Myoko-Kogen

We picked Myoko-Kogen as our ski destination this year mainly because we patronise Tomi Sushi a lot and their walls are filled with posters of monster snow capped mountains advertising Myoko-Kogen. And we were not disappointed! Snow was definitely not an issue, the slopes were dusted with new powder snow everyday!

Myoko-Kogen is made up of 4 ski areas: Suginosawa, Ikenotaira, Akakura Kanko & Akakura Onsen. The last 2 are connected by a small trail and there is a free shuttle bus linking each mountain. You can buy separate lift passes for each, a Big-4 pass for all or the Shin-Akakura Onsen pass which gives access to the last 2 mountains. We skied 3 days in Shin-Akakura and 1 day in Suginosawa. Though it looks close on the map, the shuttle bus took 30min to get to Suginosawa from Akakura Onsen, so set off early to make sure you have enough time to ski. Also, most of the bus time tables are in Japanese, it’s important to check the route as well as the correct departure and arrival venues. The shuttle bus we took went on a 15min loop around town, went back to the same place where we boarded before heading off to Suginosawa! At least we had a seat!

Most of the slopes are beginner to intermediate level – however Akakura Onsen is home to the steepest ski run in central Japan “The Wall” at 38° and getting down is a real challenge for an intermediate skier like me. H on the other hand is an expert and conquered it like a pro. The runs are generally very wide and on a clear sunny day, the 8.5km trip down the longest ski run in Japan on Suginohara’s mountain is extremely rewarding – the views are amazing!

Akakura Onsen is where the main village is, so that is the best bet for restaurants and hotels. Getting a hotel was not easy – I think alot of the hotels open their doors to students on school ski holidays so book early to secure something decent. Food wise I found the village offerings were rather basic when compared to our trip last year to Nozawa Onsen.

Getting there
Take the Shinkansen Asama from Tokyo to Nagano (90min) and change to a local JR line (JR Shinetsu) to Myoko-Kogen (40min). Train timings can be found at Hyperdia and it’s best to plan the best timings to avoid having to make more than 1 transfer.

Restaurants
Food is generally very basic and it is not that expensive to fill your stomach. Most places don’t speak much English, but should have an English menu. The point and order method always worked for us. A few things we enjoyed were Koyama’s yakiniku don, the udon at Udon no Fu, and the 2 crêperies we enjoyed were Parfait Crepe and Gelato Okura. Don’t forget to try the home made ice cream at Gelato Okura as well… Oishi!!

Where we stayed
We stayed at Refre Akakura, who only recently opened their doors this season. We had to book through Japan Snow Access and according to them, the Refre used to be a resort house of one of the biggest foodstuff company, but closed the business last season. They are off the main road and having only 9 rooms here guarantees that it is very quiet. There are indoor and outdoor onsens which were great if you didn’t managed to book one of the en-suite rooms. Their Japanese breakfast was a great way to fuel up for the day and their keiseki dinner though not extravagant was very warm and heartfelt. Yoshi and Reika were extremely helpful and friendly and made our stay very enjoyable. There is a short cut up the slope to get on the run down to the Chuo Triple lifts. There were 2 days where it snowed so much in the day that it was possible to ski right back down the slope to our front door! Ski in but not ski out!
¥9,400 per person a night for the combination en-suite room.

Refre Akakura
549-23 Akakura, Myoko-shi, Niigata-ken
Tel:+81(0)255-75-1230

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Sushi Sho

We allowed ourselves to splurge on one meal this trip to Tokyo and following my boss’s recommendation, we chose Sushi Sho. A relative unknown in the foreign guidebooks, it is well known among the locals. We were lucky to be able to get a dinner reservation despite a booking only a week in advance.

The small restaurant seats only 12, with 3 chefs behind the counter. 2 chefs prepare the sushi on each end and the middle chef assists both. Fish for the night are displayed in front on the counter so you have an idea of what’s coming despite it being an omakase dinner. I would have preferred the counter seating to be higher or the display boxes lower so I could have a better look at the chefs at work, but that is just a very minor detail.

The dinner started with some sashimi and then progressively moved to sushi. From the first dish, I knew we were in for a treat. The clams were extremely fresh and sweet. What followed was a succession of 24 different courses that kept our taste buds intrigued with different tastes, texture and temperatures. Each fish was paired with a different rice, some with brown rice, some with warmer rice. It was also the first time trying some of the fish we were served, which deviated from the usual otoro and uni served at most high end Japanese restaurants.

One of my favourite of the night was the last dish, an odd combination of uni-ika maki that brought 2 very different tastes and textures together that worked perfectly. I laughed out loud when he said “uni and ika… best friends”. So Jamie Olivier!

The chefs were very friendly and engaging despite only speaking a little English. The experience felt very comfortable, and we felt genuinely taken care of without the stuffiness.

Thanks to head chef Keiji Nakazawa for the best sushi meal of our life.

Dinner was ¥20,000/pax paired with 3 different types of sake.

1-11 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

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Tokyo

It was my first time in Tokyo, and despite living in Tokyo for a couple of months in his school days, H and I found our trip to Tokyo in Oct 2009 fascinating. It was abit overwhelming at first – the glitzy lights of Ginza, the people crossing at Shibuya, the crazy locals at Hirajuku. We packed everything to see in the 4 or 5 days we were there, and made a mental note to go back so we can actually slow down and enjoy the city. We returned in Dec 2011 for 4 days to immerse and breathe in the life of the city.

Things to do

We did and enjoyed most of the usual touristy things, these are a few places/things that we loved

Akihabara – we are anime fans so this place has lots of cosplay/maid cafes in addition to the usual electronic shops. We visited one maid café but honestly I don’t think foreigners will get much out of the experience as most maids don’t speak English so we basically stared at our host for 5 minutes before taking a picture and then leaving. We spent a lot of time exploring the floors of Don Quijote along the main street Chūō-dōri, you can find anything you need here – similar to Mustafa but in a good way.
Don Quijote 4-3-3 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku

Ginza – every building in Ginza is lit up in bright lights at night, and it seems like every European brand has a strong presence among the traditional departmental stores that line the street. Most of the departmental stores have a food basement and we especially like Matsuya(opposite the Chanel building). I usually stock up on premium green tea from Ippodo and Green Tea House.

Tokyo Midtown – It is a high end shopping complex and even though I cannot afford any of the clothing brands, I love coming here for the food. The basement is packed with goodies like Dean & Deluca, Jean-Paul Hevin, patissier Aoki. There is a shop opposite Jean-Paul Hevin that sells Japanese spices, fish stock and lots more, but it’s a pity the staff doesn’t speak English otherwise I would be buying more.
Tokyo Midtown @ Roppongi station

Shibuya – they say this pedestrian crossing is the most crowded in the world. There are many tourist with big cameras trying to capture the crossing on film but I like to stand still in the midst of the chaos and soak in the atmosphere. Tokyu Hands is another shop that we love walking around in. It has all sorts of gadgets that only the Japanese can think of!
Tokyu Hands 12-18 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku

Tsukiji – both times I told myself that I had to wake up at 4am to witness the Tuna auction… didn’t happen. Before going Tokyo, I was boasting that I would eat sashimi for breakfast. I had way overestimated myself, the smell of raw fish even at 9am was nauseating and my stomach only wakes up around 11am, at best. Even if you don’t make it for the fish auction, it is still worth a visit. There are long snaking queues outside famous places like Sushi Dai, but personally there’s no way I can queue for 1hr+.

Studio Ghibli – this is a must do if you are fans of Japanese animation or Miyazaki’s work. A short train and a bus from the station will take you there. Admission is only by advance reservation, so get your concierge to book them ahead. The exhibits showcase the anime drawings and some rooms decorated straight out of the films, they even have a real life cat bus from “My neighbour Tortoro” where the kids can play in. Unfortunately they do not allow photography in the studio.
Studio Ghibli 1-1-83 Simorenjaku, Mitaka-shi

Food

There is an obsession with all things French in Japan and food is no exception. A lot of chefs return to Japan after training in France and they use the technics learnt to cook modern Japanese or incorporate Japanese flavours in their patisserie. The end result is absolutely amazing – we have not eaten better anywhere else in the world.

Patissiers

1. Sadaharu Aoki
The Midtown branch is unit 13 in the basement.

Akoi is famous for eclairs and cakes. Around ¥500-700 per cake. If you decide to dine in the cafe, you would need to order a drink each with the cakes.

2. Hidemi Sugino
Kyobashi Building 1F, 3-6-17, Chuo-ku

Sugino is most famous for his mousse cakes. We went at 3pm and almost everything was all gone. Best to go in the morning. Around ¥500-700 per cake

3. Ladurée
Ladurée Ginza Mitsukoshi (the Ginza branch)
2F, 4-6-16 Ginza Chuo-ku Tokyo 104-8212

A branch of Paris’s famous Patissier, I had to pop in to get their macaroons.

Restaurants

1. Sushi-zanmi
Mawaru-sushizanmai Tsukiji-ten (the branch at Tsukiji)
10-2 Tsukiji 4 Chuo-ku Tokyo 104-0045

There are many branches of this across the city, but the difference branches have different menus and the cheapest wld be the branch at Tsukiji market. They serve conveyor belt type sushi and the prices very reasonable.  ¥100 – 500 per plate

2. Sukiyaki Ibuki
3-23-5 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022

Really good sukiyaki and shabu shabu. ¥3500 for sukiyaki and ¥3800 for shabu shabu. 2 can share one portion

3. Gonpachi
14F, E.Space Tower, 3-6, Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku

This place is dark and the room is lit by many lighted balls. There are different branches, and the Roppongi branch was the inspiration for a scene in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”. The menu is pretty big, but it is izakaya style, so think yakitori with lots of drinks!

4. Umi Daichi Aburi
We stumbled upon this place in Akihabara and it served really good yakitori. No address but it is opposite when you come out of the JR station.

Gastronomy

Kyubey

L’Atelier Roppongi Hills

Joel Robuchon Ebisu

RyuGin

Where we stayed

Conrad Tokyo
1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato

The hotel is at the end of the Ginza strip but is walking to distance to many subway, JR lines. We stayed here on both trips and found the service to be excellent. Rooms are spacious and the bathrooms are huge. It is a 15min walk to Tsukiji market and 15min to the centre of Ginza.

Kyubey

This was our first time to Tokyo and having sushi and sashimi in Tsukiji was mind blowing. H wanted to end Tokyo by trying a high end sushi place, but I didn’t think I could justify how much better sushi could be for the premium we were paying. I went to dinner grudgingly but I left Kuybey with a determination to return.

This 1 star restaurant Edo style sushi changed my mind. It has 5 floors but I think the top 2 floors are private rooms and used to entertain politicians and celebrities. The bottom floors are designed in a counter setting, and each group is assigned a dedicated chef that will prepare and serve the whole meal. Our chef spoke some English and tried to interact and explain to us everything he was serving. The way the chefs were slicing the sashimi or preparing the sushi was like watching a synchronised dance performance, made serious by the concentration on each of the chefs’ faces. We had the sushi kaiseki Shigaraki for ¥15,000 and it was more than enough.

Kyubey
7-6, Ginza 8-chome, Chuo-ku,Tokyo
104-0061, Japan

L’Atelier Roppongi Hills

This was the first restaurant of Joel Robuchon we tried – The restaurant in Roppongi Hills is in the middle of a square in the midst of office towers. All L’Ateliers are designed the same, and they upkeep the same standard so it is virtually the same food everywhere in the world. It has a laid back vibe where you can interact with the servers, and it does not feel so stuffy. I love to sit at the counters so I can watch the chefs cook – I can always find some technique to learn.

The menu is only in French and Japanese but the servers speak English and can translate the menu for you. There is also a bakery next door where you can buy some bread for tea time or breakfast. Our 4 course lunch,  2 starters + main + desert was ¥5,400.

Menu

Le crabe
served with avocado moose and tomato gelatine

Le foie gras de canard
with cheese risotto

La joue de boef
braised with vegetables

La bavete de boef
served with potato puree

La figue
with raspberry ice area and mousse of white cheese

Joel Robuchon Ebisu

We are fans of Joel Robuchon, having tried L’Atelier in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, but never had the chance to try the Restaurant. I don’t usually have the time to take long leisure lunches, and it’s only during holidays that I get to indulge in 3-4 hour long lunches. Lunch is a cheaper alternative but the only problem is coming out tipsy to face the sunlight.

The 3 star Restaurant is housed in a refurbished chateau, which stands out among all the high rise buildings in the area. The dining hall is decorated with chandeliers and tries to bring back the 50s French glamour. The place lives up to its reputation, the food and service is impeccable. The wine list is extensive but slightly on the pricy side. There are different options for lunch, and we chose 1 entrée + 2 mains  + dessert, for around ¥10,000 per person.

Menu

Les Entrees

Sea urchin with a delicate crustacean jelly and a cauliflower cream

Les Poissons et Viandes

Confit of salmon served with a dry mushroom oil and a salmon broth reduction

Sea bream served with a lemongrass emulsion and oil, stewed leeks

Challans duck breast served with stewed truffled leeks, duck leg in gratinated potato

Grilled Wagyu beef served with seasonal vegetables and a natural gravy

Les desserts

Apricot compote served with an almond boac-manger and a praline ice cream

Caramelized apple served with a cinnamon ice cream and marinated raisins

RyuGin

RyuGin was a recurring recommendation in blogs and conversations with colleagues. At ¥25,000 for dinner, we found it too expensive to consider the first time we were in Tokyo in 2009. A month before we returned to Tokyo in 2011, RyuGin was awarded 3 Michelin stars and H was determined to try it. Our hotel concierge managed to get us the last table for dinner on 31st Dec – we were going to count down the new year with a special menu at ¥30,000!  *Ouch*

Chef Seiji Yamamoto’s kaiseki is essentially traditional Japanese, everything was cooked delicately and presented perfectly. His produce are sourced from around Japan and his cooking technics brought out the best of each ingredient. I found a couple of the dishes were too complicated – too many different textures and flavours for me to digest, but the sequence and balance of the dishes was intriguing. He managed to create a progression and build up in the menu despite alternating between hot and cold dishes.

The whole experience was a gastronomy journey, and was one of the best New Yea’s eve I’ve had.

Menu

(hot) Hot turtle tofu with soft rice cake and green onion oil

(cold) Cold soft simmered abalone and wakame seaweed from Naruto, Sanpuku Nori seaweed with white shrimp and herring roe black vinegar jelly, Fragrance of Myoga and Shiso

(cold) Premium monkfish liver from Hokkaido and ark shell with variation of vegetables in special miso sauce

(hot) Matsuba crab from Sanin wrapped in chinese cabbage, Crab shabu style clear soup with fragrance of yuzu

(cold) Turbot, Aoriika squid, Ise ebi lobster, Flavour of Mitsuba and ginger sauce

(hot) Sea perch grilled on charcoal with roasted rice over the skin with black vinegar, Fresh sea urchins grated daikon

(hot) Special free range chicken, New year presentation

(hot) Kuroge Wagyu beef sirloin in sukiyaki with crispy fried poached egg, Fuki leaves flavour

(hot) Rice simmered in sakura tea with sakura shrimp from Surugawan bay, Shrimp broth red miso soup

(cold)(hot) -196°C candy strawberry and +99°C strawberry jam

(cold) Roppongi pudding

Matcha