Edmonton Restaurant Review: SEORAK Teppan & Bar

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

At the start of the year, I found myself scrolling through the list of participating OpenTable restaurants in the Edmonton area. I was attempting to remind myself of places I’d had yet to visit, which I would then be able to recommend to my friend as suggestions for our upcoming lunch or dinner meeting.

As I perused the directory, one popped up that I hadn’t heard of. SEORAK Teppan & Bar was unfamiliar to me. I Googled the name and it seemed to have opened on Whyte Avenue just a few months prior.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later to when my boyfriend and I were heading to Nongbu for dinner with our friends. We happened to drive east down 82 Avenue and I spotted the exterior of SEORAK on 108 Street. Its simple signage is unassuming. Paired with the fact that there aren’t many happening restaurants past about 106 Street, SEORAK could be easily overlooked. Yet, maybe the lack of much else on that block is what made it stand out to me that night.

Towards the end of January or beginning of February, it was decided that we would make some sort of plans for Valentine’s; however, we wouldn’t be partaking on the actual day. It was going to be low key. My only stipulation was that I wanted to go somewhere new because it would allow me to blog about it. So, I complied about a handful of restaurants.  I sent them to my boyfriend to check out all of the menus and asked him to pick. Ultimately, we landed on SEORAK.

When this particular Saturday finally rolled around, our day started off with brunch at home and then a few hours of painting ceramics at Crankpots ahead of dinner. We arrived in advance of our reservation and it was still rather early in the evening, meaning it was relatively quiet at that point. Only about four other tables were seated.

One of the servers came up to greet us and he immediately apologized for the wait. He cited that the restaurant was short staffed and then he quickly brought up my name. Once he checked us in, he started to lead us to a table closer to the teppan grill, but, at the last second, he guided us over to a booth nearer the windows.

Now, here’s the thing, I never tell restaurants that I’m a blogger (although, they can probably guess when I pull out my camera and start taking photos). It’s a rarity that I mention anything because I don’t really want to be treated differently than anyone else who walks through the door. However, on this occasion, I pulled the card and asked if it’d be possible to be sat across from the teppan as I hoped to take photos without getting in anyone’s way. The server then introduced himself as the owner, Sa Hwang. He explained that it was going to be busy that evening and his manager had made the arrangements regarding the reservations, so he’d speak to him and see if we could be moved. The manager was over a couple of minutes later and he had us swiftly placed at another table with an optimal view of the show. We thanked him for being so understanding.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

Our server for the evening, Joanna, came by shortly after to introduce herself and to ask us if we’d like any drinks to start. With ten minutes to spare before happy hour was over, we managed to sneak in an order of four cocktails at the lowered prices. Basically, all of their signature drinks are offered for $1.50 to $2 less. I’d say the one that makes the most of the Asian theme would be the Lychee Lollipop as it incorporates both the lychee flavour as well as soju, a Korean liquor. The Aloe-Ha is a typical tropical drink that went down smoothly, and the Kraken Cider was a delicious mix of spiced rum, Asian apple cider, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon that was garnished with a stick of cinnamon.

Having trouble deciding on what to eat, I asked Joanna for recommendations. She indicated that some of the menu items had been updated recently, so she suggested a few that she really likes, including the Kimchi Bombs. As we needed a bit more time to come to a conclusion on our meal, we opted to go with those as our appetizer. The plate appeared at our table not too long after. Three balls of kimchi rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried until crisp on the outside were garnished with green onions or leeks and a sweet aioli. I love a good mac and cheese ball, and this is, essentially, its cousin. At first, I wasn’t overly impressed. I mainly got a bite of the rice and no cheese. But, as soon as I had a taste of the rice with the gooey mozzarella and crispy outer shell coated in the sweet aioli (surprisingly not creamy like a mayo) with the tanginess of the onions, I realized that all of the flavours just balanced each other out and the textures definitely worked together.

By the time we had devoured our starter, the mains that we opted to share were being put together in the kitchen. I took in the whole restaurant while we waited. The design is sleek and modern yet also welcoming. The marbled countertops at the grill and the bar are gorgeous. Nearly every table in the house (granted, not all of the seats) have a view of the teppan. The only thing I noticed was off were the bar stools. I didn’t try sitting in them, but they seemed a tad too tall for the height of the bar. Otherwise, down to the outlines of Mount Seorak (located in South Korea) on the wall next to us and the use of diverse textures and neutral colours, it’s a really well thought out space.

By 6:30, all of the tables were occupied, so there was a buzz in the place. Not loud though, so it was perfect for conversing. I was watching the chefs cooking up a storm on the grill and snapping photos. Eventually, the Pork Belly Trio was dropped off at our table with a bowl of rice. Not long after, the Korean Shortrib that I had selected showed up as well. We had been warned that due to the different cooking times for each dish, the arrival of them may be staggered. Since we were planning to share, it didn’t really matter, but I suppose it’s something to take into consideration when dining at SEORAK.

Although the menu at SEORAK integrates both Korean and Japanese (i.e. okonomiyaki) cuisines,  we stuck strictly to the Korean selections in this instance.

For the Pork Belly Trio, my boyfriend picked the Seoul Chili flavour for the meat. That particular option came with sheets of nori, pickled radish and a carrot/purple cabbage slaw in a sesame dressing. I hadn’t expected it to come out plated the way it was. When I absorbed what I saw, it occurred to me that all of the separated portions of the dish could be compiled together to make mini wraps. Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to play with my food. Each thing tasted great on its own, but the layers of flavour experienced when everything is combined is stellar. The Korean BBQ pork belly was cooked well and most of the really fatty parts had rendered away. I expected the meat to be spicier, but it was actually very subtle. The nori was fresh and had that snappiness to it that gave way without a struggle when I took a bite.  I always appreciate a good sesame slaw, too. This, paired with the acidity from the pickled radish just added an extra oomph of flavour. The colours were also beautifully vibrant.

I voted for the Korean Shortrib dish and it did not disappoint. Sure, it could have used a little extra garnishing. Perhaps a side of veggies to go with it. Aside from that, the AAA Alberta boneless short ribs were top notch. Yes, the meat is sliced fairly thin, but there were three long slabs of beef placed on the hot skillet, likely amounting to about ten ounces of steak. The bottom piece was about half to three quarters of an inch thick and cooked to medium/medium rare. The meat was succulent with just a slight amount of fat, which helped to ramp up the flavour of the Korean Kalbi (or Galbi) marinade of Asian pear, soy, honey garlic and sesame.  I ate up every last bite of the short ribs and the rice. In the end, I even added in the leftover radish and slaw from the pork belly dish for good measure.

Green Tea-rimisu

Green Tea-rimisu

To finish off our celebratory evening, we skipped the snowbowl (a finely shaved ice dessert only available in Edmonton at SEORAK) and went for the Green Tea-rimisu. I’m not going to lie, it took me a second to grasp that it was a matcha flavoured take on the traditional Italian tiramisu. It was presented in a pretty ceramic bowl with a matching lid. I opened it to reveal matcha powder sprinkled on the top in the shape of a clover (maybe a regular leaf would be a better shape and more in line with the idea of a tea leaf, but I digress). This was a well executed dessert. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it lacked the matcha flavour throughout. I did like the use of a Korean cookie as the base of the tiramisu though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the flavour. I wanted to say it was black sesame or something, but it may have simply been chocolate.

All-in-all, SEORAK was an excellent choice in the Old Scona area. Everything from the food to the service was first-rate. Even on a night when they were short staffed (Sa was at the grill cooking and there were only two servers), the manager and Joanna were really attentive to us as well as the other diners. The dishes and drinks all made it out to customers in a prompt fashion and the integrity of the restaurant never wavered.

With our bellies full, I caught Sa when he had a moment away from the teppan. I praised the fantastic meal and said we’d be back. In fact, I’m already licking my lips in anticipation of our next visit to SEORAK.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: NongBu Korean Eatery

Snacks and a pot of makguli to get us started.

Snacks and a pot of makguli to get us started.

My friends and I seem to be on a bit of an Asian cuisine kick at the moment. One of our recent tries was NongBu Korean Eatery. Following a rather chilly evening at Ice Castles Edmonton in Hawrelak Park, we decided to head to Whyte Avenue to check it out for a late supper.

On an oddly quiet Friday night in Old Strathcona, the restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived at around 9:00pm. Granted, NongBu closes quite early at ten o’clock, so maybe it had already cleared out as only two or three other tables were occupied.

The eatery has a sparse modern industrial feel to it with a metal accent wall, lots of grey, cement-like paint, vintage wooden school chairs sprayed black, exposed ceilings and beams as well as a second floor loft. The look is toned down by the use of natural woods throughout. I was surprised by the size of the space, too. Based on the outside of the building, I expected it to be smaller; however, the top floor would be excellent for bigger groups. I also enjoyed seeing that some movies/videos were being projected on the far wall. That’s a different touch that I’ve only ever seen at a two or three other places when I was on holiday.

They have a variety of drinks available. We went for the makguli (Korean rice wine).

They have a variety of drinks available. We went for the makguli (Korean rice wine).

The couple that my boyfriend and I were dining with made it to NongBu earlier than us. By the time we got there, they had taken the liberty of ordering a pot of makguli – Korean rice wine – for the table. Apparently, it’s brewed in-house, but I could be mistaken. At 6% alcohol, it’s a smooth, milky coloured drink that paired well with the complimentary snacks provided. While we perused the menu, we sipped on that and nibbled on kimchi, popcorn, spinach, pickled radish and eggplant.

It took some deliberation before we were all ready to make our selections. I went with a classic KimChi BoKumBap. My boyfriend chose the JjimDak, and our friends decided to share the Spicy DdukBboKki and the Pork BulGoGi Ssam.

The food was prepared so swiftly. Before we knew it, we had piping hot plates sitting in front of us. First off, I’d like to say that the portion sizes are generous. All of the eatery’s options are ideal for sharing; it’s likely the intention of the restaurant that patrons mix and match a few things between them. We just opted for more individual meals on this occasion.

I sampled the rice cake and fishcake in the Spicy DdukBboKki. This is very traditional Korean street fare, and the rice cake should have a slight chewiness to it owing to the glutinous rice used. This totally fit the bill, and the spiciness was there without being overwhelming. I’d be incredibly full if I tried to eat a whole helping of this, especially as an appetizer to an entrée, so this is best when split with others.

For their main, my friends had the pan fried spicy pork belly Ssam (lettuce wraps) with vegetables. The hefty pile of meat and leaves were served with cucumber and jalapeno slices and a hot sauce. I tasted a piece of the pork belly. It was succulent and perfectly coated with just the right amount of marinade.

JjimDak

JjimDak

My boyfriend wasn’t really a fan of the sweet potato noodles that came with his JjimDak (good thing he also received a bowl of rice). When he saw the words “sweet potato,” he was expecting something more orange and probably starchier. As it turns out, these noodles were translucent and a medium thickness. Any so-called colouring was caused by the spicy soy sauce used to flavour the dish. I missed out on trying the chicken and the veggies as my boyfriend devoured everything so quickly. I ate what was left of his noodles though. Personally, I loved the smooth texture of them. The soy sauce was also savoury without being overly salty, albeit lacking any heat.

KimChi BoKumBap

KimChi BoKumBap

For my own dinner, when I see that there’s a fried egg served on top of something, I usually find it difficult to skip over. Attempting to warm up after an hour spent outdoors, my eyes and stomach were quick to pick the KimChi BoKumBap.

My plate was filled with a mountainous pile of kimchi and pork belly fried rice. That was topped by the egg with its beautiful yellow yolk, sesame seeds, green onions and nori. I popped the yolk and watched the egg drip down into the rice. The fried egg is completely necessary to give the BoKumBap the proper consistency. Otherwise, this dish is tasty and has a subtle fieriness due to the ample kimchi. I also appreciated the earthy flavour profile from the flakes of nori and would have liked to see more of it. My one complaint is that they could have included larger pieces or an increased amount of the pork belly as I didn’t necessarily feel that there was enough meat. Still, it was a huge amount of food, which meant I packed up a serving big enough for lunch the next day.

By the time we were done eating, we had pretty much closed the place down. There wasn’t any time for dessert. Although, I’d argue that the desserts aren’t really all that appealing. I can go to the grocery store to buy myself a box of Melona bars, if I want to. I can even make my own Melona float or cocktail, and I won’t miss a yogurt drink, so there’s room for improvement at NongBu.

Nevertheless, everything else I experienced would bring me back in a heartbeat. From the food to the service and the quiet, casual atmosphere, I think this is a great location for a gathering of friends.

Travel Roundup: Hong Kong, Macau & Japan 2016

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

It’s a brand new year, and four weeks in, I find myself looking back at 2016. It was quite the whirlwind, and I’m reminded of just how lucky I am, especially when it comes to travelling.

This past November was a big month for me. Not only did I spend another birthday in Vegas, but I was also able to take a fortnight off from work to do some exploring with friends in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.

Admittedly, I was slightly worried about being the so-called “guide” for our trio in Hong Kong. When my friends suggested that I go with them because my family is from there and I’ve been several times before, I smiled and agreed. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I could totally disappoint them. Sure, I’d gone in the past, but I was no expert. My trips to Hong Kong were always oriented around plans with relatives, often leaving very little time to be an actual tourist. They trusted me though, so we forged ahead with putting together a holiday.

What I originally thought was going to be a break primarily situated in Hong Kong ended up including a mini trek across Japan. About eight months before we travelled, the YEG Deals website flagged a round trip flight from Edmonton to Tokyo for a fantastic price and we opted to go for it. This was much to my mother’s dismay. My mom kept telling me that we would have saved money had we booked connecting flights from the start or if we waited for a special on a direct flight to Hong Kong. It was too late to change the booking though and we were determined to make it work.

When November rolled around, I wouldn’t say we were exactly ready. Personally, I felt slightly discombobulated because, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t leaving for a holiday with any sort of itinerary in hand. We did pull it together enough to make sure we had accommodations in all of the cities where we’d be staying. We also found comparatively affordable connecting flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Hiroshima through discount airline HK Express before departing Edmonton. The three of us weren’t totally winging it, but this was unusual for me. I was out of my comfort zone with no clue as to what we were going to do on a day-to-day basis.

Thankfully, our trip happened to coincide with my parents’ holiday to Hong Kong, which means we had a good support system, if necessary. The day we flew into Hong Kong (dead tired from 30 straight hours of travel), they actually met up with us upon our arrival in Causeway Bay. My relatives were gracious enough to let us stay in an extra apartment that they own, and my parents were there to let us into the unit. Although we experienced a few hiccups on the first night of our stay, all issues were remedied by the following day. Our adventure had begun.

I have done a previous post (in photo format) about Hong Kong, so feel free to check that out in addition to what I have to say here. Also, I will say that I’m so pleased that I finally got a chance to explore this territory with minimal family obligations required. Being able to see the city from a different perspective with friends who have never been allowed us to take full advantage of what was on offer. We went at our own pace and it made me feel like this was truly a locale to visit (outside of the usual family reasons).

Accounting for all of the travel time between destinations, we really had to make the most of our days at each destination. Hong Kong was our initial stop, and aside from indulging in all of the food, we thought we’d take in some of the highlights.

Day 1 – Hong Kong

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Day one consisted of a bus ride to the top of Victoria Peak where we got a panoramic view of the city below. We also rode the MTR (one of the best city train systems I know of) to the Kowloon side. There, we waited to see the nighttime laser light show that took place across the water. When it was over, we hoofed it to Dim Dim Sum Hong Kong in Jordan. Named one of the world’s 101 best eateries by Newsweek, we wouldn’t relent until we sought it out. Two words: soup dumplings.

Day 2 – Hong Kong

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

We began day two with dim sum at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with locations worldwide. Two of their branches in Hong Kong, including the one in Causeway Bay, were awarded one Michelin star each. More expensive than the dim sum we ate the night before, it was absolutely worthy of our money. Again, the soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) were the way to go, but I’d praise the wontons and buns, too. I also love that you can watch the staff in the kitchen. Through the windows, at the entrance to the eatery, we could see them making all the little dumplings and wontons by hand, so we knew the food was fresh!

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When we had our fill, we worked our way to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Missing the sign directing us there, we wound up getting a little sidetracked. We spent some time climbing the steps of what looked to be a memorial before we gave up and went back down to level ground. That’s when we happened upon the correct entrance. As we scaled our way up the steep hillside on a particularly hot and muggy day, we took in all of the golden gods lining the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! It’s a beautiful little space filled with colourful statues. Despite the somewhat challenging ascent and the vertigo inducing descent, this off-the-beaten-track spot is one to see.

Next, we stopped in Diamond Hill to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. This is actually one of my favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Located in Kowloon, it’s a surprising respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle just outside of the garden walls. The nunnery is also a quiet area that magically reverberates with the soul piercing sounds of chants from those who pray within.

Our second evening consisted of barhopping in Central. 001, a “secret” speakeasy with stylish décor and fancy cocktails, kicked off our plans. We then skipped to Brewdog, Tipping Point SoHo and Shack Tapazaka back in Causeway Bay.

Day 3 – Hong Kong

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Day three was sort of a write off when it came to being a tourist. I had lunch with my family at the Crowne Plaza near our apartment, so we spent much of the morning wandering until about one o’clock when we split up for a few hours. When my friends and I reconnected, we chose to take the bus to Stanley Beach. It’s a tranquil site in Hong Kong with sights of the water and a number of restaurants. After we walked the pier and the boardwalk, we settled in for dinner and drinks at Beef & Liberty (suggested to us by the owners of Moonzen Brewery). For a burger joint, they did that type of food really well. The only downside was the slow service, so it’s a good thing we weren’t in a rush.

Day 4 – Macau

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

On the fourth day, we ventured to Macau on a TurboJET ferry. Now, most of the hotels in the coastal city offer free shuttles to and from the ferry terminal. It’s simply a matter of finding the right bus. To save a little money and allow ourselves two rooms for our one night stay, we opted to book at the Crowne Plaza. The accommodations are awesome – modern in both style and technology – and, built in 2014, the hotel itself is relatively new and affordable. Unfortunately, the shuttle doesn’t come by to pick up guests as often as some of the larger resorts and it’s also a little further away from the main attractions. In fact, the cabbie who dropped us off at the end of the evening gave me a talking to; he stated that it was too far and we shouldn’t have booked there. That’s just his opinion though. The location certainly isn’t that bad.

Regardless, we had a good time in Macau. Senado Square is an open gathering spot that constantly looks as if it’s filled by a giant mass of people. With its Portuguese origins, the architecture is colourful with intricate details, but it has become pretty commercial. From there, we followed the signage that led up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The façade of the old church made a nice backdrop for all of those who were taking selfies on the steps. I quite like the Fortress of Macau. The vantage points at the top of the building allow visitors a sprawling outlook over the city.

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Since Macau is the Vegas of China, we also made a point of checking out the major hotels and casinos. That included the Grand Lisboa (I’ve stayed here previously), Wynn and MGM. Interestingly, most of the gamblers weren’t drinking or smoking; this was a total 180 from our observations in Las Vegas.

Dinner and drinks were had at Heart Bar. I had read about this location in a brewing magazine back at Brewdog in Hong Kong and it pretty much materialized in front of us. The pizzas were okay, but the cocktails were stellar and so was the bartender. He happened to be the one who seated us, and he had excellent recommendations. We completed our night by working off those calories as we searched for a way to get to the lighthouse on the peak (Guia Fortress). Venturing towards it, we finally found a route that led us to the structure. We weren’t able to enter it though, so when we were done, we worked our way back to the main part of town. Not ideal in the dark, but we ultimately made it to a more populated area without having to take any pitch black, narrow staircases down the hill.

Day 5 – Macau & Hong Kong

Lunch at North

Lunch at North

Our fifth day was scant in terms of sightseeing. We stopped at the Macau ferry terminal in the morning to book our tickets back to Hong Kong. Knowing we had some time to kill before our boat departed, we jumped onto the shuttle to the Venetian. It’s very similar to the resort in Vegas, so it was somewhat old hat for us. Although, I would argue that our lunch at North – specializing in northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine – was a great way to end our time in Macau.

When we returned to Hong Kong, we dropped our bags off at the apartment and then we immediately set out for our most indulgent dinner on the trip. Tate Dining Room & Bar, run by Chef Vicky Lau, is another restaurant that has earned its Michelin star. At 980 HKD (approximately $170 CDN) for a 6-course meal – drinks not included – one has to be willing and ready to appreciate the flavours and the visuals. We loved it. From start to finish, this was a dinner that surprised and gratified us.

Day 6 – Hiroshima

The following morning we commenced our journey to Hiroshima, so it was chiefly a travel day. By the time we arrived at the Japanese airport and bused into the city, it was quite late. Another long day of travel exhausted us. Arriving in Hiroshima, we wanted to freshen up. Our apartment was easy enough to find and we had no problems getting into the place; however, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Essentially a micro unit, this apartment was ideal for one person, two at the most. Advertising the place as able to accommodate three people was surely pushing it, but we managed. Otherwise, it was clean and well-appointed. We finished our evening with a satisfying supper at Orenokushikatsukuroda Hiroshimaminamiguchiekimaeten (what a mouthful) where we stuffed ourselves silly with a bunch of deep fried veggie, meat and cheese tempura battered skewers.

Day 7 – Hiroshima

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

Day seven marked a full week of vacation and our second day in Hiroshima. It actually brings up mixed feelings for me. My morning consisted of attempts to exchange my Hong Kong Dollars for Japanese Yen. I wasn’t able to find a nearby money exchange, and the first bank didn’t accept my cash. The second bank did, but at a hefty fee. Since I didn’t have the option to go elsewhere, I went ahead with the transaction.

When that was completed, we rode the train to Tadanoumi. From there, we caught a ferry that took us to Rabbit Island (Ōkunoshima). This was the single reason why Hiroshima was tacked onto our itinerary. My friend has a pet bunny and is basically obsessed with rabbits in general, so when she learned of the isle’s existence, there was no question we were going there. All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time. The bunnies that have somehow occupied the landmass (they’re apparently not the ones from the old labs that used to be there) are very friendly and will approach if there’s food. Indeed, they can be extremely excitable. One rabbit, found in a more secluded area, came up to me, and upon being fed, was so thrilled that it not only did a full 360 degree leap in the air, but while doing so, it also managed to pee itself at the same time. That urine struck me square in the right arm and leg. My jacket and jeans ended up moderately soaked. So, cute as these rabbits were, it ended up being a damper (pun intended) to the visit for me. Thankfully, my clothes dried quickly due to the windy conditions on the island and there was no stench. I was able to last the rest of the day without needing to detour for a change of clothes.

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For me, the day was saved with a meal at this amazing little ramen shop called Ippeiya. We learned of the joint through a Google search, and wow. The scrumptious bowls served to us were absolutely worth the chilly walk. I’d even go as far as to say I’d fly back to Hiroshima just to have another helping of their curry ramen.

Day 8 – Hiroshima & Kyoto

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Week two started with our last day in Hiroshima. Once we stored our luggage at the train station, we used our last few hours before departure to amble over to Hiroshima Castle, and, in fairly ominous fashion, we also took in the remaining ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and Peace Park. Oddly, this was a rather fitting place to be seeing as how, just the day before, we had witnessed the results of the U.S. Presidential election and Donald Trump’s victory. The location isn’t without its beauty though. I’m glad we stopped there to stand in the presence of history.

Once we had perused the whole park, we realized we had better hoof it back to the station. While we missed the bullet train for the hour we booked (they are super punctual), our seats were non-reserved, so we were able to catch the subsequent one without any penalty. Approximately three hours later, we were in Kyoto. Our Airbnb here was more than we expected, mainly in comparison to the accommodations in Hiroshima. This place was huge! It was an open concept apartment with six single beds, a big closet, full kitchen, a large shower room, separate toilet and in-suite laundry (desirable after the rabbit incident). The only difficulty we encountered was the terrible portable Wi-Fi. Other than that, we couldn’t have asked for more.

My one travel companion knew someone in Kyoto, so we got a hold of this friend who graciously took us out on the town. The three of us were dying for some kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, so he drove us to one where the majority of the plates are 100 yen each (roughly $1 CDN).

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If I’m correct, the one we went to was called Muten Kura Sushi Kyotogaidaimae. It was amazing. Not only was there a constant stream of plates running by at table-level (although, we did see a very rare crash on the course, which stalled things), but there was also a second conveyor belt that was used specifically for dishes we ordered through the tablet. Whenever we had a craving for something that we didn’t roll by ready-made, all we had to do was press a few buttons and it’d be there in minutes. Plus, for every five plates returned through a slot at the far end of the table, a game would be triggered on the tablet, providing diners with a chance to win a prize from the machine located at the top of the conveyor shelf. We only got one toy after giving back about thirty plates, so the system may be rigged. That’s okay though. It was still a lot of fun, and everything was delicious and fresh.

Next, we were taken to Shogun-zuka Seiryu-den Temple where I attempted to snap dozens of photos of the temple, grounds, red maple trees (still in the midst of the transition from summer to fall) and city in the dark. Inside the temple is a replica painting of Aofudo (Blue Acala). Considered a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art, the actual piece is enshrined out of sight. The temple also has a huge observation deck that provides views of various Kyoto landmarks.

Our new Kyoto guide then led us to his friend’s bar, Loop Salon. There, we spent the rest of our evening imbibing on some refreshing cocktails (I NEED that bottle of FAUCHON Paris tea liqueur!), gin from the fairly new Kyoto Distillery and gyoza that we had delivered as a late night snack. A few hours passed and we determined that it was time to hit up a 7/11 before heading home.

Day 9 – Kyoto

Ramen at Kobushi

Ramen at Kobushi

When the four of us awoke in the morning, we didn’t have to go too far for food. Within a block from our apartment building, on either side, were several eateries. Failing to get a table at the first place we selected, ramen felt like an excellent second choice, so we opted to try Kobushi. With fish broths, we were taking a bit of a chance since my one friend is allergic to shellfish, but we managed okay having a local there to ask questions for us. The restaurant itself is tiny and all the table/counter space is shared. Rather than going with a soup ramen, I went for an oil-based dish instead. I appreciated trying a different take on this Japanese staple, and I’d undoubtedly eat it again.

Once we ate enough, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinjaju-ji or Rokuon-ji). What a gorgeous and bright day to see this National Special Historic Site. The sunlight reflecting off of the pavilion and the water was picturesque. Following that, we rode another bus to the Ryōan-ji Temple. Known for its large rock formations in the Japanese Zen garden, I found this to be an interesting locale. Maybe I’m a little too restless for a place like the garden. Nevertheless, the land was lovely with its large pond, unusual landscaping and colour-changing trees. Our last stop on the historical tour was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Regrettably, we got to the grounds a tad too late to make the last entrance.

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With nothing more to see in the area, we went back to downtown Kyoto where we picked up some alcoholic beverages from a shop, cracked them open (yes, you can drink in public), and then perused the Nishiki Market. Basically a long, narrow alleyway filled with stalls and storefronts, it was a lot of fun to see all of the different trinkets and traditional Japanese food available for purchase. For supper, we went to Yamachan for maboroshi no tebasaki (deep-fried chicken wings). These were ridiculously delicious. Complete with instructions on how best to eat them, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and these wings satisfied any salty cravings we may have had.

Dessert followed at Saryo Tsujiri Gion where we ordered fancy parfait glasses filled high with matcha flavoured ice cream, mochi, cake and whipped cream. We then investigated the maze-like streets, which led us to the Hokanji Temple and Yasaka-no-to-Pagoda. The structure was subtly lit against the backdrop of the dark sky, making for a striking image. We then returned to Loop Salon for a second low-key evening of drinks.

Day 10 – Kyoto

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

On day three in Kyoto, we ventured out as a trio and made our way to the train station where we had soba noodle set lunches at Kyoto Tagoto and dessert at Mister Donut. Afterwards, the train took us to Fushimi Inari Shrine where we climbed Mount Inari. It’s no Mount Fuji, but it was enough of a workout for me. The higher you go, the quieter it gets though. I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile hike.

To-ji Temple was next on our list. There, we saw the pagoda and exhibits featuring Esoteric Buddhist art. Getting a chance to go inside the main floor of the pagoda to see the interior was neat. All of the detail was spectacular. Some of the larger statues are also very remarkable when seen close-up, especially the statue of Yakushi (circa 1603) found in the Kondo.

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Done with the temple, we wandered to Kyoto Brewing Company where we had a few drinks on their makeshift patio. Complete with a food truck to feed the masses, it’s a cool venue to hangout for an hour or two.

Beers were followed by some shopping and sustenance at Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We tried everything from fondue chicken to beef tongue and pork belly to horse meat tartare. The flavours were delightful and the cuts of meat were easy to cook ourselves.

Now, I’m certain that our local friend picked Gyu-Kaku on purpose. Situated on the second story of a building, the main floor housed part of Club World. We’d heard stories of the latter throughout our holiday, so it seemed fitting to the guys that we should go. My girlfriend and I reluctantly went in with them. Although we had our reservations, it turned out to be a blast. The main space of the nightclub is much smaller than we expected, meaning it got cramped. But, the other room, where a different DJ was playing, had a lounge-like atmosphere that we appreciated for a good chunk of the evening. Festivities for our last day in Kyoto ended with the worst bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Apparently, the food at this one shop only tastes okay if you’re drunk. I guess I didn’t get near that point because I couldn’t even eat it. Those noodles were just too undercooked.

Day 11 – Tokyo

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Day 11 consisted mostly of travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo. When we arrived in Tokyo, our Airbnb in Shibuya wasn’t available for another couple of hours, so we hunkered down at Kawara Café & Kitchen for a late lunch. Once we were able to drop off all of our stuff at the apartment (also wonderful with a small kitchen, two beds in the living room, a separate bed room, full bathroom and laundry), we went back out to explore the neighbourhood.

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To satiate ourselves, we combed the internet for sushi places and came across Uobei, another conveyor belt restaurant that is actually owned by the Genki Sushi chain. Rather than having plates that constantly make their rounds, diners are actually seated in rows where each line has their own belts. A tablet assigned to an individual is used to place orders of up to three items at a time, ensuring that every plate comes fresh from the kitchen. To avoid any wait, the belts are stack three high, so food can be delivered on multiple levels. Admittedly, the atmosphere does make one feel as if they’re part of a weird assembly line; however, it’s efficient. I also loved that the tablet had buttons that provided multiple options for each sushi order (i.e. no wasabi). Plus, it’s affordable.

Day 12 – Tokyo

Good Town Doughnuts

Good Town Doughnuts

A dozen days into the trip and it occurred to us that our vacation was coming to a quick end, so we packed it in on our last full day in Tokyo. We started off by seeking out the Good Town Doughnuts shop (I read about it in a Japanese magazine). Since we kind of ambled and popped into other stores along the way, by the time we got there, our snack ended up being our lunch. What a treat though. I’d say their fluffy pastries are the closest rival to Lucky’s Doughnuts (in Vancouver) that I’ve managed to find. Turns out I just had to travel half way around the world to do it.

Eating completed, we strolled to Harajuku (Takeshita-dori) where we did a bit of shopping. Towards the end of the area, we made a turn down a narrow street where I found a stall selling some clothing, including the now ubiquitous bomber jacket. Instead of a satin one, as seems to be very popular, I noticed one hanging there made using black velvet. Decorated with appliques of embroidered flowers and tiger heads, it was the best one I’d seen. I didn’t think it was my size, but the vendor had already pulled a mirror out, so I could see how it looked on me. It fit like a glove and I adored it. It was also a steal at about $60 CDN. That’s about half of what I would have paid at home for something similar and of the same quality. Looking at Wikipedia as I wrote this post, I learned that some of the stores in Harajuku are known as “antenna shops” where manufacturers provide prototypes as a way to test the market. That’s really cool because that means one can walk away a trendsetter and not even know it.

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We continued our walk by heading to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower (Tocho) in Shinjuku. There, we were able to take the elevator up, free of charge, to one of the observation decks on the 45th floor. My friend said that on the other side of the block is where he remembered seeing the homeless cardboard housing, and that’s something I had wondered about. As a child, I had been to Tokyo, and I distinctly remember seeing dozens of large cardboard boxes lined up outside the train stations. Those were people’s homes. They probably still exist, but we never saw them during our holiday.

Ready to head back to Shibuya after a long day, our quest for a good spot to dine turned into our goal. It was raining out (the only time during our whole trip), so we didn’t go too far from our apartment. Yet, we still lucked out when we stumbled upon a dining room called Jibieno Hut (I found the site by Google translating while in Tokyo, but it eludes me now; if you’d like the logo/Japanese name, email me for a photo. I found the website again!), specializing in wild game. Our night was completed with shopping at Loft department store and one last ice cream bar from 7/11.

Day 13 – Tokyo

The final day of our vacation crept up all too fast. We had to be out of our apartment pretty early, so we stored our luggage in lockers at Shibuya train station first thing in the morning. With our few remaining hours, we decided to take a look at what was on the other side of the building (not a whole lot). We did, however, get to use a vending machine that dispensed tickets, which we gave to the restaurant cook who then whipped up a fresh order of food for us. That was different. We don’t know how to read Japanese, so we relied on the photos. If there are no pictures and only text on the buttons, it’s a chance one has to take when making their selection.

A bit more shopping at UNIQLO and 109 Men’s, a snack at Uobei Sushi, a ride on the Narita Express train, and then we were back on a plane to Edmonton. Just like that, it was over.

I’m so happy to have had this experience. I know that my travel companions are people that I can get along with for a prolonged period of time and I made a new friend in Kyoto. My single disappointment is that my passport is only one “stamp” fuller as Hong Kong and Macau no longer issues them. Japan was the only place where I received a sticker. My one regret is that my boyfriend couldn’t join us this time. The upside is that I know I’ll be going on more adventures, so there will be more chances in the future.