. The dish itself was wonderful, however.

In Japan, one does not usually order sake when referring to rice wine. Sake is an umbrella term for alcohol; Nihonshu is used to denote traditional rice wine.
The one on the left is reishu sake, or chilled. The glass is sometimes served in a small wooden container, with the glass overflowing into said container as a show of generosity. In my case, it came in a small bowl (which was almost filled to the brim in itself). It had a nice sweetness to it and went down quite smooth...if only I remembered the name of it. Damn.
The one on the right is amazake, a sweet sake mixed with rice bits and ginger and is usually served piping hot around winter festivals. I got to enjoy this particular cup of nihonshu on the grounds of Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most famous temples in Japan. Pictures of that amazing location to come shortly.

Unagi and folded egg over rice served at Kaneyo in Downtown Kyoto. The restaurant had the awesome marketing strategy of placing barrels of live eels outside the front door, to denote freshness. Sadly, it was too cold for the eels and they had to be brought inside. Shame. The eel here tasted fresher than any unagi that I'd had in So Cal, with the sauce combining just the right amount of saltiness and sweetness to perfectly complement the flavor of the eel. The egg was a tad out of place, but I love eggs so I didn't mind at all. Definitely a place to check out again when I go back to Kyoto (whenever that may be).

This food post has drawn on a lot longer than I expected. So this shall be part 1. Part 2 to come shortly. Thanks for reading, and I hope this has spurred a desire to hit up your local Japanese restaurant.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Japan Panoramas

Because I have so many pictures from Japan and Korea, I figure that I'll split them up into several posts.

I decided to mix things up by shooting panoramas, and I'm quite happy with how things turned out. Heck, I was incredibly excited to get one particular shot online:


The bamboo grove around Mt. Arashiyama, in Kyoto. I've wanted to wander through a bamboo grove for years (too many martial arts movies?), and I finally had the opportunity to live out one of my dreams. As I sat in the shadows of the stalks of bamboo towering overhead, I couldn't help but feel that the world as moving towards stillness. There was no one else around to disturb my moment; even the sound of my own breathing seemed muffled by the bamboo all around me. A light rain started to fall, the occasional droplet falling through the canopy above me and splashing on my jacket. I was overtook by a sense of calm, and I was at ease.

Kinkaku-ji Pond
The pond behind Kinkaku-ji, the famed Golden Pavilion. There was an incredible number of beautiful gardens in Kyoto - the traditional green type, and rock gardens. This one just stuck out in particular. With the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, Tangible Cultural Assets, and whatnot in Kyoto, it's near-impossible to not stumble on something beautiful.

Osaka Skyline
The Osaka skyline, as seen from atop the Umeda Sky Building. I wish I could also show you guys the Floating Garden atop the building. There are colored patterns in the walkways around you that glow at night once blacklights are turned on. Anyways, this was an amazing location to watch the sunset. It turns out that the entire place was a popular date location (because of the view. Figures.) which made things a bit awkward for me, but screw it. I wasn't going to pass up an incredible view for something as small as that. The building was built around the idea that mankind is constantly trying to get closer to heaven, hence the open observation deck atop the tower.

If you found this at all enjoyable, then there's a lot more where that came from. What to put up next? More temples? Food? Weird stuff that I found around Tokyo? Hmm...