Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Japanese food wonders

Arriving in Fukuoka I had a great start to a stay in Japan. The weather was wonderful, sunny and 25 degrees -- quite a difference to Beijing that had already started getting cold. And the country is spotlessly clean, which still doesn't seize to amaze me, partly because they have very few rubbish bins. So I guess people just carry their garbage with them for miles, or then they don't snack while walking like yours truly. Either way, I started up my walk and as soon as I ended up at the first shrine I got to witness a school children's sumo wrestling competition! It was fun, I've never seen sumo wrestling live nor such young and small wrestlers. But they still had cheerleaders!

The destination of my walk was unsurprisingly a vegetarian restaurant. Or at least what was at the time listed as a vegetarian restaurant in happycow (they've included my update by now), Ruru. I was served a very nice Chinese style vegan lunch, well, vegan by my request, but when I went back there the next day I was told they don't have vegetarian food at dinner time. But at the time I was happy about it, not knowing of their meaty dinners. Their service was fine though, and when I was told they didn't have dinner for me they did give me even a map to the other supposedly vegetarian place in town, the macrobiotic cafe. But it was closed at the time.

The nicest thing about Fukuoka though, IMHO, was the park near the restaurant. It was so lovely to just sit there in the sunshine and watch the water birds and the joggers going by. I read later it was designed to resemble the West Lake in Hangzhou, China, and indeed there is a bit of a resemblance to a miniature West Lake. Wouldn't have minded just sitting there for a few days.

And here's my favourite Japanese invention. Yes, it's a toilet seat, but notice the faucet at the top. Thing is, when you flush the toilet, the new water to fill the tank comes via this faucet, so you can wash your hands with it before it makes it to the tank. Saves water, and the water will be clean enough for flushing the toilet even after one has washed their hands in it. Brilliant!

A night bus onwards to save a little money (transport costs a ton in Japan!) and I arrived in Hiroshima. I was quite happy to see everything was within in a walking distance from the bus station -- and no, I don't mean just my walking distance, things really were nearby! The castle was ok, and the a-bomb dome... well, to truly get the meaning of the dome you have to visit the museum in Peace park. Even after all this time it really is moving. They have pictures before and after the bomb, as well as videos and artifacts and wax people who look so much like zombies from movies you'd think they had just made those up. But then you see the old pictures and realise that really is how the survivors were. It's scary, and may well make you cry. Much recommended visit though, especially to politicians and anyone in favour of nuclear weapons.

However, despite desperately wanting a shower I didn't stay in Hiroshima, possibly because of another disappointing restaurant visit. I went to Shichida Life Cafe, which happycow also listed as vegetarian at the time. It's a buffet but most of their foods did contain meat or fish. Rice and tofu for lunch, not highly exciting and certainly not worth the price. Instead I took the afternoon bus to Kobe, night buses were full. It's kind of disturbing about the Japanese night buses anyway, they go slower so that they wouldn't arrive too early, but the way they go slow is by stopping somewhere in the middle and keeping their engines running! Goodness, why not just turn the engine off when the bus is going to stand there for an hour or two?!

The bus arrived too late for the hostel, so I decided one should try the capsule hotels in Japan. I found one, got my capsule at a cost a bit higher than a Japanese hostel (which means the price of a fancy 4 star hotel in most of Asia) and was delighted to find that the capsule was actually relatively spaceous and comfortable. Besides, you get a spa for the same price, several hot and cold baths and a sauna. Pretty nice actually, but these places are usually for men only.

I failed to find any food in Kobe either (and the Japanese put whey even in flippin' peanuts! Not all of them, but some brands list that in ingredients. Don't ask me why, I'm just happy they use Chinese characters so I can recognise it), so I just took up and went to Kyoto as I saw a large number of entries in happycow. Finding accommodation was a bit challenging though, apparently it was the start of a long weekend due to some public holiday and everything was full. I did find a place eventually though, and it was quite a nice Japanese style hostel too, called Roro or something of the kind.

But the real find of Kyoto came a couple of hours later. I went on a search for the first vegan restaurant on the list, Café Proverbs 15:17. It's located right at the crossroads at Hyakumanben, near Kyoto University. However, I didn't see it at first and decided to ask a group of students. University students surely speak English, no? I asked them, and the answer came immediately: no. So I went to a second group of about 10 students and asked if any of them speak English. "No" came back right away. But I decided to be persistant, showed them the address and asked if they'd know where it is. One girl got up and showed me the way, speaking perfectly good English. Japanese politeness, eh?

In any case, the café is absolutely amazing, one of the best restaurants I've ever been to anywhere! It's totally vegan, the food is so good the thought makes my mouth water right now despite eating tons just a moment ago, and they even have yummy cakes for dessert! At dinner time you get to choose from 3 alternative set meals of the day, I was really tempted by the tempeh sandwich but went for the soymilk ramen instead, in a decision to have something Japanese for once. I can't stress too much how good the food is, and the service is wonderful also. Wish I could eat there every day.

Next day it was time for sightseeing in Kyoto. After a few temples and shrines I went to the old imperial palace, and only when arriving at the gardens it dawned to me much of it wasn't open to the public as there still is an emperor to be usign the place! Silly me. Oh, along the way I had lunch at Mikoan, which was a perfectly fine vegetarian café but it's unlucky to be in the same city as Proverbs... that's way too hard to compete with! So dinner at Proverbs it was, and it didn't disappoint.

However, I felt I should hurry to Tokyo to apply for the Vietnamese visa as I had read it might take up to 10 days to process, and took the night bus over. But arriving in Tokyo I realised this was that mysterious public holiday and the embassy would be closed. Never mind, on to the imperial gardens then. I was happy to see how clean the waters were even at the heart of possibly the biggest city in the world. However, they didn't let me in to have tea with the emperor, so I had to go on and find veggie restaurants again.

I'm happy to say there really is a plenitude of choice in Tokyo. I decided to go try Pure Cafe, but instead I found Brown Rice café. It was fine, and had vegan things clearly marked, but ever since the thought of the tempeh sandwich at the Proverbs I really wanted a sandwich or a burger or something and I had read there'd be good ones at Pure Café. So despite having a perfectly fine lunch at Brown Rice I kept searching for Pure. And failed, but instead I found the vegan bakery, der Akkord! It's a macrobiotic bakery actually, and I'm still a little unclear as to what exactly does macrobiotic mean, but at least this place doesn't use any yeast, baking powder, or sugar, among other things, like animal products. Which effectively means it doesn't have that finger-licking yumminess of Sticky Fingers but strikes quite a different chord with a sturdy European flavour. Very nice bread, but the apricot pie didn't really win me over.

Next day I went off to the embassy then, but got up late and only ended up there at lunchtime to find it closed for lunch. So I decided to take a lunchbreak too and walk over to Vegan Healing Café since it didn't seem to be too far, despite the light rain. It's a cozy little place, seemingly quiet but as there's only one person working each day it apparently is busy work nonetheless. The food is vegan and fine, but resembles homecooking to me, nothing really fanciful. Oh, and if anyone working there ever reads this, do add some berries or something on top of the soycream cake, it'd make it so much more appealing!

Back at the embassy I filled up a form, handed in my passport and was told to wait. Half an hour later they gave me back my passport, said here's the visa and it'll be 12000 yen! (Or something of the kind, not 100% on that price.) Yes, it's expensive, but a super fast service, forget the 10 days. And I can get that reimbursed, it was the kind I was looking for, so no problems. For dinner I was thinking of Little Maman, but I think I was there too late and it was closed, or then I just couldn't find it.

Next day it was the turn of Café 8. Now this is the place in Japan that can really compete with Proverbs, the food was heavenly and they too have things like New York style cheesecake for dessert! And it's completely vegan. It felt terribly expensive though, and I started noticing how fast my budget was running down. In retrospect, however, the food wasn't much more expensive than elsewhere in Japan, it was the optional extras that really cost. Like a pot of tea costing over 600 yen! So yes, go there, eat and be happy, and if your wallet allows have the dessert too, but go somewhere else for tea. Same for other drinks. Water is good and free.

Following day I found myself back at Vegan Healing. Ok, I'll be honest with you, this had more to do with the nice girl working there than their food. Beside it being great to have someone to talk to, she was also the first Japanese vegan I ever met, so that's quite something. She recommended the nearby Meiji shrine for sight-seeing, so I headed there after lunch. It was ok, but when it comes to shrines I think the first one you see is really exciting, the 2nd also quite interesting to compare with, but after the third shrine the interest goes down. If there isn't for religious reasons of course. However, the surrounding park is lovely, so I quite enjoyed it.

Then I went back to the hostel to do some work at last. This had after all turned into much more of a real vacation than planned. I also looked into the return options and realised there'd be no way to make it to the Beijing-Hanoi train leaving on Sunday afternoon with the ferry arriving in Tianjin at noon on Sunday, and the train would be the easy way to cross wherefore I felt I should use it since it would be work time rather than adventure time. Besides, my shoes, bag, and computer were all breaking down, so a pit stop in Beijing and visiting all the friends for a weekend made sense. So I booked the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai leaving the following Tuesday. This was on Thursday, and I meant to go out of town for Friday and the weekend would have the Tokyo Vegetarian Festival, while I would have to leave Tokyo Sunday at the latest, so... That's how my excuses went, and silly as it was, I went back to Vegan Healing for dinner. I just wanted to see that girl there one more time before I leave, in case I wouldn't run into her at the vegetarian festival (which I indeed did not). Well, in any case, the fried soy meat thing is probably the best dish that café has.

Friday and out of town in Tokyo, I went over to Kamakura which is a lovely little town totally littered with temples and shrines and has also a huge bronze Buddha. He has windows in his back. And you can go inside. Wee. Anyways, the temples are beautiful and the best thing is the hiking path around there, the place is totally worth a visit! Dinner time I was back in Tokyo, however, so I went over to Nagi Shokudo. It's a cosy vegan café with pretty nice food, although I must say whatever they were having at the next table looked more exciting than mine. Oh well.

Saturday was the exciting time of the Vegetarian Festival. I was happy to see lots of people and stands of various veggie restaurants, cosmetics companies, shops, and animal rights organizations there. Really good turn-out, and way way more than I would ever have expected in a country like Japan! There was so much yummy vegan foods and nice people to talk to that I spent pretty much the whole day there, and ate tons!

In the evening, however, I just had to go find Pure Café. I was on a mission to try many veggie places in Tokyo as a friend was asking for recommendations for another friend who'd be visiting Tokyo soon. And I was still craving for a sandwich. I found their website and they have a map there, making it rather easy to find. The place is nice, and I finally got my sandwich! It was almost worth the wait, and I only say almost because it had been a long time. The sandwich was good, really good.

Sunday morning I went back to the festival to pick up some things for the road. Just a quick visit this time and on to the railway station. The thing I most crave for about Japan though was at the festival now: the Loving burger, made by the Loving Hut. Goodness, so juicy and tasty! Anyway, I figured I had to try the shinkansen, the Japanese bullet trains, at least once and this would be my last chance. However, had I realised how much it's going to cost overall before buying the first part of the ticket I probably would've changed my mind. Sure, they're fast trains, but way overpriced.

Anyhow, I arrived in Kyoto and you don't have to be a genious to guess where I went then. I had a huge meal with desserts and everything, and after hearing Proverbs is closed on Mondays I also bought one of those sandwiches I had been craving so much for the road, or the ferry as it turned out to be.

On Monday then I took a walk around Kyoto and realised it definitely is the nicest city in Japan. Or at least of those I visited. Lots of temples, lovely rivers, nature, and yes, great food. Since my favourite place was closed I went to Kairas, with the notion of soya ice-cream. The food was nice, as was the ice-cream, just again, there's too good a competitor in the city for anything else to be taken very seriously. Oh, and I found out where to get money: in Japan the ATM's don't accept international credit cards, the only place where I could withdraw money had been the Visa office in Tokyo. But the hostel in Kyoto let me know the ATM's at 7-11 do take international cards, so I was saved, as my budget was long gone by this time and the ferry must be paid in cash also.

So, for the last night I took a train to Kobe, because I wanted to try the soychicken pizza mentioned in the happycow site. And possibly the onsen as well. But after a couple of hours of searching and finding the right block, I just couldn't locate the restaurant! I'm pretty sure it was closed, at least for the day, maybe even for good, because at least the English name wasn't anywhere to be seen and there was only one (closed) café without an English name in the block. Of course they don't have house numbers so it's not easy to tell which is which. As for the onsen, I decided to go there but after buying a train ticket I changed my mind. It was after all late already and I should've been working, so I turned around and decided to try the fare adjustment machines. Don't do the same, they just steal your money. The fare adjustment is there only to pay more, if you've paid too much, they give you a ticket of zero yen to replace your money. Greedy bastards.

Anyway, after a night of some working and more sleeping, I took a train to Osaka and got to the port in time. Two days on a ferry, I had bought some noodles from the vegetarian festival to take along but nonetheless I was happy to find it was a Chinese ship. For that means I can actually eat in the restaurant: one can talk to the staff and in any case, I don't have the same fear of everything having fish sauce when it comes to Chinese food. The ride to Shanghai was quite nice, mostly, apart from the few hours on the second day when the sea was quite stormy and to my surprise I found out I do, after all, get seasick under certain conditions. I think it was mostly due to the fact that I was stupid enough to go to the toilet, closed space doesn't do good. Whenever I could breathe the sea air my stomach would be calm. Anyways, China for the next entry.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Vegetarian Korea and Raw Vegan Village

Back to travel track, I and two friends took the ferry from Weihai (Shandong province, China) to Incheon, South Korea. The trip takes about 14 hours, plus a couple of hours of waiting at the harbour. The service is run by Weidong Ferry, check their site for details. It's not a super fancy boat like the ferries between Sweden and Finland, but it's decent enough. A little shop, a restaurant serving nothing vegan, a Karaoke bar, and coin lockers that for some weird reason only accept Japanese yen (on a boat between China and Korea!). We went economy class, but surprisingly didn't get the Japanese style thin mattresses on the floor but proper bunk beds, with curtains and everything. Pretty good, I would think.

After a while of figuring out what's next and where to change money, we went to town for a first Korean meal. The Seoul metro runs all the way to Incheon, so it's rather convenient, although it doesn't go to the port but you need a few stops in a bus. We started with the Sosim vegetarian restaurant on Insadong, as it was closed the last time I was in Korea. The food was decent, but not very tasty really.

The two travel companions were much into couchsurfing and considerable time was spent finding accommodation, but as nothing was found for the first night we checked in to a hostel. A pretty decent place actually, and later it turned out the Korean member of staff used to be vegetarian for a while and even grew her own food in her garden, but later gave up as it was just too difficult in Korea. Anyhow, our path led straight to Sticky Fingers, the vegan bakery. It was amazing, as always. Expensive, but so worth it!

The next day we went walking in a park and as luck would have it, they were hosting the high-wire world championships at the time! People walking 1 km over the river on the wire. Cool stuff, and a nice drum concert to precede it. From there we went over for a second dinner at Insadong in another place I didn't visit last time, Han Gua Chae. It's a buffet place, Korean style, and by now my companions were saying they're not fond of Korean food. They did like the Korean pancakes though. I must agree that the food there wasn't all that great again, but thought it quite ok.

That night we actually found couchsurfing hosts, and as there were two hosts with small places, we split up: I went to one and the duo to another. My host was a very nice Lithuanian guy who spoke fluent Korean and a long list of other languages also. His flat, however, was tiny (about 14 sq m) and had no furniture at all. We went to the top of a hill with one of his friends to try some Korean drinks.

Next day it was time to hit the other branch of Sticky Fingers in Seoul, this one a proper café and as the weather was nice, we enjoyed the goodies outside at the table. There's even wireless net, it's absolutely perfect. From there we parted ways for some hours, I went to see traditional Korean houses and they went to a flea market. But bought no fleas. The house thing was rather small scale and not that special either.

We met up for dinner at the SM vegetarian restaurant (these restaurants are listed at happycow). The SM stands for Supreme Master, as in Ching Hai. They also had Supreme Master TV on. In any case, the food was deemed a bit better than the previous ones, possibly due to being more Chinese in style. From there we went to meet a bunch of couchsurfers in a bar, and from there I had to rush back to the place of my host to let in a new couchsurfer as the host himself was away. It was the first time I tried being a couchsurfing guest and even then the hosting crept up on me!

I figured it was time to move on though, and took the train to Gyeongju the next day. The others stayed behind. Gyeongju is the old capital from the Silla era, and has tons of old graves that just look like weird little hills. I bought a bagful of goodies from Sticky Fingers as I thought there'd be no food in Gyeongju, but I ended up eating almost all of them on the train. They were just too damn good. I checked into a hostel in Gyeongju, I'm not that crazy about the whole couchsurfing thing.

Next day I went off to see a temple and a grotto, supposedly the finest around. It was pretty nice, I suppose, but behind a glass and not so large, so it was far less impressive than the Longmen Grottoes in China. Nice hike nonetheless. Afterwards I asked the tourist information about vegetarian options in town. They directed me to a vegetarian restaurant called Baru. They only wanted to serve me bibimbap, but it was good and at 6,000 won it was much more worthy of its price than the more expensive Seoul restaurants!

Now comes the interesting bit though, the hostel map marked something it called "Ura, special vegetarian village". So I asked the tourist information what, and most importantly, where, was this. They told me it's a village of raw vegans (without using those words) not too far from town. To get there you have to take bus 350 at 7:30 in the morning all the way to the end station of Sannae, and there continue at 8:20 by bus 351 until its final stop at Ura village. From the bus stop it's about 1 km hike up to the village itself. So this I did.

The village had approximately 20 houses. This was daytime during a weekday so that, probably, is why I didn't see many people, only a few old women busy collecting nuts of some kind. They only spoke Korean, and my Korean is very limited, so I mostly just walked around the village by myself. It's in a beautiful setting, and there was music coming from a loudspeaker as well. But the village seems to have no services, no restaurants, hotels, or even a shop, so a couple of hours was certainly enough with nothing to do. I then had a bit more of a chat with one of the women, she told me, I think (very poor Korean indeed), that there live around 50 or so raw vegans in the village. She offered me some juice and fruit, and then I went on my way. Unfortunately the bus back doesn't come until 15:30 or so, and hence I started walking back. Soon I realised what a long walk it was and decided to try hitchhiking, if there'd be any cars around. Eventually one came and gave me a ride a bit closer, and a small tractor gave me ride for the rest of the way to Sannae, from where the buses to Gyeongju run every 20 minutes or so.

In Gyeongju I decided to continue to Busan, which is only a short and comfortable bus ride away. After checking into a hostel I went over to what might still be the only vegetarian restaurant in town, the Namsadae buffet. They actually have pretty good Korean food with nice fake meats, so if not counting for Sticky Fingers, this was probably the best meal of this Korea visit. However, I was more excited about Japan and the next day, after visiting a beautiful seaside temple, I boarded the ferry to Japan. I decided to save money by taking the slow overnight ferry rather than the fast three hour one. Not only is the fast one more expensive, it would also mean having to pay for a hostel night in Japan immediately.

This time I did get the Japanese style of an economy class, but it wasn't bad in my mind. This ship had even less services than the other one, only a restaurant not serving anything for vegans, but strangely they wanted us to board hours before the boat left despite the restaurant onboard also being closed. There were vending machines, only accepting Japanese yen -- this time it was more understandable but I still didn't have any. When buying the ticket they told me one is supposed to have a return ticket from Japan booked when entering the country, but didn't seem too bothered about it when I told them I didn't, and the Japanese customs said nothing. They did, however, search me very thoroughly, went through all the bags and even my shoes. Haven't been so checked in a long time. Well, not since the US at least.

But the rest belongs to the Japan article... Regarding vegetarian Korea, there used to be a nice site called but it seems gone now. Hope it comes back later, but if anyone needs info on restaurants not in happycow, send me an email, I have the archive of that site from Sept. 2007 and it contains a lot more than happycow does.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A month in Beijing

Running behind on the blog as usual... so as a quick wrap-up, there was a month in Beijing, and the company arranged me this huge luxury apartment to live in. Never lived in such a thing before and it doesn't feel comfortable, especially not in a country with as much poverty as China. Plus it does get lonely in a huge place, listening to the echo of your own footsteps. So I filled up the place with couchsurfers. And cats, four of them at best, former stray cats for temporary housing. And weekly milongas. Here's some pics.

Then a few restaurants that need mention:
1) The Vegan Hut -- a great vegan restaurant in Jianwai SOHO, right off the Guomao metro station. Probably the only place in China with vegan ice-cream. Excellent stuff. They're open also for breakfasts during the week. And have wireless internet. There's a take-away stand downstairs, the restaurant itself is on the 2nd floor (or 1st floor counting the British way). The Vietnamese dishes are particularly good. They also don't add MSG, although it might exist in premade sauces.
2) The other side of love, another vegan place with a more extensive menu, and less fake meats than most Chinese vegetarian restaurants. It's north from Xizhimen, at Mingguangcun west stop of bus line 16 from Xizhimen. In Chinese: 彼岸爱心素,艺海大厦,明光村西站。

And to the end, the first cake I've ever baked, at least if I'm not forgetting anything... it was pretty tasty, just should've had something nice for a topping.