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Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Half board, Yukata, and Japanese baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel – Review

If you read my last post for my one day itinerary of Noboribetsu, you will remember that I mentioned staying at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel. This is my review of my stay and also my experience with the different facilities in the hotel. I hope you find this helpful in deciding where to stay while in Noboribetsu Onsen.

Booking Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

I did my reservation on Expedia. For those joining us for the first time, I have always been an advocate of Expedia more than that of Agoda. The reason here being that I tend to get the best rates from Expedia thanks to their highly generous price guarantee programme. Unlike Agoda, Expedia appears to normally not only match the lower price but refund you the difference. So for example you booked a room for USD125 on Expedia and discover a similar room going for USD100. Expedia will refund you USD50 (USD25 to match and another USD25). If you would like to know more, you can read about it here. That said, Agoda sometimes offer pretty good rates especially through their secret deal programme. I covered some Agoda travel hacks in my other post where I teach you how to “cheat” when using their secret deal feature.

Interestingly, the hotel offers something called “half board”. Noboribetsu Grand Hotel offers a dinner package on top of the usual morning breakfast. This I believe is for the benefit of the hotel’s guests as Noboribetsu Onsen is really out of the way and there are not many restaurants able to cater to the large number of tourists visiting the area. When I booked, I had no idea what this “half board” will be like. Fortunately for you, I documented by dinner (with loads of photos) and will be sharing them with you below.    

Good Location for Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

The hotel is ideally located being about 200m from the bus stop where you will be dropped off when coming in from Noboribetsu Station. The hotel is prominently located and is easy to spot once you get off the bus. There is therefore no need to worry of getting out your maps/phone to find your way and/or the hassle of dragging your luggage around the small town.

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While walking over to the hotel, try to see if you can make out the slight smell of sulphur in the air!

Checking-in at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Check-in time is 3pm. The hotel staff at Noboribestu Grand Hotel appears to be very particular with this. Unlike other hotels that will process your check-in and then inform you to return at a later time to collect your keys, staff here appear to not entertain any such check-ins. Instead, they will politely inform you of the check-in time and ask if you would like to deposit your luggage with them. We just dropped our luggage with them before heading out for our lunch and visiting Hell Valley, Oyunuma Pond and also the Oyunuma River Foot Bath.

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By the time we were done with our foot baths at Oyunuma River Foot Bath and having walked back to the hotel, it was already 4.20pm. We proceeded to the reception for our check-in. The staff spoke good English and it check-in was quick. We were asked to select our dining slot. Apparently, this hotel splits its dinner timing into two blocks: 5.30pm to 7pm and 7.30pm to 9pm. This may be to help facilitate with crowd control and ensure that the restaurant isn’t too pack.

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We decided to go for the earlier slot as this would free up the rest of the evening for us to enjoy the Japanese Baths provided at the hotel.

Rooms at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Wow! This room was much larger than the one we had stayed at while in Hakodate. Although a bit dated, the room was spacious. We did not get the feeling that we had to squeeze past each other and/or get around our luggage to move about the room. The sheets were clean and the beds soft. The room also had the expected writing desk, beverage area and an in-room safe.

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One interesting observation I had would be how the toilets/bathroom are done up in the rooms. Having travelled quite a bit, I have not seen a prefabricated toilet/bathroom installed in a hotel room. However, it appears to be the norm at least in all the hotels I stayed while in Japan. You will notice that the bathrooms look out of place and often not flushed against the floor of the room being slightly elevated. While not a major point, it still marks something unique. 

Speaking of uniqueness, for those travelling to Japan expect to be amazed by their butt washing technology. Most of their modern toilets are equipped with special toilet seats that come with washlets. Washlets have heated toilet seats and also water spray technology that helps wash sensitive parts. I assure you that water results in a much cleaner surface than plain old toilet paper. The heated seats felt great especially in the morning. No more cold shocks!

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Other than the usual green tea bags, the hotel doesn’t offer any other beverages. There are, however, vending machines out along the corridor and also at the ground floor where the gaming machines are located. Yes, there are slot machines in the hotel. For a sure-win machine, be sure to try out the drinks and ice cream vending machine. These “slots” offer a 100% win rate!    

Before I forget, the rooms have each a stack of yukatas of varying sizes. There is a sheet explaining how to wear and also the corresponding sizes for different height ranges. Girlfriend insisted we wear that for dinner ><. The instructions are self-explanatory. However, the only things left unsaid was what do you wear beneath your yukata and also how to tie the belt. For me, I went with a pair of shorts (for some sense of decency) and I decided to recall from memory the knot I used to tie for my judo gis. I thought the knot would be appropriate (well… they are all Japanese belts and knots right?).

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Dinner Service / Half Board at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

We were down at the Grand Hall at 5.30pm sharp and there was a queue already. I soon found out why.

Dinner service is actually a buffet service. So it made sense to go early to maximise your allocated 1.5 hours. The spread is wide so take your time to go scout for the good stuff. Once you are done, join the queue and collect your plates, chopsticks and utensils before eating your money’s worth. Some of the better items would be the sushi, the crabs, tempura (did you know tempura is a portuguese dish?), the roast beef section and also the desserts. I shall let my photos do the talking:

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Cheese melting station – Where chef melts a whole block of cheese and drizzle some of that goodness on roasted potatoes

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All in all, the food was pretty good. Don’t expect anything outstanding though.

While there are service stands pouring out beers on tap, do not be tricked into believing it is part of the dinner. Alcoholic beverages are additional items. Poor me was “forced” to buy two drinks as I felt too embarrassed to cancel my orders for fear of appearing to be a cheapo.The drinks, in any event, per affordable.

Japanese Baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

This was one of the more authentic baths I have experienced so far. Authentic here refers to the type of baths on offer. If you read my post on my half day Bangkok Itinerary, you will have read about me soaking in a “Japanese” onsen while in Bangkok. I had also tried out Korean baths while in Seoul and Busan last year.

The actual bath experience is about the same. You can’t really bathe differently can you?

But what sets these baths apart is the type of baths offered. The baths in Bangkok and Korea either used ordinary water or water artificially enhanced with minerals. The onsen at Noboribetsu taps into the natural sulphur rich waters in the region and is evident from the cloudy greyish brown colour of the water. The onsen also offers the more typical salt baths and also iron baths (pools filled with water rich in iron). Each type of bath has own benefits but since we are in Noboribetsu, I decided to soak longer in the sulphur baths.

One awesome feature at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel’s onsen is its outdoor baths. The hotel offers both indoor baths and outdoor baths. I encourage everyone to try the outdoor baths. Brave the cold, run out nude before dipping into that soul comforting hot pool. The experience is truly enjoyable and beyond words. Just imagine the temperature being close to 0 and you just laze about in the warm pool with snow falling all about you. Perfect.

I will explain in another post how such baths work for those interested. It is really an eye opening experience especially for visitors not used to nude bathing!

Breakfast at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Breakfast was again at the Grand Hall. However, unlike dinner service, there are no specified time slots for breakfast (i.e. No split service). Instead, breakfast is from 7-9am. The spread is wide with the usual (bread, yogurt, sausages for a more Western oriented breakfast and porridge, miso, rice for a more Oriental breakfast). Okay, that was an understatement. The spread is quite varied as is evident from the photos below. Nothing too spectacular but do keep an eye out for the Natto beans.

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I think this is one unique item on the buffet spread. Natto beans are fermented soybeans. The way you prepare Natto beans is to pour soy sauce (yes, let it soak in its own essence) over it and give it a good mix. It will become all slimy and sticky. Pop that goo over a hot bowl of rice and it’s ready to eat. Taste wise, it tastes better than it looks. Just make sure you have a napkin to wipe away that goo on your lips!

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Onsen Eggs

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Checking out and heading back to Noboribetsu Station

Checking out was easy. The staff had no difficulty in locating my bill from the previous night. I was in and out within 3 minutes. Heading over to the bus station took another 3 minutes.

And we were stuck.

We had forgotten to check the bus schedule and had to wait. So, please either check the timing the day before when you arrived or pop by to the station after your hike. Beats waiting at the station with your luggage.

For those headed to Sapporo, there is a bus service from Noboribetsu. 1.5 hours if I’m not wrong. You can consider this if you don’t already have a rail pass activated.

For us, it was back to the railway station and on the next Sapporo bound train.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to like and also follow! Grateful for your continued support!!!

   

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1 Day Hakodate-Onuma Park Itinerary (What to see, do and eat while in Hakodate, Hokkaido)

1 Day Hakodate-Onuma Park Itinerary (What to see, do and eat while in Hakodate, Hokkaido)

Onuma Park is one of the must sees on every itinerary for Hakodate. Other than a short statement that Onuma Park can be done as a day trip or as a short stopover, most guides are silent as to the actual logistics and also the actual time you will likely spend in Onuma Park. This makes any planning difficult other than to block off an entire day just for Onuma Park. I hope my itinerary guide will help in your itinerary planning and make Onuma Park more accessible for all.

This guide is in two parts.

The first half is my 1 day experience/itinerary visiting landmark attractions in both Hakodate and Onuma.

The second half covers some FAQ (what I think most tourists would ask when planning their trip to Onuma).

Breakfast – Hakodate

Hakodate was one of the first few ports in Japan that opened up to the West. Being a port city, it has its own fish markets selling fresh seafood. While there are a few markets scattered around Hakodate, the Morning Market is the most accessible being located right beside Hakodate Station.

This market is a perfect spot for a traveller to grab a seafood bowl (Kaisen don) in Hakodate. For the uninitiated, this is a bowl of rice served with loads of seafood on top. A few must tries include sea urchin and crab being the signature produce of Hokkaido.

Feel free to walk around the market but don’t be pressured into entering the shops/restaurants. One thing I noticed is that the shops along the main fish market area are devoid of locals. Hint: That must mean something.

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We had two breakfasts there on two separate days. The first time round, we decided to pop into one of the shops along the main market area (i.e. One along the street).

The prices looked affordable at 1,000 yen for a bowl with two types of seafood and 1,500 for three types. We also ordered grilled shellfish: An oyster and also a surf clam (total 1,600 yen).

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Somehow, the food was just so-so. Girlfriend was disappointed. Although the pricing was reasonable (if you ignore the 1,600 yen we spent on the shellfish), the overall portion/food display wasn’t the best and/or value for money.

Note to self and all readers: if traveling on a budget, be sure to check out the prices of different stalls. The prices tend to vary and also the serving portions (although the latter is harder to gauge until you are served the actual bowl)

During our visit the next morning, we went to a different area that is just slightly off the main market street. The place is located inside a mall/plaza that is directly opposite from Hakodate station.

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Inside the mall/plaza there is a whole row of small shops selling what appears to us as being a variant of the same thing (different combinations of Kaisen dons). Being essentially the same, there is nothing much to distinguish the shops by other than the human traffic flow. We randomly (well sort of, having eliminated the stalls at both ends and just settled with the stalls in the middle) picked one stall that looked busy. Upon entering the stall, we were pleased with what we saw. Unlike our experience the previous morning, this stall was packed and you see locals having their breakfast there.

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Although the food was slightly more expensive averaging 2500 yen plus per person, the overall quality and presentation was way better. We also threw in a plate of salmon sashimi. The sashimi is firmer than those we get back home in Singapore. Fresher?

While you roam the area, be sure to buy yourself a slice of the Hokkaido melon. Although we didn’t know it then, the prices in Hakodate are one of the cheapest (@200-300 yen per slice) when you compare with places like Sapporo and Otaru (@500 yen per slice).

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Once you are done with breakfast, head over to Hakodate Station. If you don’t have a JR pass (click here to read more about my experience using the pass), buy yourself a ticket to Onumakoen Station. If you already have JR pass, you can head over to the same ticket counter and ask to reserve seats for the next train headed that way. As to train timings, you can either get a brochure/ask at the station or you can check online at hyperdia. As mentioned in my earlier post, I found hyperdia timings to be reliable. I covered the basics on using hyperdia here.

Hakodate to Onuma Park

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Getting there

The ride takes approximately 30 mins.

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Once you get out of the station, head over to the tourist center and get yourself a map of the area. Although not essential (the trails in the park are marked with direction markers at important intersections), having a map is helpful to get your bearings at the initial stage. Follow the road to a bus parking area. The path to the park is on the right side of the parking area.

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Onuma Park walking trails (Part 1)

Once you reach the main plaza area, there are a few options available. You can take a boat ride around the lake, you can rent a bicycle and cycle around or you can attempt the walking trails.

My suggestion is you stick to the trails while in Onuma Park. Why? Bicycles are not allowed on the trails. You will be forced to go along the main roads. Unless you have trouble walking, the boats I feel may be restrictive. You can’t just stop and take in the view or try to get the perfect shot. If my memory serves me right, it will cost you a 1,000 yen for a 30 mins ride. Just stick with the trails!

There are essentially two main paths you can take. A small loop on the right that will bring you to the monument of a thousand winds and a big loop that will see you island hopping. Both loops are recommended as each offer different views of the park.

We did the small loop first (surprisingly by mistake having mistaken the bridge crossing as the one leading to the big loop). Be sure to look out for the spot by the shore that offers a great photo taking opportunity.

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Once we were done, we headed to the correct bridge leading to the big loop. A pretty decent photo spot just before crossing the bridge and a random shot of a raven taking flight:

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Upon crossing the bridge, you will be greeted with a sign at the intersection. You can either go left or right (this is a loop and either way will see you finish at this same spot). Go right. The views are better with the wide open surfaces overlooking the lake.

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While it looks far on the map, the actual distance is quite walkable. It will take you around 50 mins with multiple stops to get to the default rest stop along the trail.

Lunch at Table de Rivage

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The restaurant is located in the park itself and its location is ideal for visitors to stop for lunch. The restaurant offers set lunches varying from 1,600 plus yen to 2,000 plus yen.

The main difference other than the main course is the salad offered as part of the more expensive set. The sets also come with a small bowl of mushroom soup which was pretty good.

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Speaking of the main courses on offer, Table de Rivage often appears on suggested itineraries because of one particular ingredient prepared and served in the restaurant: Onuma Beef. The restaurant does offer Onuma Beef on its lunch menus. If you ordered the cheaper set, you will be served roast beef. The more expensive set comes with beef stew or a hamburger steak.

We ordered the roast beef and also the beef stew to share.

You may ask which is better.

Personally, both dishes appear average  to me for specific reasons.

For the roast beef, don’t expect sirloin quality steaks. Its a roast beef! While the butcher/chef tried to salvage the meat by cutting against the grain (i.e. cutting across the meat fibres) and making the meat easier to chew, it was still slightly too tough for my liking. The sauce provided, however, complements the dish and adds more flavour while you chew.

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For the stew, the serving we got had a good proportion of meat and fat. The fat is crucial for the dish as the meat is very lean. Don’t get me wrong, the meat breaks up just by pressing on it with a fork and is tender. It just doesn’t have the fat to make it work. So, my suggestion, is to ration out the fatty chunks to tide you across your whole plate. One subjective comment here is the gravy, my girlfriend didn’t like the gravy. I suspect this depends on the individual. I personally felt it was okay but not mind blowing.

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We finished off the meal with a cup of coffee.

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Onuma Park walking trails (Part 2)

Lunch completed and with bellies full, we headed back out to finish what we started. The walk back was completely different from the walk earlier. Instead of the views of the wide open lake, the paths now bring you through wooded area. This offers a big contrast to the views earlier.

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I think you will now get what I meant when I said to take the right side of the loop first. If you had gone left of the loop, I think it would be a downer to just see wooded areas since the main highlight of this walk is the lake and the views by the lake.

Onuma Park to Hakodate

We checked the train schedules and made our way back to the train station. Either refer to the pamphlet you took from Hakodate station or just check by Hyperdia for the next train coming into the station. Again, you can either make a reservation with the ticket counter (if you are travelling using the JR pass) or just risk it by going to the unreserved section of the train. For this trip, we just went with the unreserved seats.

Depending on the time of day you get back to Hakodate and also the month you travelling in, your itinerary can vary. Obviously, more daylight hours during summer offers a longer day to cover more things. For us, as we were travelling during the onset of winter, night comes in pretty fast.

One suggested itinerary can include visiting the Bay Area in Hakodate, Motomachi and then taking the ropeway up Mount Hakodate for the night view of Hakodate.

You may have to shuffle this around a bit depending on your objectives. For instance, if you intend to do some shopping at the Bay Area, it may not be as practical to carry your shopping bags up to the Mountain. So be sure to factor this into your itinerary planning and maybe include a short detour to your hotel/hostel.

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Getting to Hakodate Bay Area

The Bay Area is easily accessible either on foot from Hakodate Station or just a tram ride to Jiujigai.

If budgeting is not an issue (it shouldn’t be as the fare is around 210 yen), why not give their trams a try? A common question I think for most tourist unfamiliar with trams is how to actually make payment. The trams in Hakodate are simple to use. If you have taken a tram in Hong Kong before, the trams here operate in a similar way: you board at the back and pay at the front when alighting. Be sure to take a ticket when boarding as this will determine the fare payable. The machine is located at the entrance at the back.

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The ticket will have a number printed on it corresponding to the stop you boarded at. There is a screen at the front of the tram. The screen will constantly refresh to show the price of your ticket (find the stop number printed on your ticket). If you are travelling by tram quite a bit (i.e. more than 3 rides in day), consider getting a day pass for better value.

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Shopping at Hakodate Bay Area

The Bay Area is where the old brick warehouses are located in Hakodate. The area has now been converted into a shopping district offering tax free shopping if you purchase above 5,400 yen. Have a look around and see whether anything catches your fancy. We ended up buying gifts (food snacks to distribute) for our colleagues.

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The area preserves the old nostalgic look. This metal door retains the rusted look. There is a glass panel behind to keep out the weather.

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Where to eat at Hakodate Bay Area

If you are hungry, the Bay Area offers a number of eateries to choose from.

While there, we tried a secret place stashed away in a convenience store that offers cheap barbecue skewers.

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The secret meat skewer place is hidden in the convenience store just beside the Lucky Pierrot shop

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Sushi

We also went to a sushi rotating belt restaurant where we decided to splurge with plates of Hakodate specialities (plates with 3 sushis of expensive cuts of seafood that average around 600 to 700 yen a plate).

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Drinks

We finished our dinner at Hakodate Beer. I couldn’t resist going in to give their beers a taste. I went with the Alt and the Ale. While I did not know what an Alt is, it tasted similar to their ales. Pretty good ales comparable to those I tried while in England.

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Motomachi and Mount Hakodate

From the Bay area, both Motomachi and Mount Hakodate are within easy reach. We didn’t manage to do Mount Hakodate due to bad weather. It had rained the entire day while we were in Onuma Park and also continued to rain during the evening. Coupled with the low temperatures, Mount Hakodate was covered in a ring of fog. While I attempted to drag my girlfriend to the ropeway station from the Bay Area, I too gave up as we approached the ropeway station. The fog was so bad that I actually lost eye contact with the cable cars heading up the ropeway. The fog had completely engulfed the cable cars after a certain point. As visibility was bad, we had to call it off.

Note to self: If you have the chance to do such weather dependent attractions, maybe consider squeezing them in as early in your itinerary as possible and not leave it to your last night in Hakodate.

While there, consider making a reservation with 阿さ利本店 that apparently serves very good Sukiyaki. While I had planned for a super early dinner at 5.30pm, it was apparently not early enough as the place was fully booked.

FAQ – Onuma Park

Is it possible to do Onuma Park as a side trip while on route to Sappro/Noboribetsu/Hakodate?

Yes. It is possible to do Onuma Park as a side trip. Each station offers coin lockers where you can deposit your luggage for a fee. I don’t remember this exactly but Onuma Park station may have a separate manned luggage office as well.

Do you require a full day of sightseeing for Onuma Park?

For most, the answer is no. You can incorporate Onuma Park as part of a day’s itinerary. You don’t have to allocate a full day for this. First, the park is only 30 minutes from Hakodate and feels like just another attraction to visit. You don’t have to waste time travelling out. Second, the park is surprisingly small and you can cover the trails within 2 hours.

Of course, if you prefer to go for a sightseeing cruise or a bicycle ride, that will extend your stay in Onuma Park.

What are the ticket prices for Onuma Park?

Free. Absolutely Free.

Postscript: I hope you enjoyed this post. I apologise for the length but I thought it would be appreciated if I gave you a more detailed itinerary/account of my trip to Onuma Park and also Hakodate. Please like if you found this post meaningful in anyway and also remember to follow to help support this blog.

Review: Muching on Shark’s Cartilage @ Zai Shun, Jurong, Singapore

Review: Muching on Shark’s Cartilage @ Zai Shun, Jurong, Singapore

For the many who hesitate consuming sharks because of the industry’s horrible reputation of harvesting sharks just for their fins, take consolation that there are restaurants out there making an effort to branch out away from just using the fins to also use other parts of a shark. Not only are such steps significant in reducing waste, they encourage the average fisherman to bring back the entire shark back to port instead of simply dumping the finless sharks back into the ocean. Such innovations in cooking styles also bring different flavours and textures to the dining table.

Zai Shun Curry Fish Head

One such restaurant is called Zai Shun with their large variety of seafood dishes on offer to their diners. Incidentally, Zai Shun was awarded the Bib Gourmand by Michelin for 2017. The Bib Gourmand Award recognises “restaurants and street food establishments offering quality cuisine at a maximum price of S$45”. Zai Shun was the only restaurant in the Jurong East area that was recognised by Michelin.

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Zai Shun Curry Fish Head

 

Shark’s cartilage

While Zai Shun is known for their steamed fish and their large variety of fishes to choose from, Zai Shun is also known for its Shark’s cartilage served with a generous amount fermented bean sauce and pork lard:

Zai Shun - Shark's Cartilage

Shark’s cartilage with fermented bean sauce and pork lard

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Close up shot of a piece of shark’s cartilage

 

The dish is best eaten fresh and just out of the steamer. The cartilage itself is tasteless but has a very rich gelatinous texture that goes well with the fermented bean sauce which completes the dish. The cartilage makes a good a side dish with rice given the strong flavours of the fermented bean sauce. I am, however, skeptical regarding the addition of lard in the dish. While the lard may have helped with the taste, I don’t think it is essential to make it into a good dish as most of the flavours would have come from the fermented bean sauce anyway. While best eaten when it is still warm, the dish was still good after a while although the gelatinous texture might come through as being too much for some and may leave a sticky feel on your lips which can be easily dealt with using a piece of tissue paper.

Stewed Pig Trotters

Other than their steamed seafood, another dish that I found to be notable would be their pig trotters that have been stewed to the point that the skin and meat just fall off the bone. This makes it easy for a trotter to be shared as you can easily separate out the meat into smaller serving portions. Be sure to get yourself some of their garlic chilli vinegar sauce. The vinegar helps cut through the fats of the pork trotter and enhances the overall taste while the garlic and chilli both add onto the already flavourful stewed pork.

Zai Shun - Pork Trotters

It is advisable to go there early to not only beat the lunch crowd but also to have a greater variety of dishes to choose from. When we reached there around 1.30pm in the afternoon, most of the dishes were already sold out.

Zai Shun Curry Fish Head, #01-205 First Cooked Food Point, 253 Jurong East Street 24, Singapore 600253, 7am to 3pm. Closed on Wednesdays.

If you enjoyed reading my review of Zai Shun, please remember to like and also click follow to be informed of my new posts.

4 secret spots off the beaten track in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

4 secret spots off the beaten track in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

For many day trippers to Johor Bahru, Johor Bahru is confined to either City Square Mall or KSL City Mall. Johor Bahru is perfect for that quick cheap massage, heavily discounted movie tickets compared to watching the same movie in Singapore or just a place for a family to dine in and do some shopping. But Johor Bahru can offer more than that. Here we cover 4 secrets spots in Johor Bahru that you can add to your itinerary.

Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

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Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and its surrounding area offers visitors a chance to explore the old streets of Johor Bahru. Let’s face it. Who wants to go all the way to Johor Bahru and spend all their time in the confines of a mall.

Situated near City Square Mall, it is accessible by foot (if nearby) or by Uber or Grab (if coming in from KSL City Mall). When combined with a visit to the surrounding area, this afternoon detour promises visitors visitors not only a chance to explore the back lanes of the city but also an awesome opportunity to laze around in some cafe

Suggested Route: Starting from Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, visit the nearby cafes and museums before making your way towards Jalan Wong Ah Fook:

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Tepian Tebrau

Tepian Tebrau, during my last visit, appears to still be off the tourist radar. It is a place specialising in barbecued street food: Barbecued stingray, barbecued sotong (squid), barbecued fish and the classic Otah. So if you are looking to feast at a seafood restaurant with all the bells and whistles, you may want to give this a miss.

Tepian Tebrau is actually a food court with small stalls selling barbecued food. While there are other stalls selling staples like fried rice or noodles, a majority of the stalls there focus just on barbecue.

My grab driver recommended that I try Ah Yong and I was glad that I did. The portions are generous and also affordable. The amount of food I ordered could feed two persons comfortably and only cost me MYR56 (USD13):

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Address: Jalan Mohd Amin

San Low Seafood Restaurant

San Low Restaurant is located in the suburbs of Johor Bahru amongst local private housing. It is a great location for day trippers who want to have seafood without having to travel out too far. More of a “Zi Char” Restaurant, it promises a no frills experience instead of a typical Chinese restaurant.

The price is affordable with a decent sized chilli crab, a vegetable stir fry, and a plate of their signature beehoon costing just around MYR100 or less.

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As the place is still close to the city area, the place gets packed on weekends. So if you want to have a hassle free dining experience, try to get there just before the dinner time crowd (i.e. 6pm to 6.30pm).

Address: Jalan Merah 1, Taman Pelangi, 80400 Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia

Insider Tip: The restaurant offers a private car service that will get you to places nearby. Depending on the distance, the price may vary from MYR10-15. While slightly more expensive than a Grab or Uber, this is to help cover the empty ride back. So if you don’t want to feel ripped off, just call your own Grab or Uber.

Orang Asli Restaurant

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This is one place that promises an “authentic” seafood dining experience in Malaysia. Located by the sea, this restaurant is largely a self service place. My advice is to go in earlier around 6pm to 6.30pm or else you will be one of the poor souls waiting for a table.

Once you get there, go find yourself a table. Take a mental note of your table number (which should have painted on the wooden planked floor) before heading to the fish tanks/buckets by the side of the wooden platform. Unlike San Low, you can actually pick your own seafood here. Just grab yourself a pail and a wooden tongs before picking your own crabs from the huge blue plastic tubs. There will be different types of crabs and depending on the season, there might be even crabs filled with eggs. Once you are done with your pick, just join the queue with your pail and place your orders with one of the waiters there.

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Insider Tip: If you are aiming for crab roe, you should pick crabs with a “U” tip on the underside of the crab instead of a “V” tip. Those with a “U” are female and those with a “V” are male.

When you are done with your meal, you can try Grabbing or Ubering back but due to the isolated location, it may be difficult to get a ride back. If you have difficulties, try asking the waiters for help. They can help dial a cab for you. However, do expect the driver on insisting a fixed price instead of the meter on the dubious reason that he had to drive all the way in to get you.

Address: 1, Kg. Orang Asli, Telok Jawa, 81750 Masai, Johor, Malaysia

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Guide: 擂茶 Lei Cha or also known as “Thunder Tea” Rice

Guide: 擂茶 Lei Cha or also known as “Thunder Tea” Rice

While my colleagues queued up for their usual fish soup at Amoy Street Food Centre, I decided to go explore the place. If you remembered my last post on this food centre, you will recall I covered an odd fusion dish combining elements of Indian and Cantonese cuisine. It is time to find another interesting dish to help tide me through the day.

I did not have to search long before I saw the eye catching words “擂茶” meaning “Thunder Tea” at LIN DA MA 林大妈’s (Stall is on the second floor). And no, the dish has no links to Zeus but more on the “Thunder” bit later.

I was always intrigued by the dish with not only its unique name but also its presentation. It always looked too healthy and bland to me.

You can be your own judge:

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But what is this dish actually?

“Thunder” “Tea”

Technically, the word “擂” (lei) does not mean “thunder”. While it incorporates the base word for Thunder “雷”, it actually means to “pound” or to “beat”. This links the dish back to its Hakka (a group of people from the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Hainan and Guizhou) roots where part of the dish is made using a pestle and mortar.

Unlike the small ones we now use in our kitchens, those pestles and mortars were way larger so as to accommodate the large amount of ingredients and were used to pound and reduce the ingredients for the dish into a paste. This pounding mimicked the sound of thunder and thus the association.

The paste is then used to make a “tea” soup that is to be served with a bowl of rice topped with condiments.

Taste

The stall owner recommended I try tea soup first before mixing up the bowl of rice with all the ingredients. From then on, she suggested I alternate between having spoonfuls of rice and occasional soup.

It was surprisingly good.

Despite its bland appearance, the dish was actually quite flavourful. While you won’t get overly strong flavours (think spicy, salty or vinegary), both the rice dish and the tea soup hit the mark.

When I downed that first spoonful of tea soup, it struck me as being a very “rich” creamy soup. Although there was no cream added, the taste was oddly satisfying. A few more spoonfuls of the soup revealed another taste that I failed to pick up on my first try: The fragrance of the thai basil used to make the paste. For those wondering, the tea paste is typically made from a few base ingredients such as toasted peanuts (which gave the soup that creamy taste I noted), toasted sesame, Thai basil, mint and tea leaves.

Then came the main part of the meal.

I mixed the rice with the condiments comprising mainly of stir fried long beans, some sliced vegetables, peanuts, fried anchovies and bits of beancurd. Sounds quite tasteless right? You cannot be more wrong. The vegetables have been lightly salted when being stir fried and helps impart some flavour. The peanuts and the anchovies also add their own layers of flavour to the rice dish and also some texture. After days of meat heavy and other rich foods, this simple rice bowl felt therapeutic. I was doing my body not only a flavour in terms of the actual taste of the food (the rice was delicious) but also helping cleanse my body of all those “toxins”. Leaving aside this health hocus pocus, so long as the dish tastes good to me and also looks decently healthy, I think that’s good enough for me.

Yes, I did finish my bowl of rice. Towards the end when I had maybe 3 to 4 spoonfuls of rice left in my bowl, I poured some tea soup into the bowl and created my own Thunder Tea porridge and far easier to scoop the remaining bits out from the bowl. While I don’t recommend doing it for the entire bowl worth of rice, I think a small portion of soup mixed with the rice towards the end of the meal helps tie it all up together and also helps you mop up the remaining bits of rice and vegetables.

For S$4 a portion, I think it one worthwhile health food in the city area without having to munch on a boring salad to stay healthy.

Have you tried Thunder Rice Tea? If not, will you be trying one any time soon?

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Super Makan Asia’s Beef Rendang – Food Review

Super Makan Asia’s Beef Rendang – Food Review

Super Makan Asia @ Tiong Bahru Plaza

During one of our quick short lunch outings, my colleagues and I headed over to Tiong Bahru Plaza (if you followed my blog from its infant days, you would have read my short post on this hidden gem).

Instead of some restaurant or a fancy eatery that would normally have justified the train ride out of the city area into the suburbs, my colleagues brought me to a small eatery at the basement of Tiong Bahru Plaza called “Super Makan Asia” (SMA).

The eatery can seat at most 25 diners at any one time and serves simple local fare at affordable prices between SGD 4 to SGD 6.50.

I was deciding between having their Nasi Lemak (check out my other post where I had Nasi Lemak from another stall that is frequented by dignitaries including the Sultan of Brunei) or their Beef Rendang.

For those uninitiated, “Rendang is a popular dish of meat stewed in coconut milk and spices, commonly found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.” Singaporeinfopedia describes it as:

The meat, usually beef but sometimes chicken or mutton, is stewed in coconut milk with spices such as ginger, chillies, galangal (blue ginger), lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric. A wide rather than a deep pot is preferred to allow the milk to evaporate during a slow boil of up to three hours. Skill is required to ensure the liquid does not overboil and cause the milk to curdle. However, if the fire is too low, the meat could burn. Correctly cooked, the liquid will thicken into the distinctive rendang gravy. This cooking process has several purposes – it adds flavour to the meat as it is braised in the spices; it softens and tenderises the meat as the dish dries up; and it enhances the preservation of the dish, allowing it to remain edible even two to three days later without refrigeration or up to two weeks in the refrigerator. The dish is best eaten with rice and is sometimes consumed with ketupat (steamed pressed rice). It is more often served in hawker centres as one of several dishes in nasi padang.

I decided to go for their Rendang. As the portion appeared small on the menu, I decided to add one bowl of curry vegetables as a side:

Super Makan Asia Beef Rendang

Curry Vegetables at Super Makan Asia

My verdict?

Skip the vegetables and just go for the Rendang.

The eatery offers a no frills experience with their Rendang. It is back to the basics of just plain rice with Rendang. I would have preferred slightly softer rice though.

Nothing here that will distract the person from the rich gravy generously coating each tender beef cube. The flavour is intense and is enriched by chunks of fat that gives the dish an extra punch (if you are health conscious just leave those bits on the side). The serving is also commendable unlike those served by normal Nasi Padang stalls. In fact, I think I could have done with two servings of rice for the amount of Rendang on my plate!

At S$6.50 a portion, SMA’s Rendang is, I think, not only value for money but also offer a taste of classic Rendang in a modern setting. SMA’s Rendang deserves one and a half stars out of three. I may just make that trip to have it again.

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Mooncakes – Moon dust, lunar missions conspiracy, Chang’e, espionage “gadget” or just a plain old pastry?

Mooncakes – Moon dust, lunar missions conspiracy, Chang’e, espionage “gadget” or just a plain old pastry?

For many of my foreign readers out there, you must be wondering what on earth are “Mooncakes”? Mooncakes are made from moon dust brought back from the lunar missions. The United States government made a deal with the communist Chinese government to secretly import moon dust for Chinese consumption and the Chinese in turn funded part of the missions. The Chinese still funds NASA till today but on a lower scale given the large imports of moon dust in the early days. Did you know they actually secretly shipped tonnes of moon dust back to earth during each mission? Amazing stuff. This explains the the lack of new lunar missions by NASA today.

Okay, just ignore my made up conspiracy theory. Mooncakes are not made from moon dust and have no links to the lunar missions! The Americans were the first on the moon and all due to their own credit. The lunar missions, however, debunked quite a bit of the mythology (more on this later) behind the mid-Autumn festival celebrated in China and other Asian states.

What is Mid-Autumn festival

Mid-Autumn festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year. For those unfamiliar with the lunar calendar, the moon is the fullest on each 15th day of each month. The festival apparently has roots in moon worship before evolving into a festival revolving around the appreciation of a beautiful moon. You can say it is similar to Christmas evolving from something religious (worship of the Roman Sun God / Celebration of Christ’s birth) into a somewhat commercial festival enjoyed by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

There are a few myths tied to the festival.

Chang’e – The lady on the moon

This was the myth that the lunar missions debunked. There appears to be a few versions of this myth. Wikipedia kindly summarised the plots and I shall reproduce them here:

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved very much her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

After the hero Houyi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu. But his wife, Chang’e, stole it on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. She took the magic potion to prevent her husband from becoming immortal. Houyi was so angry when discovered that Chang’e took the elixir, he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang’e fled to the moon and became the spirit of the moon. Houyi died soon because he was overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang’e on every lunar fifteenth of August to commemorate Chang’e’s action.

I personally prefer the second version more. Maybe because this was the version that I grew up reading and also it shows the great sacrifice Chang’e suffered to benefit the people against a tyrant king.

While I have not been able to find any reference to a rabbit with the Chang’e myth, I remember hearing stories of Chang’e with her rabbit on the moon. If you have not noticed the rabbit before, look hard at a full moon and you will be able to see that rabbit on the moon.

A tool for 007

The festival is also known for the consumption of mooncakes and there is a myth that these simple pastries were used in China’s underground movement to overthrow the Yuan government (i.e. the Mongols).

The Chinese had suffered under Mongol rule and sought to overthrow the government and reinstate a Han Chinese government. However, as communications were difficult between the rebels, a way of communicating had to be developed so as to allow the rebels to bypass any censorship and also avoid detection.

A plan was devised. Messages were to be inserted into mooncakes so that news of the rebellion could be passed around. Alternatively, messages could be “printed” onto the surfaces of a few cakes. When the cakes were delivered to its intended recipient, the reader can cut the cakes into quarters and rearrange the word printed on each quarter to reveal the message.

While there is no proof that the messages led to a coordinated uprising, there may be some truth behind the use of mooncakes to pass messages.

Mid-Autumn festival today

Today (as in the present times), families gather on the 15th day to celebrate this festival (for all those wondering, the 15th day this year falls on 4 October 2017).

Celebrations here include lighting of lanterns and eating mooncakes accompanied with tea while moon watching. While it doesn’t sound like much, I remember it was a fun time for me as a kid many years ago. We would go around the house and hanging paper lanterns lit with real candles on trees. Orange, red, green, yellow and blue. A myriad of colours. Then you have an occasional “bonfire” when one of your lanterns ends up bursting into flames.

So, what on earth are mooncakes?

Mooncakes. Having gone one full circle covering the history the festival and how families celebrate the festival today, we are back to the one item that started this whole discourse.

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Mooncakes

What on earth are they?

Mooncakes are round pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick. Traditionally, such pastries have a rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste and is surrounded by a thin crust. A more indulgent variant may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. As with all things, you have modern variants with aspiring bakeries deciding to outdo each other. These variants not only put traditional fillings to the test (instead of using red bean or lotus seed paste you have black sesame, durian and pandan flavoured paste) but also the entire concept of a baked pastry is now questionable. Instead of the traditional mooncakes, there are now “snow skins” that are unbaked and served cold.

Personally, I’m a traditional mooncake fan and dislike snow skins.

If you are in China or areas with large numbers of Chinese, be sure to look out for a mooncake fair. There will likely be samples for you to try so even if you don’t intend to buy any you can still join in the festivities:

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Mooncake fair at City Square Mall, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

 

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Stall at Mooncake fair at City Square Mall, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

 

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Another stall at Mooncake fair at City Square Mall, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

 

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People sampling bits of Mooncake, City Square Mall, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Have you tried mooncakes before? Did you buy any like I did? Let me know in the comments.photo6233022506537691080

 

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