Spring Forward

In the UK today the clocks have gone forward by an hour, and British Summer time has begun. In reality of course spring has only just ‘sprung’. Spring time in Japan is synonymous with Cherry Blossoms or ‘Sakura’. I visited in September last year, so missed out on this spectacle. I hope to go back in the near future to see the fantastic displays myself. In the meantime, I have sought out the blossoms in London.

Holland Park in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is home to the Kyoto Garden. Other than Kew Gardens, I believe this is the only public Japanese Garden in London. The garden was donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991, to celebrate the Japanese festival in London in 1992.

Whilst it is a small area, unlike Kew’s efforts, it is a beautiful space with a cascading waterfall in to a large pond. Spend a few moments on the stone bridge and the koi carp will soon appear. The colours of these sacred fish are so varied. Most of the carp I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto were a dark grey/brown. The water is full of copper coins that visitors have thrown in for good luck.

There are some other small water features, gravel paths, stone sculptures and even a resident peacock. The park is free to visit and is open from 07:30 am to thirty minutes before dusk. It is often quite popular, so I suggest arriving early and making the most of the peace and quiet.

I visited specifically in search of some of England’s spring blossoms. My morning walk to work passes under a Magnolia tree, and the smell is nothing short of divine. It has been a daily reminder to get to the park. Unfortunately, due to the unusual heat in December/January a lot of the blossoms came to early and were killed off. However, I did manage to find a few stunning examples.

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The white (plum) blossoms were in the main area of the park outside of the garden. However the pink (cherry) blooms were by the pond and looked lovely against the contrast of the blue skies. The trick to spotting the difference is to look at the shape of the petals and the buds. Plum blossoms have round petals with circular buds. Cherry, blooms a little later in the year, with a notch in the petals and oval buds.

In England, one of our symbols of spring is the daffodil. There was a large area in the park full of bunches of this iconic yellow flower. I couldn’t resist snapping a picture.

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It is perhaps still a little too soon for the best blossom displays. I will wait for a few more weeks before making a trip to Kew and the large Japanese garden there. I don’t think I could ever tire of walking under the blankets of blossoms and enjoying the fragrant smell. No wonder the bees are such a fan!

 

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Whatever you like…grilled

Whilst I was in Tokyo, one of the first foods recommended to me was Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). The literal translation of the Japanese is ‘grilled as you like’. It is a savoury pancake consisting of a batter, eggs and cabbage. The rest, as the title suggests, is up to you.

There are two different types of Okonomiyaki, Osaka and Hiroshima. Osaka has the cabbage mixed with the egg and batter to create a large pancake. Hiroshima style is more like a folded omelette with the cabbage and other fillings inside. I was lucky enough to try both in Japan, and I have to say, it was tough picking a favourite.

The first okonomiyaki I had was at Aqua City shopping centre in Odaiba, Tokyo. The restaurant was called Tsuruhashi Fugetsu. It was so good that we went multiple times. In fact, so frequently that the waiters recognised us.

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Osaka style Okonomiyaki

On one of many occasions we shared the above. The beef mix with a fried egg and spring onion, pork yaki-soba inside an omelette, and the pork, prawn and squid mix. Both Okonomiyaki were covered in the traditional bonito (fish) flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and sweet/smokey Okonomiyaki sauce. All of this, plus a glass of delicious plum wine, cost the three of us around £8 each.

A Japanese friend also recommended a great place in Kyoto, Issen Yosyoku (壹錢洋食), to try the Hiroshima style. It wins the title for quirkiest restaurant I have ever been to. Inside you’ll find Geisha mannequins, supposedly to trick drunken men in, and risqué wooden plaques on the walls.

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Amazing display outside Issen Yosyoku
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Quirky interior, complete with Geisha mannequins and slightly risqué decor

The restaurant name can be translated as the equivalent of 1 US cent (Issen) Western food (Yosyoku).  The menu could not have been simpler. A large picture of okonomiyaki and the price. The only question from the waitress ‘how many?’ Some people were sharing it as a snack, but we went for one each and an Asahi (Japanese beer widely available in the UK). Although it was not as cheap as 1 cent, it still came to just under £5. It was delicious, even if we could not name all of the ingredients inside.

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Variation of Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki

Having tried each variety of this Japanese snack, I loved both. Hence, naturally, I have been on the lookout for it in London. The first few times, I cooked my own. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later post, along with some recipes. However after a little research I found Abeno. I insisted my boyfriend come along, and we arrived to a quiet restaurant on a Saturday lunchtime.

Not far from the British Museum, Abeno is very inconspicuous from the outside. My hopes soon picked up when I saw the hot plate in the middle of each table.  I really liked the blue and white plates, and was pleased to see the traditional (very useful) spade-like tool for cutting Okonomiyaki.

We ordered a large Tokyo mix okonomiyaki (prawn, squid, and pork) costing £14.95, and pork Omu-soba to share (£12.95). Omu-soba is Yaki-soba noodles wrapped in an omelette and drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. This may be controversial, but for me an Omu-soba beats an English fry up any day! It’s a shame that Japanese food in the UK is so much more expensive. Still it’s cheaper than flying out for it!

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Pork, Prawn and Squid Okonomiyaki with bonito flakes, powdered seaweed and those incredible sauces.

To my delight, just as in Tokyo, the food was all prepared at our table. The raw ingredients were brought over, mixed and grilled on the hot plate. To try and help with the temptation to eat it early, the pancake was covered with a saucepan lid. This also has the practical element of steaming the pancake, keeping it light. In Japan there was no such lid. Instead there was a fun back and forth with the waiter. Can we eat it yet?!

The Omu-soba was cooked separately in the kitchen. I would have preferred the noodles to be put on the hot plate. This way they become slightly crispy. Despite this, everything was delicious. It was almost as good as restaurant in Tokyo.

I will continue to look for a restaurant serving the Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki. In the meantime, I have found a few more recipes to try out at home!

My Second Love

It’s Valentines’ Day, and London’s streets are flooding not only with couples, but revellers celebrating Chinese New Year. I have chosen to dedicate my February 14th to my second love, Japan!

One of my first discoveries of Japanese culture in London was the Japan Centre in Piccadilly Circus. Having rammed as many Japanese snacks as possible in to my already full suitcase, I was relieved to find many of my favourites here. In contrast to my first trip, todays’ haul was considerably more conservative.

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Whilst working in Tokyo, rice crackers became a staple snack. You can get them in a variety of flavours, like many things in Japan (let’s not start on Kit-Kats), including cheese, nori, sesame, and curry. The ones featured here are soy flavoured. They are a great thing to have in your bag for when you get a little peckish.

Another of my purchases was miso soup sachets (right of the picture). I’m yet to be converted to tofu, so this just has pieces of wakame seaweed. The final food item was an impulse buy, just before the checkouts. I first had Dorayaki the morning of my flight back to the UK. It’s best described as two American style pancakes sandwich with a sweet filling. This one has a green tea custard inside. As a green tea addict, it was the obvious choice for me.

I also picked up some origami papers, and a beautiful card. If you have the patience, I can highly recommend origami. There are so many tutorials and instructions online, and it is both rewarding and relaxing. I will share the finished results in the next post.

Having spent a little while perusing the aisles of the Japan Centre, it was conveniently lunch time. I decided to check out the new restaurant Ichiryu Hakata Udon House . It is the latest venture for Japan Centre’s founder Tak Tokumine. Unfortunately this meant fighting my way through the Chinese New Year crowds to reach New Oxford St.

My arrival at the restaurant was perfectly timed. Just as my heart sank seeing the word ‘closed’ on the door, the waitress came and flipped it over. Walking in I was greeted with the traditional Japanese welcome. For those who have not experienced this it can be slightly alarming. All members of staff will yell いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase). The first time for me was in Tokyo at a sushi restaurant, but that’s another story.

I was seated right at the back of the (currently empty) restaurant, giving me a good view of the place. It has a modern but cosy atmosphere, with an open kitchen so you can eye up all of the tempura. The staff were all friendly and attentive.

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As the name suggests, Ichiryu specialises in handmade udon. These are thick, white and chewy noodles served in a fish based stock. I chose the prawn tempura udon (£10) and the matcha tea (£4).

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My past experiences with udon noodles have not been great. When overcooked they become mushy in texture. These however were excellent as they still had some bite. The prawns were cooked perfectly, still juicy with a crisp light tempura batter. The bonito tsuyu broth had a delicate flavour, and was not too salty. If I had chosen to have pork or beef I would have liked a greater depth to the broth, but for prawns this was good. The matcha (powdered green tea) had a subtle flavour with some sweetness. It is perhaps a variety for the western palette, as some matcha can be quite bitter. The bowl it was served in was a nice traditional touch.

Generally speaking I don’t have a sweet tooth, however I was easily tempted to try the mochi (sweet rice ball) with an ice cream centre (£6). This came in 3 flavours: green tea, sesame, and citrus.

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It was a little tricky breaking in to these with the small fork provided, but they were worth the effort. The mochi formed a thin outer layer to the delicious ice cream inside. Whilst the black sesame was an interesting flavour, the green tea and citrus were the favourites for me.

Overall, it was a Sunday well spent. I will definitely go back, and maybe take my first love along with me!