Saturday, May 23, 2015

Discovering : Kamakura

In an unconventional / first birthday overseas, I indulged myself to Sushi Dai - the best sushi in Tokyo as most visitors and locals to Tsukiji Market would concur. As the plan goes, after having the sushi breakfast, we decided to pay a visit to Kamakura (鎌倉市), a coastal town in the Kanagawa prefecture. What used to be a political center of Japan, Kamakura is now a popular tourist destination for those who would want to explore slightly further from Tokyo itself.

Facing the Great Buddha of Kamakura
Getting to Kamakura takes less than hour from Tokyo itself. If you are traveling via the Tokyo Metro or the JR line, get to the Shimbashi station and you would find your way to Kamakura via the railway.

Bro Tips : For the Tokyo Metro line, get to station A10 for the Asakusa line or G08 for the Ginza line (Shimbashi station). Get to the Shimbashi station for the JR Yokosuka Line (fees would be around ¥800 one way).

Sammon (Main-Gate) of the Hasedera Temple
You can easily see up to 8 attractions in a day, from visiting the abundant Zen temples available here or go back in time and feel like a samurai for a day (after all, Kamakura was known as the Home of the Samurais, or something like that). But if you have half a day like I did, perhaps going to a few key attractions would suffice. A trip to Kamakura would be incomplete if you have not visited the Daibutsu (大佛), the Great Buddha statue homed in the Kotoku-in temple (高徳院). This iconic landmark in Kamakura can be reached by getting to the Hase station from the Kamakura terminal station, and walk about 10 minutes to Kotoku-in. Entrance fee would be ¥200 to the temple.

Entrance tickets
I was at awe at the magnificent 13.35 meters tall Amida Buddha statue which survived numerous storm events and resulted in the statue to sit at the open air till now. I am quite contented with just seeing this Great Buddha statue, but I was quite intrigued to visit another famous temple here dedicated to Kannon (觀音), the Goddess of Mercy.

The Hasedera (長谷寺) houses the massive 9.18 meters tall, gold gilded wooden statue of the goddess Kannon. Feel free to Google the images of the Kannon statue as I refrained myself from being a shutterbug in the temple out of respect (and to connect spiritually to the temple as I am a Buddhist myself).

The entrance fee would be ¥300, and upon entering you won't miss the lush green garden and to the right there is an underground cave (benten kutsu cave) devoted to Benzaiten, the sea goddess from the Seven Lucky Gods Japanese mythology.

Jizo statues
Ascending the steps up to the temple, you would also notice numerous Jizō statues that were placed by parents to mourn their departed offspring.

As the Kamakura beach was not in my check list, having the height view of the Kamakura bay from the Hasedera was suffice for me.

Komachi-dori entrance
We stopped by the busy Komachi-dori street for lunch, to me it was reminiscent of the streets of Kyoto. Quaint shop lots blending along the stylish street, finding souvenirs and things to eat here shouldn't be a problem. 

Sleepy Totoro from a My Neighbor Totoro themed store
I was interested in trying two things when I was here - Shirasu (whitebait fish, or baby sardine/anchovy) and the Kamakura ham. Hence, the ham-shirasu don combo I ordered. Pretty decent dish, maybe our palates are used to fried anchovies and more seasoned ham, I can't quite rave about them.

Kamakura Ham & Shirasu in a bowl.
I do recommend if you find this soft swirl ice cream called Cremia, try their ice cream with waffle-like cone, probably one of the best ice cream I've tasted in Japan.

Kinda regretted just having one. Gahhh...
As we had time to visit another place or two, we decided to visit the Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine (銭洗弁財天宇賀福神社). The mouthful name of the shrine came from
  1. Zeniarai - Which means 'coins washing', 
  2. Benzaiten - A Buddhist Goddess 
  3. Ugafuku - A traditional spirit ugafuku-jin (宇賀福神) associated with snakes as the shrine is said to be divined by a dream that occurred at a day, month and year of the snake.
Above : Wash your money with the spring water using the ladle & sift.
Below : Allow money to dry 'naturally'. That was the actual instruction.
The waters of a spring in this Buddhist/Shinto fusion shrine's cave are said to be able to multiply the money washed in it, I must say it is worth trying since we were there anyway right? Getting there was quite a distance, from the Komachi area it was almost a 20 minutes walk (uphill included) towards the shrine. The signboards are quite helpful, we managed to reach there by it's help.

Can I get one of those sakedaru (酒樽, sake barrels) ?
We then headed back towards the Kamakura station and stopped by Tsurugaoka Hachimangū (鶴岡八幡宮), the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura. 

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
Once you get up the stairs to the shrine you should be able to get a good view of the Komachi-dori, but we were too exhausted from all the walking, so we gave the stairs hike a pass (unfortunate decision on our part). I was actually glad that we chose to experience this part of Southern Tokyo, and if time permits next time I wouldn't mind experiencing the other Zen temples that are available here (crossing fingers). 

Read more of what I've experienced in the Kanto region, mostly Tokyo area :)

Bonus scene : This is actually a setting in a local Starbucks here in Kamakura. Patrons can enjoy their coffee while admiring the garden (hydrangea I supposed, I *think*). Gahhhhh, why Malaysia don't have?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tips and Tricks : Sushi Dai (Tsukiji Fish Market)

Prologue : The Wait

May not look like a large crowd, but the far right, people are also queuing. Daiwa Sushi (大和,4th from the left of Sushi Dai) is also a relatively popular sushi bar in Tsukiji
Good things don't come easy and Sushi Dai (寿司大) is definitely the crème de la crème when it comes to sushi in Tokyo. Located less than 10 minutes walk from Tsukijishijō Station (E18, Toei Ōedo Line), Sushi Dai is relatively easy to find (God bless Google Maps for that). My friends and I arrived at an ungodly hour of 3 a.m., after being dumped by the taxi driver at some location in the Tsukiji Market vicinity. We navigated ourselves to Sushi Dai fairly simple, it is best that you save the location in your smart phone if possible to ease navigation.

Look who made it!
We thought we were the only one who are insane passionate enough to arrive 2 hours prior to its actual opening time of 5 a.m., only to be beaten by 15 people (I counted) who were probably as insane passionate as we were. Patience and perseverance - the two things that kept us from fainting. If you are traveling with friends, you may opt for the fish market auction - we kept ourselves in the line though as the queue steadily builds up. 

Glad we made the right call to come earlier, way earlier -_-
Sushi Dai opens at 5 a.m., and after 2 hours of diligent wait, we finally got to.... darn, it seems that each service by this sushi bar only accommodate up to 13 people. So, we landed ourselves in batch 2, thinking that each service is relatively quick, how hard can preparing sushi be? I was clearly wrong. The service lasted for almost an hour, per batch of 13 (I should know, I was salivating and counting time as we peeped through the window, watching the first few patrons of the day devouring their sushi). Luckily, the lady worker who clearly doubles as head counter as well as serving tea, served the first few people in the second batch a warm cup of green tea, motivation or reward for waiting maybe?

Bro tips : If you don't mind, and if it is a private affair between you and the sushi galore, you can opt to split with your friends and go as a single (or double) to round up the batch of 13. The batch that was before us totals up to 12, and one lucky lady who was alone was pushed up a few notch in the queue and had her sushi first. 

That is the best landmark I can give to find Sushi Dai. :P
It was approximately 6 in the morning and after the patrons clears the table one at a time, we finally managed to enter the restaurant (cues the angelic choir) and get our seat. As most (if not all) of the patrons normally go for the omakase (chef's selection) set, it is only fitting that we follow the flow. 

Our sushi chef greeted us with a warm welcome and even asked where do we come from. He even greeted us in Malay (I can't remember whether he said Selamat Pagi or Apa Khabar as I was really starving at that point.)

Our chef for the day. Notice the rock salt in front of him? Secret weapon, I suspect.
Alongside the usual sushi condiments - soy sauce for flavor enhancement and gari (ガリ, pickled ginger) for palate cleansing between sushi, each patrons were also served with warm green tea and a bowl of hearty fish broth.

The Omakase Walkthrough

1. The Ōtoro (大トロ, fatty tuna) is the prime cut of the tuna. Seasoned to perfection, this cut of tuna is just a great way to start the omakase course.

Bro tips : As sushis are normally seasoned by the right composition of wasabi (horse radish) and soy/Japanese sauce, it is a custom to consume the sushi without the need of the condiments mentioned. Also it is a sign of compliment to the sushi chef.
2. Tai (鯛, sea bream), second in line. After the otoro, this pales in comparison (no pun intended), but I like how fresh this tasted. 

Bro tips : When eating sushi, ditch the chopsticks and use the hand to grab the sushi and devour it at one bite, like how the locals do.
3. Next up, the Kinmedai (金目鯛, golden eye red snapper / alfonsino). This is actually the first time I've tried this fish, nice gloss it had there and I quite fancy the texture of the fish cut.
4. I normally shy away from uni (雲丹, sea urchin), not because they look the way they are, but because they are so friggin' costly to eat them back home. The creamy uni speaks for itself, and its lighter on the taste than it looks. I could have all 13 of my sushi just consisting of uni - refraining is the key.
5. The touch of what I believe are negi (green onion) and hints of ginger than complemented the aji (鯵, horse mackerel), a thumbs up combo that accentuated the taste of the fish.
6. I would prefer my tamago (卵, sweet egg omelette) to be served somewhere towards the last sushi, as its sweetness would qualify this as a dessert. Also, it is served warm, while I prefer it cold. Not much of a fan of this, unfortunately. Tasted good none the less.
7. The shell fish sushi (missed the Japanese name) was the only 'still moving' sushi that we had that morning (speaking of freshness of the highest degree). Far from being rubbery, the texture was pleasantly chewy.
8. Whenever I have maguro (鮪, tuna) back home,  it is normally taste slightly bloody and unappetizing. The maguro here though, is on a league on its own on the other side of the spectrum. Was not a fan, am a convert now.
9. The tight rolls of maki sushi (巻き寿司, rolled sushi) had two flavors going on, one with chūtoro (中とろ, semi fatty tuna, chopped - not diced) and cucumber with roe. Bite size maki are always fun to eat, just can't get enough of them.
10. While the Japanese lady seated on my right was served and ate the shiro ebi (白海老, white baby shrimp), she went like "美味しい... (oishii, translate : delicious), and I was like, whoa, okay... had to try this. Wasn't as orgasmic as I expected, and slightly towards the blander side of my flavor preference. The right amount of wasabi applied to the sushi though, lifted the sushi as its saving grace for me.
11. The predatory tachiuo (太刀魚, cutlassfish) looks like the tai I had earlier, but for some reason between these two meaty fishes, I had to incline myself more to the tai.
12. The ika (烏賊, squid) seasoned with what I suspect is Sushi Dai's secret sauce, with sprinkles of sesame and a touch of wasabi was interesting, as I normally shy away from ordering squid in my sushi preference. Not too bad.
On top of the omakase dozen, we were given the choice to choose a wild card sushi. As much as I was tempted to go for something slightly more exotic, I found myself going full circle and relived the taste of the otoro.

A la carte for the wild card selection and/or top up

Epilogue : The Aftermath

The omakase set is priced at 4000 yen (approximately RM 119.50), for the finest array of 13 sushi served by world class chef, I think the price is a steal. I think it couldn't get any better and fresher than a sushi bar that is a stone throw from the largest wholesale fish market in the world. As Tsukiji may relocate (rumor has it that it may relocate at 2016), we were definitely fortunate enough to drop by and taste the most raved sushi in the world by foreigners and locals alike. 

Bro Tips : If the thought of lining up for more than 3 hours terrifies you, a few shops away is Sushi Daiwa, who serves just as admirable sushi than Sushi Dai, based on recommendation by those who just can't wait and need their sushi fix. An hour, per 13 people, so you can do the math while you are in the line :)

Sushi Dai (寿司大)
Tsukiji-Shijo 5-2-1 #6. 
Opens from 5am-2pm. Closed Sun, selective Wed. 

Bro tips : If you're attempting the early wait and want to catch some sleep before that, it is possible to take a cab there like we did (albeit expensive, otherwise we would become real zombies.