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My (not so) near death experience – Fugu dining

My (not so) near death experience – Fugu dining

I always dreamed of trying and experiencing something unique. Sort of like marking significant milestones in my life. One such milestone is cheating death by eating Fugu or what is commonly known as pufferfish or blowfish.

Fugu? What is Fugu (Pufferfish aka Blowfish)?

For those wondering what Fugu is, National Geographic nicely describes this deadly fish as:

ABOUT PUFFERFISH

Biologists think pufferfish, also known as blowfish, developed their famous “inflatability” because their slow, somewhat clumsy swimming style makes them vulnerable to predators. In lieu of escape, pufferfish use their highly elastic stomachs and the ability to quickly ingest huge amounts of water (and even air when necessary) to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size. Some species also have spines on their skin to make them even less palatable.

Toxicity

A predator that manages to snag a puffer before it inflates won’t feel lucky for long. Almost all pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a substance that makes them foul tasting and often lethal to fish. To humans, tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote.

I was about to put something 1200 times deadlier than cyanide on my plate and hope to almighty God that I don’t die from it.

Well sort of.

Pufferfish, if prepared correctly is not toxic. Only certain parts of the fish will cause death if ingested. The emphasis here is “if prepared correctly”.

If done wrongly, I would be 6 feet under.

Evidently, I didn’t die. If not, you will be the first person reading a blog entry from the other world.

How does Pufferfish Taste Like?

I had it in Tokyo, Japan after my whirlwind tour of Hokkaido with my girlfriend where we visited Hakodate, Noboribetsu, Sapporo and Otaru. It was our last meal in Tokyo and we wanted to try something unique.

We went for Fugu at Torafugu-tei near the famous Shibuya Crossing. You can’t miss it since it has a huge ass Fugu right above the store front!

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This restaurant serves a variety of Fugu called “Tiger Blowfish”.

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Great to know that the restaurant serves “Only the safest product”

There’s a la carte and also meal courses on offer. When we were there, there were two courses on offer. One going for 4,980 yen before taxes. The other going for 6,480 yen before taxes. While we were a little puzzled by the menu, there appears to be only minor differences with the menu (the more expensive comes with “Deep Fried Blowfish” while the cheaper menu instead comes with “Blowfish under-skin”), we decided to go big (if it’s going to be our last meal after all) and ordered the 6,480 yen set.

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First up, came the Blowfish Skin. If you had jellyfish before, it has a similar chewy texture. It was very refreshing due to the sauce it was served in. It was citrusy like a mix of soy sauce and some kind citrus fruit. The grated ginger (that reddish thing) was not overpowering and helped balance out any fishiness (although I didn’t feel that the dish was at all fishy in taste). I would have loved it even more if it had been a hot summer day as the dish was served chilled.

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Blowfish Sashimi was up next. Surprisingly, unlike our typical experience with Japanese Sashimi, it was not served with wasabi. Instead, again you find a small portion of ginger on the side to go with your soy sauce. There was also a slice of lime, if required. This was, I think, the key point in the meal as you get to experience the actual taste of fugu. Its surprisingly neutral tasting and very “clean” tasting. It doesn’t have a taste per se unlike Salmon and/or Tuna. Or it’s just me not having grown up with fugu and not recognising a “fugu” taste. The flesh is very firm and slightly chewy. Likely from all that muscle gained from puffing away? I actually felt something while having the sashimi. My lips felt slightly numb. Was it just my brain working overtime or was it really true that a master fugu chef will just leave a slight amount of toxin on the flesh to tease diners?

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Blowfish hotpot. Yep, we graduated from the raw food portion of the meal. So, what happened was the restaurant staff had laid out a sort of paper bowl in the middle of the table that is above an induction heater. The bowl had a metal piece in it that heats up the broth. The broth was very simple (essentially a piece of seaweed to give some flavour). I guess the idea was to not overwhelm the delicate taste of the blowfish. Any heavier and/or stronger tasting broth would have covered the little taste of the fugu. We were told to cook between 6-7 minutes per piece (longer for bigger pieces and shorter for smaller pieces). The flesh, when boiled, was tender. There was no fishy smell at all. For those who are used to having fish soup of some kind, you will normally assume to soup to have some kind of fishy taste/smell to it. Oddly, there was none. It really goes towards showing how neutral tasting the fish actually is. I did try drinking of the broth towards the end. It was a pleasant tasting soup with a slight sweetness from all those vegetables that came with the hotpot. But not much taste attributable to the fugu itself. HINT: Don’t drink too much of the broth. One or two spoonsful is/are good enough as the broth has one more task to perform.

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Midway into our hotpot came the fried blowfish. Make a guess what did it taste like. Like fried chicken, of course. Honestly, I believe you can actually pass off fried fugu as a nice piece of fried chicken. The entire thing was crispy and tender. Absolutely delightful.

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Blowfish Porridge. Well, there is no blowfish involved here. Instead, the staff will prepare the porridge at your table using the broth leftover from the hotpot. They will add in a bowl of rice to soak in all that goodness before pouring in an egg for flavour before topping it off with some spring onions and some soy sauce. It was more than plenty for the two of us. We found that the waitress was a bit light on the soy sauce and we decided to add it a bit more. The porridge evolves with time. At first, its watery before turning thick after absorbing in all that broth. I found it to be very filling and my advice is that if you think you are already about full, you might want to ask the waitress to cut back on the rice so that you won’t have too much porridge.

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We ended our meal with a small dessert – a mini ice cream sandwich.

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Post fugu meal – I didn’t die!!!

As time ticked by, I knew I was safe. I cheated death.

Would I recommend Fugu? Yes! Definitely. I do think most should at least try it once during their lifetime. But do remember to have it at proper establishments with proper fugu chefs. While deaths do occur, they can be attributed to amateurs who had no idea what they were actually doing.

Have you tried fugu? Let me know in the comments.

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My Japan Rail Experience – Tokyo to Hakodate, Hokkaido (and Mini-Guide to Japan Railway and JR Pass)

Arriving at Narita Airport

For those joining us for the first time, I covered the basics behind a Japan Rail Pass in one of my earlier posts. To briefly summarise, as tourist travelling in Japan, you are entitled to purchase rail passes that allow you unlimited train rides across Japan on Japan Rail (“JR”) operated lines. The passes are economical if you intend to travel to multiple destinations that are connected by rail. The passes typically lasts for a few days (e.g. The pass that I got was a 6 days flexible pass valid over 14 days). If you are interested in finding out more, you can do so here.

We arrived in Narita Airport early in the morning on a JAL flight from Bangkok the night before. Clearing customs was quick and we were off to find the pass exchange office. When purchasing a pass, you don’t actually get the physical pass itself. Instead, you will be provided an “Exchange Order”. This is likely to prevent fraud on JR as these passes are meant only for tourists and non-resident Japanese. You have to exchange the “Exchange Order” for the actual passes which looks, to me, like a mini passport.

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We went down to the basement of Narita Airport Terminal Two. The JR office where we were supposed to change the pass was closed. Instead, there was a sign directing us to go over to the Narita Express queues (directly opposite the JR office). There were two queues. One for exchanging of passes and the other to purchase tickets for the Narita Express. The waiting time was short. You will be asked to fill in a form with your basic information and passport details. The counter staff will then issue you your JR pass.

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For those traveling to Hakodate from Tokyo, you can at the same time reserve your seats with the staff issuing you your passes for both the Narita Express and also the Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station. The Narita Express will take you to Tokyo Station from Narita Airport. You can then take the Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station before having to make a transfer via a local line to Hakodate Station.

For those travelling to Tokyo from Narita Airport, the Narita Express also provides a direct link to Tokyo and takes around an hour or so.

If you are using a JR Pass, you will be by now holding two kinds of tickets: The JR Pass and your reserved seats tickets. As these reserved seats tickets were registered under your passes, they don’t appear to work at the gantries. Instead you have to present your JR passes to the staff manning the counter on the side. He will then stamp and mark off on your pass in the small row of square boxes (i.e. indicate your first use of the pass which will be relevant for determining when your pass actually expires).

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If you were wondering about the train schedules, I found the schedules on Hyperdia to be reliable. I discussed it in my earlier post on JR Passes.

The Narita Express is comfortable with sufficient legroom. There are both overhead racks and also luggage racks at the rear and front of each car to deposit your luggage. For those paranoid or concerned about theft, the luggage areas at the rear and front are equipped with locks to help tie down your luggage.

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Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuoto

Getting off Tokyo Station, you will be greeted with signs directing you to the Shinkansen platforms. Follow the signs. Along the way you will find various shops selling bentos and other food items. If you have a sufficient buffer time such that you won’t miss your train, you can consider purchasing a bento and some beverages for your train ride. As the train ride to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto from Tokyo will take close to four plus hours, we got ourselves some bentos:

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Follow the signs to the Shinkansen area where you will have to present your Rail Pass to the counter staff again. He will just verify the pass since it has already been stamped by his counterpart at Narita Airport. Look out for display boards showing which platform your train will be departing from. Each ticket will have a car number followed by a seat number. The car number tells you which “car” or cabin you are located in.

The platforms at Tokyo Station appear to be busy as they have “First Departure” and “Second Departure” lanes. If your train is departing first (check the display board right above each queue), join the queue for “First Departure”.

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If you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of Japanese efficiency as their train cleaning crews take approximately 10 minutes to do a turn around and have the train cleaned before the next scheduled departure.

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The Shinkansen, like the Narita Express, offered a comfortable ride. However, unlike the Narita Express, it does not have designated luggage areas at the front and rear of each cabin. So if you have an exceptionally large luggage, you can either risk it and leave it at the front or rear or you can bring them to your seats. There is sufficient legroom to squeeze in your luggage in between the seats.

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Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Hakodate

Four hours and twenty-seven minutes later, we alighted at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. Did I mention that the Japanese got their train timings down to the minute?

Follow the signs to exit the station and just before you cross the gantry you will see signs directing you to a transfer to Hakodate Station. As with the other two gantries, you will have to present your Rail Pass to the counter staff. Having verified your passes, they will wave you on towards the platforms where you will board a local train bound for Hakodate station. There will be signs directly you towards the correct platform:

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Depending on the local train you actually board, the seats appear to be different. On our journey towards Hakodate, we got a metro-like type of train. We have also during our stay in Hakodate saw “normal” trains with front facing seats. It may be the case that there are different train services serving the lines.

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My Experience on JR?

This was my experience riding Japan Rail for the first time. All in all, the experience was pleasant. In fact, having taken a variety of national rails (Trenitalia, Deutsche Bahn, Great Western Railway (England), Eurostar), I found my experience with Japan Rail to be the most enjoyable. The train service is efficient and punctual. Despite possible language barriers, I found JR staff to be proficient in the English language and also Chinese. Communication was not an issue as well. While the Rail Passes are not cheap, they are actually reasonable when you take into account the cost savings when travelling to multiple destinations.

If you are travelling around Japan, why not get yourself a Japan Rail Pass?

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Japan 2017 – Japan Rail Pass

Japan 2017 – Japan Rail Pass

I am in the midst of planning my Japan vacation this November where I will be heading to Hokkaido with my lovely girlfriend. Unlike other destinations in Japan, Hokkaido is all the way to the North-Eastern end of Japan and given the distance from Tokyo (where I will be arriving), I had a slight dilemma on how to get around Japan and to Hokkaido. Having gone through the hoops (on your behalf) , I will be sharing my experience with Japan Rail for your benefit. I hope this guide will help with your booking process and streamline it for you.

For those who have read my post on planning an itinerary (if not, you might want to have a look at it as I summarised a few points on how to plan itineraries and also my review of Visit a City which offers its visitors free itinerary templates that can be customised), I did something similar with this upcoming trip. I know I will be arriving in Tokyo and leaving via Tokyo. I have approximately 8 full days in Japan. Looking at google map, I can either go northwards towards Hokkaido from Tokyo overland or fly into some airport in Hokkaido.

I researched and found out that it is possible to get to the southern tip of Hokkaido via bullet train (Shinkansen). However, the bullet train tracks end at a certain station after which the train networks in Hokkaido revert back to normal train tracks. A helpful site I found confirmed the route and also the basic details such as price and travelling time.

According to that site, the average travelling time from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is approximately 4 hours. The average travelling time from Tokyo to Sapporo is approximately 7.5 hours. Yes! The time spent travelling the last bit from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo takes almost as long as the journey from Tokyo:

Train map

Flying from Tokyo to Chitose Airport will take about 1.5 hours by plane and another hour by car to get from the Airport to Sapporo.

This made the decision easier for me.

In terms of logistics, it did not make sense for me to head directly to Sapporo from Tokyo or Sapporo back to Tokyo by train as it will take up almost an entire day. I can either take the bullet train to Hakodate via Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and make my way towards Sapporo and fly back to Tokyo (or the inverse). Of course, if you had complete freedom in terms of booking, one option is to fly out of Sapporo back to your home country. However, as I was paying using miles, I am confined to travelling via Tokyo this time.

I decided to take the train route first with the hope that it will slowly immerse us into Japan and let us have a look at the Japanese countryside. This sounds more enjoyable than rushing off to board the next plane to Chitose just having got out of one.

The Shinkansen tickets are expensive. Very expensive. Unlike the train networks in Europe, it is not apparent that there are earlier bird discounts to these tickets. My checks indicated that it will cost me 23,010 yen a single way from Tokyo to Hakodate:

Hyperdia - Tokyo to Hakodate

Japan Rail Pass – Substantial Savings or Discounts

However, substantial savings can be had if you are a non-Japanese tourist (I believe this also applies in some cases to Japanese who are not residents in Japan, please check)

Japan Rail offers certain passes for foreigners. The most comprehensive pass is the Nationwide JR Pass which is good if:

“you want to travel the whole of Japan
you are traveling for 7, 14 or 21 days
you need nationwide shinkansen bullet train travel
you want to use all non-bullet JR trains” (Taken from the JR website)

The passes are priced based on the length of the pass and are best for travellers who intend to use the train network frequently. So for my case, the National JR pass costs 29,110 yen (just slightly more than the 23,010 yen price tag above) but will allow me to travel by train from Hakodate to Noboribetsu (worth 6,890 yen) and then on to Sapporo (worth 4,480) and then a day trip to Otaru (worth 1,280 yen return) (TOTAL VALUE: 35,860 yen – A 6,000+ yen or SGD 74 or USD 54 savings!).

If you intend to just travel from point A to B and no more, you may want to consider just buying a single way ticket instead.

I thought of just ordering two passes for myself and my girlfriend. But I decided to check in on the forum managed by JR to not only check on the feasibility of my itinerary but also whether the pass is worth while for me.

Lo and behold, helpful forumers pointed out that there is a cheaper pass available. Moral of the story – Be sure to drop by the forum to see if there are existing posts for your intended itinerary or to seek advice from the forumers.

Apparently, there are more than just one JR Pass. There are different passes specifically for different regions of Japan. This makes sense if you are not travelling the whole of Japan. So for mine, I should instead be getting the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass for 6 days at 26,000 yen instead of the National Japan Rail Pass for 7 days at 29,110 yen (Cost savings of another 3,000 yen or SGD 37 or 27 USD per pax!).

You can find the regional passes here.

If you click the link, you will be directed to a page with the different regions. Each region may have sub-links for specific passes (e.g. my JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass is filed away under the “Pass East”):

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Booking the right passes will allow you have save on costs while still getting the same benefits.

Regarding the train schedules, I discovered that you can get a sense of the schedules from http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ . This site was recommended by JR and allows you to key in both your intended starting point and your destination to check on the train schedules.

Normally, when searching using hyperdia for JR Pass applicable trains, you have to:

Fill up the boxes ‘from’ (departure station) and ‘to’ (destination station)

Click on the icon ‘More Options’ to change the parameters of the search:

HyperDia More Options

Uncheck the boxes ‘NOZOMI’, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Airport Shuttle Bus’:

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This will help filter out non JR Pass trains.

However, if you are travelling from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori or Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (Hokkaido) with the Japan Rail Pass, you must check the NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA box (as you can use the Hayabusa train).

Note: Please remember to do this if you are headed for Hokkaido or else you will be like me trying to figure out why it would take almost 24 hours to get to Hakodate by train.

While it may have seem complex to me when I started researching into this (there is no one site you can refer to that has all the answers), it is actually quite doable on your own.

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