Decorating & Design

January 7, 2011

Our Asian Adventure: Part 1

This is the first in of two blogs about our amazing trip to Southeast Asia this past fall. (For the more recent post, click here.) Michel and I and our great friends Barry and Debra Campbell went on what I think was the perfect three-week trip to Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia and then home via Bangkok and Hong Kong.

If you love design, architecture and food and have not done this trip, I hope this blog will be a keeper for you … and that you will get there.

I take zero credit for the planning of this trip. After agreeing to leave H&H for three whole weeks (first time ever), I just closed my eyes and left the details to the others and our travel agent, Marla. It was a hard decision for a control freak! But it was the only way I could agree to go for such a long time.

I did do three things before I left (all essential, I think):

I bought Michel and myself Rimowa luggage, based on Debra’s research.

Totally worth the price, these suitcases will make your life so much easier. The key is the interior mesh dividers that compress your clothes — and the wheels that are so fabulous they make wheeling a suitcase feel like walking your dog. Buy one carry-on that will hold all you need for an overnight stay, plus your computer. I also bought one large suitcase that held everything I needed for three weeks.

And I asked Jason Rees, our H&H tech guru, to get me an iPad and load it up with books and mags.

Plus, I bought comfy shoes and packed light layers, including a great raincoat with a big hood. You have to have one to do this trip.

I never expected it to be this fabulous. Our first stop was Tokyo. Michel chose his favourite hotels in Japan and restaurants that he knew from the many years he did business there.

We stayed at the Okura Hotel, which is a perfectly preserved modernist building from the early ’60s. Elegant, quiet and serene, which you appreciate after a day of noise and neon in the city centre.

Let’s start with the food, because every bite of this trip was memorable. First night munchies hit at 3 a.m., when you’re starving (14 hours ahead of Toronto). Michel ordered udon noodle soup infused with curry. I passed and then grabbed bites every time he ran to answer his Skype. This soup was so good that I ordered it every chance I got — until we left. The broth was creamy with curry and bits of roasted chicken. I am going to try to get the recipe for our website. It’s that good.

Our first dinner out was at Zakuro, a shabu-shabu restaurant that Michel had been telling me about for years. You would think that his memories of Tokyo food would be about sushi or Kobe beef — but no. He talked about their tomato salad so often that we had to go there and find out what the big deal was.

We all had it, and we all agreed. Best ever!! Three secrets to this salad. Good-quality tomatoes — cut in chunks. Serve it in a clear glass bowl that sits on a bed of crushed ice. And the DRESSING. Sesame oil, rice vinegar, miso, ponzu sauce and celery seed is my best guess. Maybe a hint of ginger…

You just want to drink it. It’s that good. Debra and I each asked to buy bottles of it from the kitchen to cart home. The recipe above produces a taste that’s pretty close. If you read Japanese, I can scan the label and send it to you — if you promise to share the ingredient list with me, okay? I will post it in the next blog.

We also had the shabu-shabu (like fondue, only with broth and very thin slices of raw beef, tofu and veggies). But it’s that salad that I dream of.

The next day we were guests for brunch at the residence of our ambassador to Japan, Ambassador Jonathan Fried and his wife, Paula. Barry and Debra are friends of theirs and we were lucky enough to be included.

The residence, called Marler House, is an amazing property right in the middle of Tokyo, with beautiful gardens, next door to our embassy, a modern building designed by Raymond Muryama. If you live in Toronto, you would know the Bata Shoe Museum, one of many important buildings he has designed here at home. Touring the library of our embassy and seeing H&H on display felt great!

Other highlights of Tokyo included a visit to the food hall of the Takashimaya department store. Incredible. Puts Harrods food hall to shame.

One rainy day we went to Harajuku, home of the famous Harajuku girls. Our guide told us that high school girls arrive by subway to this downtown hub, stash their school uniforms in lockers and dress up in their bizarre (but cute) outfits with parasols and green hair.

The street was such a riot with crêpe stands on every corner. Barry bought one and we all had a bite.

Of course, we also saw Japan’s famous anime shops and arcades. I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it…

Our two best sushi meals were lunch at the restaurant Hototogisa and dinner at a private club.

We were the guests of Michel’s old friend Mr. Yagu. His assistant, Schiko Tsujimoto, took us to visit the small boutiques of young Japanese designers, then on to his club, where the most stunning collection of Le Corbusier paintings lines every wall. Our sushi was wonderful, but the art collection was one of the highlights of our trip.

At least one whole afternoon was spent in the boutiques of Ginza, a ritzy area of central Tokyo. All the top labels have their own buildings designed by the world’s most famous architects, each one incredible, all in a row. Debra and I knew before we left that clothes and shoes would not be on our list anywhere in Asia. You have to wear a size 10 shoe to understand the looks you get when you ask for your size in the land of
size 4 feet. Sometimes the sales clerks would just point to our feet and start laughing. But purses? That was a different story.

Only, Tokyo is very expensive. The cab ride from the airport to our hotel was about $400 Canadian. You get the picture.

Besides shopping, there was the Mori Art Museum, with its fabulous installations by Japanese contemporary artists that made us rethink our whole concept of nature, and the glorious temples we toured with our guide were so inspirational.

At one temple we found ourselves in the middle of a traditional Japanese wedding. So beautiful. I looked at the bride and could not help but wonder what her life will be like…

The temples of Japan are glorious. The gardens are serene, magnificent works of art. Sometimes they include a wishing wall, with wishes written on cards by visiting tourists.

Our last night we dined at Ukai-tei, a traditional teppanyaki steak house in Ginza. If you love beef and you ever go to Tokyo, you must dine there. The whole “melt in your mouth” thing that is never true … is true there. The beef dissolves on your tongue because it’s so marbled, it’s mostly all fat. Once in my life is enough.

Our last day in Tokyo we got up very early to go to the famed fish market. Hoping to see a tuna auction, we learned that the lineup for tickets made it impossible, but never mind because the market itself, many football fields large, is so incredible, you could get lost for days — unless, of course, you got run over first by one of the speed carts zooming along the aisles. Tourists have been run over more than once when they got in the way of the day’s important business.

I got carried away by my love of uni (sea urchin). I bought a whole wooden box of it so Michel and I could eat it with a spoon on the train ride to Kyoto later that day. And we did!! It was like ordering 100 orders of uni at a sushi bar — for the price of two orders. How could I resist? It made me realize just how many middlemen come between us and the fishermen…

We were sad to leave Tokyo so soon. Three days and nights was not long enough. By the way, Michel also told us that the french toast at the Okura is legendary. And it was. I think to make it you would need to coat your bread in cheese soufflé — and then grill it lightly. So good…

On the train to Kyoto, you have to see the ladies in their pink maid uniforms and face masks in the train station who line up and jump on the train when it stops to clean it before you get on. All through Japan we noticed people picking up garbage — caring about their cities and taking pride in their condition.

Next time, Kyoto and kimonos, then on to Vietnam and my new love affair with pho…

Photo credits:
Lynda Reeves