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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reflections on the 68th Kouhaku Utagassen 2017

Watching Kouhaku used to be a very difficult thing in the past. Back in the days when I didn't have access to the NHK Premium channel, I could only wait for the local channel to show a much delayed broadcast of the programme. Japanese music shows were hardly seen on local TV as well. And it was not a guarantee each year that this would be shown. The first time I watched this programme was the 48th edition (1997) and I could still remember how I kept playing back the portions of my favourite acts repeatedly on my video tape. Those were the days when it was tough being a J-ent fan and time really flies by when you realise that it's already the 20th year that I'm watching this.

Fast forward to now, watching the Kouhaku has become much easier thanks to my cable TV subscription. However, the Kouhaku has lost much of its shine as being a must-see and premium music show to end the year not just in Japan and overseas. Honestly, speaking, I think that there is no single reason because it's a mix of factors affecting one another. Having to commit most of your New Year's Eve evening to a programme where you only appear for 5 minutes max compared to earning a lot more and using your time in a more flexible manner by holding your own countdown concert or choosing to take a break, for those big names who no longer need this kind of acknowledgement or accreditation, they wouldn't need to seek Kouhaku appearances anymore. The vacated slots are sometimes taken up by rather questionable choices where their names are hardly known by the general public. In the past, qualifying for a Kouhaku appearance means you made it big during that year. Nowadays, it is not necessarily the case. The cutting down on the enka slots could also have alienated the older audience and turned them off. Last but not least, there are a lot more choices these days when it comes to other TV programmes or alternative sources of entertainment on New Year's Eve. When the Kouhaku doesn't offer what viewers want to see, this will then be reflected in the TV ratings. Every year, without fail, the media has a field day making noise about how low the ratings have sunk.

Frankly speaking, I can see that the latest edition had made some interesting changes in the way the content was presented so in a way, that's commendable. For example, the opening sequence features a CG-made song and dance segment with Shibuya and its nearby sights in the background involving all the singers and the hosts (yes, you can see Arimura Kasumi dancing for a short while) which is a welcome deviation from the prim and proper introduction to kick off the programme. Just spare me from that kind of boring skits like what happened in 2016 involving Tamori and Matsuko Deluxe. Those skits in between songs featuring Uchimura Teruyoshi were also not my cup of tea but thankfully, there is the fast-forward button for such moments.

These are probably baby steps in revamping the programme but it's still better than nothing. However, the crux of the programme is probably to make it more inclusive for audiences of all ages and put in more effort to make sure that the performances are exclusive. There are so many music programmes which put out special editions at the end of the year so if you can see the artistes performing the same songs in other programmes, there is truly no incentive to watch the same thing on Kouhaku. And yes, the song choice should be something to consider as well because I really don't want to hear the same song many years in a row even if I may like it. The thing about it being a New Year's Eve programme probably means that there are some restrictions on the types of songs to be selected (nothing negative or controversial) but still, you don't have to sing the same song over and over again. For example, I love TOKIO but I really don't want to hear "Ambitious Japan" every year if there's nothing different from your past performances other than the costumes you are wearing.

Here is a list of the performances which I enjoyed from this edition of the Kouhaku so do feel free to share your thoughts on your own favourites:

"Yoo, soko no wakai no" by Takehara Pistol
My first time hearing Takehara's song was when I watched "Byplayers" as his song "Forever Young" was used as the ending theme. Later on, when I saw Eita's CM for Sumitomo Life Insurance, that was when I first heard this song which Takehara performed on the Kouhaku. Actually, the performance was very no-frills with Takehara wearing a simple T-shirt, jeans and sneakers with his guitar only but it was a very powerful performance thanks to his husky vocals and the meaningful lyrics which is like a call-out to the youngsters out there. This goes to show that you don't necessarily need a lot of aesthetics to make a performance memorable.

"Fukyouwaon" by Keyakizaka46
Among the huge number of girl groups out there, I find Keyzakizaka46 rather different even though they have the same producer as AKB48. It seems like cuteness or sexiness is a missing trait from their image and the content of their songs seem on the serious side which is quite uncharacteristic of girl groups these days. I watched the PV of this song before and was struck by how intense the dance sequence was but I never expected them to go all out on Kouhaku as well with so much power. It was a pretty impressive performance which stood out among the girl groups.

Unfortunately, this indirectly caused the group to be in the news for the wrong reasons because they had a collaboration segment with Uchimura soon after their own performance where they had to sing a portion of this song again. No wonder three of its members collapsed or were about to collapse at the end of that segment. Some people were pretty insensitive to make remarks online blaming the members for their poor physical fitness and that a professional shouldn't be like this weak but they should try singing and dancing to that sequence with that same amount of intensity twice in a row and see if they can stand up properly after that.

"TOKYO GIRL" by Perfume
When this song first came out as the theme song for "Tokyo Tarareba Musume", it didn't leave much of an impression on me. In line with the theme of the song, it was a great idea to put the trio on the rooftop heliport of a building with the night scene of Tokyo as the backdrop. In addition, the use of the light beams, not only on the triangular stage but also from some of the surrounding buildings shooting towards the sky, made it look like the entire city was their stage so it was a great boost to their performance in an aesthetic sense. And of course, seeing these ladies sing and dance in the frigid cold weather in their thin costumes and high heels was a sight to behold especially since it always baffles me as to how they can manage to do all those dances with those heels when I find it so uncomfortable just to walk in the same type of shoes.

"Non Fiction" by Hirai Ken
If you've watched "Chiisana Kyojin", you would probably have heard this before. Just like Takehara's performance, this is another no-frills example of the song being strong enough to leave an impression. As this song was written specially for the drama, it was no wonder that images of the drama came back to me as I listened to this song. Such is the power of a theme song to a drama and vice versa. The only baffling thing was why Hirai had to hold that large bouquet of flowers which was somewhat of an distraction for me since there was nothing much he was doing with it other than to raise it up and down during his performance.

"Kiyoshi no Zundokobushi" by Hikawa Kiyoshi
Yes, this is an enka. ^__^
Actually, I should credit Kouhaku for introducing me to the world of enka. I don't really consider myself a fan of enka but there are indeed some nice songs to be discovered in this genre. Then again, the first time I heard this song was in the anime "Hachimitsu to Clover" when Morita Shinobu was performing his own rendition with the name Kiyoshi changed to Shinobu. Boy, that was such a hillarious version of this song! Of course, hearing it directly from the original singer was nice but I just can't shake off my impression of the Shinobu version while hearing the Kiyoshi version.

"Wakai Hiroba" by Kuwata Keisuke
I didn't follow "Hiyokko" during its run and had never heard this song in full until this performance which made me love this song at first "hearing". Kuwata's music really has the power to fascinate and entertain while being meaningful or close to heart. The performance was at Southern All Stars' concert rather than from NHK Hall but it was a perfect note to end the year with, thanks to the good vibes from the joyous and lighthearted atmosphere.

"Hero" by Amuro Namie
This being Amuro's last appearance on Kouhaku before she goes into retirement later this year, all eyes were on her literally. The design of the stage (location undisclosed though) was quite simple with a white colour scheme but the simplicity coupled with the skillful manipulation of the lighting and her image left a strong impression on me. It's been years since I came into contact with Amuro's music and I can still remember listening to her "Sweet 19 Blues" album every day on my Discman, alternating with SPEED's "White Love". That clip reflecting on her history before this performance brought back lots of memories as well. It was a befitting finale to Amuro's long and illustrious career although it is a pity that she won't appear on Kouhaku anymore (at least in the foreseeable future, assuming she doesn't come out of retirement).

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sometimes, things deserve a second chance - Marutama Ramen (Liang Court)

I have to admit, I am someone who has no patience when it comes to queuing for food. Especially when I am hungry.

This was probably why I swore off Marutama Ramen when I first tried it years ago. Back then, it saw very long queues at its The Central outlet and I was invited to go along and check it out. I think the long queuing time affected me to a certain extent so my expectations were heightened at the same time as I expected something good enough to justify the time investment. Unfortunately, what I tasted then was really not to my satisfaction. It could also be partly due to the fact that during that era, most of the pioneer entrants in the ramen market here were featuring tonkotsu-based soups which was comparatively richer than the chicken-based soup from Marutama so I wasn't used to the difference in taste. Since then, I didn't go back to Marutama anymore.

What made me decide to give it a second chance this time was yet again hunger. This time, I wanted something filling and yet not as rich as the usual tonkotsu-based ramen. I deliberated for a while and was about to give up when I saw the less-than-flattering pictures of the food outside the restaurant. Surely, something can be done to make the pictures a bit more appetising, clearer and brighter to entice the customers? Then again, I was too tired and hungry to search further and decided to give it a try, the first time after so many years.

To my surprise, the standard Marutama Ramen was satisfying in many regards. The soup was rich and flavourful but not overwhelming. There was also a lot of spring onions which I liked and the seaweed soaked up the flavours of the broth which I attribute to the fact that it was already shredded into pieces compared to many other versions where the seaweed came in its original form of sheets. Not a bad idea after all. The noodles were springy and went well with the broth but the chashu was oilier than I liked. For a price of $13, I thought that the portion and quality was well worth every dollar.

Gyoza is usually a standard accompaniment to my ramen so it was natural for me to do the same this time. Unfortunately, the pan-fried gyoza was not so satisfying because the skin should be crispier. The filling also needs to be more flavourful. Next time, I'll have to try the water boiled version and see if it will be any better.

Besides the food, there is something about this branch of Marutama which had helped to make the dining experience more pleasant. The nice BGM blend of Japanese enka and old Japanese songs gives a nostalgic feel amidst the wooden-based decor. It was a surprise to hear Takeuchi Mariya's "Camouflage" for the first time in years. Honestly, there are times when I dine at Japanese restaurants but the BGM can be quite jarring on the ears e.g. they play song covers not by the original singers or the music is so noisy that it makes it difficult to hold decent conversations. A small thing like BGM may seem insignificant but it is actually important in enhancing the dining atmosphere.

Frankly speaking, there are very few instances when I actually give something a second chance like this. Maybe it's because people tend to be unwilling to change their views of things once they have developed a negative first impression. Other than having a largely satisfying meal, I guess this episode has reminded me that there are times when I need to give things another try. It may jolly well turn out to be better than expected and open up new options which I had previously ruled out.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The unpredictable nature of life - Lamenting the demise of Kim Joo-hyuk

I thought that my eyes were playing tricks on me when I read the headline.

"Kim Joo-hyuk passes away due to car accident"

How could it be? So sudden, so unexpected and so saddening.

It was just yesterday when I watched the latest episode of 1n2d on KBS World when they were giving out awards to the members, past and present, and their guests in conjunction with the 10th anniversary celebration. And they were just teasing him endlessly and referring to him affectionately by his nickname of Gutaeng Hyeong which was born out of his stint on this show. It feels like you are seeing this person right in front of you one day and the next, he's gone. Forever.

Details of his car accident are still pretty sketchy especially since his agency hasn't said much yet other than they are trying to confirm the news. However, with so many news reports on this case since the accident took place 4.30pm KST, I think that there is little likelihood that this is fake news. The agency wouldn't have let this spread like wildfire if this was untrue.

My first encounter with Gutaeng Hyeong wasn't actually through 1n2d. Years ago, I happened to come across his 2008 drama "Terroir" while channel-surfing on cable TV. Although I didn't finish watching that drama, my impression of him (partly due to his image there) was that he was suave and cool. However, I haven't seen any of his other works although he was well-known as an actor.

Of course, 1n2d showed that my initial impression of him was wrong. This show is "notorious" for unveiling the true self of whoever appears on it and that's part of the show's charm because it is such raw fun to see the cast shed their images and have fun. Although Gutaeng Hyeong was clumsy and fumbling his way through most of the time, he made an impact with his endearing nature. In particular, there was an episode when he went to the places where his parents visited in their youth and that was really moving to see him retrace their footsteps.

I know life is unpredictable. I've had people near me who just passed away all of a sudden without a chance for me to say a proper goodbye. That really hurts a lot. Even though I may not know Gutaeng Hyeong personally, it just feels sad to see someone you know, even from a distance, go away forever in such a manner. I can imagine that it must be worse for those who know him personally especially his family and girlfriend.

Suddenly, it just makes me feel that my own troubles don't seem to be that big anymore. Of course, they are still serious issues to me. Nonetheless, in the face of death and eternal separation, they probably seem so much less important. I keep reminding myself not to let the negative things in life bring me down and try to embrace each day with a positive mindset. It's easier said than done, really.

However, I really don't need to see another example of such sudden loss around me.

And I really should be counting my blessings for each day I am alive to do what I want to do.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review of "Piece of Peace World Heritage Exhibit Built With Lego Brick"

Lego bricks have always been fascinating to me especially when I see art works made of these tiny building blocks of various shapes, sizes and colours. When I was a child, I didn't have the luxury of playing with Lego but I always marveled at the wide array of things which could be created using these building blocks. Back in 2013 when I attended Nathan Sawaya's exhibition at ArtScience Museum, I was so awed by his creativity and the amazing forms which these Lego bricks could take on but while playing with the bricks made available to the visitors, I realised that I wasn't very imaginative and talented in this type of 3D building. As such, I didn't have the inclination to go and buy Lego and explore the world of building things.

The "Piece of Peace" exhibition which is currently taking place at the Singapore Fort Canning Arts Centre, combines Lego with the theme of UNESCO World Heritage sites whereby these well-known places, structures or buildings are recreated using Lego blocks. Apparently, the exhibition has been touring around the world since it began at Japan in 2003 so this is a first for Singapore to be included as part of the tour. Most of the exhibits are displayed on the 2nd floor of the building while Level 1 features creations with local influences by Singaporeans, a play zone for children and a platform featuring Lego figures of various local iconic places and buildings.

With regard to the exhibits, I think that most of them were quite detailed and close to how the "real thing" looks like. However, the lighting in the exhibition hall wasn't that ideal because the angle from which the lights were shone and the strong brightness created white-washed effects which made the colour of the exhibits look paler than they should be. As such, when taking photos of such exhibits, the colours didn't turn out to be vibrant at times and there were some shadows caused by the strong lighting which made it difficult to observe the details. It was also annoying to see reflections and shadows of people or even myself projected onto the glass panels so I had to keep finding a suitable angle to take photos without these unwelcome distractions. As such, the lighting could be improved to showcase these exhibits in a better manner.

Despite this undesirable hiccup, I thought it was fun trying to identify the UNESCO Heritage sites through these Lego figures. Some of them were really easy to guess since they look so similar to the actual building or structure but some took a bit of thinking e.g. the Machu Picchu exhibit. Perhaps it was the colour of the blocks used which made it more difficult to tell at a glance e.g. the Great Wall of China exhibit.

Another thought after viewing this exhibition was that, there are still many places in the world that I would love to visit but haven't had the chance to yet. The world is really bigger than you think it is and there are so many beautiful things and places to discover. Rather than get hung up over those upsetting and petty things in life, I need to remind myself constantly that there is more to do and experience. I think this emotional boost came in at an opportune time when I was feeling really upset over some things recently. And I really should spend more time on doing the things that truly make me happy rather than waste it on those things which don't deserve my attention.

For those who are interested to attend this exhibition, here are some tips for you:

- Tickets can be bought online here so you can avoid the queues especially if you are going on a weekend.

- Weekday tickets are cheaper than those on weekends. However, if you have a Passion Card, you can get at least a 10% discount while the discount goes up to 15% if you buy at least three tickets.

- Frankly speaking, the venue is not that accessible because it's quite a walk up Fort Canning. Walking in the afternoon sun was a no-no for me and I didn't know about the shuttle bus service beforehand so I resorted to using Grab from the nearest MRT station since there was a discount promotion. For those taking public transport, you can take their free shuttle buses from Plaza Singapura or Raffles City Shopping Centre (the taxi stand facing Chijmes). The schedule of the bus service can be found here.

Before I end this post, here are the photos of the exhibits which I liked. If you have been to this exhibition, do share with me what are your favourites!


Haw Pha Bang in Luang Prabang, Laos


Wat Sorasak in Sukhothai, Thailand


Changnyongmun Gate at Hwaseong Fortress, South Korea


Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, Japan


Taj Mahal in India


Shuri Castle in Okinawa, Japan


Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark


The Colosseum in Rome, Italy


Eiffel Tower in Paris, France


Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey


Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain


Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia


Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey in London, United Kingdom


Signature items in our local breakfast - this was pretty cute!


The iconic buildings in Singapore made of white Lego blocks

Sunday, July 30, 2017

New tendon specialty restaurant in town - Shitamachi Tendon Akimitsu (Plaza Singapura)

I'm usually not the type to head to the newest places even if I do know about them mainly because I simply hate to queue for a long time no matter how appealing something may be to me. In other words, I have no patience and interest in wasting time in queues. As such, I tend to wait till the hype dies down before checking out new places such as restaurants or food shops e.g. Bake Cheese Tart.

Coming across Shitamachi Tendon Akimitsu (下町天丼秋光) was a coincidence. I happened to be at Plaza Singapura to do something and was walking around when I saw this new shop on the 4th floor of the previous Atrium@Orchard wing. Apparently, this is a tendon specialty restaurant which has been around since 1889 and is located at Asakusa in Tokyo. For those who are interested in checking this out when travelling in Tokyo, here are the address and contact details on their official website. Akimitsu has been expanding overseas since 2016 and they can be found in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia (Melbourne) and Canada (Toronto) which is opening in October. Apparently, the Singapore branch is less than a month old since it only opened in mid July.

Although I do like to eat tendon, I don't eat it often mainly because of the composition of the tempura items provided. For example, Tendon Itsuki has one thing which I really dislike i.e. chicken breast meat which tends to be dry and rough to eat. And it doesn't help that the bar counter seating there is really uncomfortable and I always get a not-so-nice smell on my clothes after I leave the place. That's why it's always a struggle for me whenever my friends want to go there. At some other places where I've been to, vegetables such as eggplant or eggs are added so whenever I see things in the menu which I don't like or eat, I tend to avoid ordering the tendon. I don't really What attracted me to try Akimitsu was the fact that they had an all-prawn tendon with none of the things I dislike and I was keen to find out if they are really as good as reputed. It also helped that the layout of the shop would probably not result in the customers smelling bad after eating there (the kitchen is sealed off with glass panels, there was a fair bit of ventilation and the shop space was wide enough without making me feel uncomfortable about sitting too close to the table next to me.

On the tables, you can see the two pickles containers which contains beansprouts and cabbages. Personally, I prefer the beansprouts version which tasted more seasoned to me while the other version seemed a little bland. Perhaps it needed more time for the flavours to seep into the vegetables. For those who need more of the tendon sauce, you can have your fill as there is a bottle of it on every table.

In the menu, there are four choices of tendon i.e. signature tendon which contains prawns, white fish, egg, seaweed and assorted vegetables, ebi tendon which is the prawns-only version, vegetable tendon which contains assorted vegetables and the kakiage tendon. All these sets come with miso soup and chawanmushi. Alternatively, you may vote for the teishoku versions of mixed tempura, ebi or vegetable where the rice and sauce is served separately. Those who like chasuke should be happy with the kakiage tencha version (tendon chasuke) where you pour the dashi over the kakiage don.

I ordered the ebi tendon set which slightly surprised me because I wasn't expecting to see as many as 6 prawns in the bowl. The price of the tendon was the most expensive among the four types of tendon while the bowl's size was a bit smaller than I thought so in that sense, it was pricier compared to similar versions from other places. The good thing was, the aroma of the tendon was very inviting when the dish was served. I also liked the fact that the batter covering the prawns was on the thin side because some tempura batter versions I tried before tend to be too dense or overpower the taste and affect the texture of the ingredients within. The downside to having the batter so thin is that you probably can't take your own sweet time to take photos of this beautiful dish as the tempura will cool down pretty quickly and you may find the batter flaking off as you pick up the tempura with your chopsticks. The prawns were rather large and tasted really juicy and fresh. When eaten with the rice and tendon sauce, the combined taste was heavenly. If there was only one thing which I may complain about, that would be wanting more rice to go with the tempura. Nonetheless, I guess this portion size is just nice for most people so for bigger eaters like me, you may find yourself running out of rice when you still have quite a few pieces of the tempura left. You may wish to order other items like edamame, cold tofu or baby octopus or opt for a dessert to round up your meal to make it more satisfying.


Currently, there is a promotion going on where you can get a free matcha ice-cream puff as per the photo on the right or a bottle of Ito-en green tea if you "like" Akimitsu's Facebook page. The catch is that you have to dine in between 2pm and 5pm on weekdays.

On the whole, I was happy with my unexpected discovery but can't help but worry if the shop's location may not be in its favour since it's on a higher floor and not as visible than those on the lower floors due to the foot traffic. Nonetheless, if you do a quick search on the Internet, it seems like the more prominent food bloggers have already been there and written some good stuff about this place so it will probably help to boost the shop's popularity. Moreover, I haven't seen how the shop's crowds are like during weekends so it may be that you have to queue for a while during those days. Last but not least, if the food is good and prices are reasonable, I'm sure that there will be many repeat customers which will surely bode well for this restaurant. I for one would like to go back and try the ebi tendon again and this time, with the spicier version of the tendon sauce since I had the original version this time.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A refined German taste from Japan - Juchheim's matcha baumkuchen (Takashimaya)

Although I have passed by Juchheim many times to date, I have never had the urge to buy their baumkuchen for some reason. Perhaps it was that I always had the impression that baumkuchens are expensive due to the effort and skill needed to produce them or that Japanese brands tend to have this pricey image. However, when I saw the limited edition matcha version publicised on Juchheim's Facebook page, that was the best excuse to try their baumkuchen.

Baumkuchen which means tree cake in German (Der Konig der Kuchen), is regarded as the King of German cakes and also the symbol of the German Confectionery Association. In Germany, confectioners can only earn the title of Meister after mastering how to make this cake. Karl Juchheim, the founder of Juccheim, was the first to bake the baumkuchen in Japan back in 1919.

Much as I am very into anything matcha, I still felt apprehensive about buying a whole baumkuchen on my first attempt especially since it does not have any preservatives and can only last for three days. Coupled with the fact that there were no samples for this flavour, I pondered over this a lot at the counter which I suppose must have made the staff there wonder if I had no intention of buying anything. To make things even more complicated, seeing another limited edition version i.e. dark chocolate swayed my will as I deliberated between matcha and this flavour. In the end, I finally bit the bullet and went ahead with my initial choice. Luckily, the baumkuchen turned out to be better than I expected.

I was expecting a somewhat drier texture and sweeter taste from the matcha flavour based on the impression I got from the lemon version's sample. However, the matcha flavour turned out to have the right amount of moisture and the texture was smooth enough to eat it on its own. If paired with tea, I think it will be a great teatime snack or after-meal dessert. Although the staff did mention that the outermost layer may be a bit sweet, I thought that it was still acceptable for me. Price-wise, the matcha flavour is slightly more expensive than the original flavour but for this quality and size, it's a worthwhile deal after all.

Now that the matcha baumkuchen has won my heart, I guess it's time to get the dark chocolate version soon before it gets taken off the shelf.

Friday, May 5, 2017

When nostalgia strikes - the golden age of Hong Kong dramas

There used to be a time when I was very into Hong Kong dramas. In those days especially during the 90s, cable TV wasn't that widely available and affordable and online streaming was not as prevalent as it is today. As such, there were limited ways to feed my craving for these dramas. Nonetheless, compared to J-dramas, it was lucky that there were more sources I could tap on for HK-dramas. I could wait for the broadcast of older dramas dubbed in Mandarin on free-to-air channels, watch the broadcast in the original Cantonese track on Malaysian TV or shell out money to rent video tapes. I preferred watching the Cantonese versions and actually picked up the dialect through watching these dramas. I guess that was a great takeaway from the hours spent on watching these dramas.

Being a poor student then, it was not possible to use my limited pocket money to rent video tapes for every drama. Most of the time, I resorted to watching the dramas on TV but there was only one drama which I did rent video tapes for - Detective Investigation Files II (刑事侦缉档案II) which goes to show much I love this drama. I have a thing for detective / thriller / suspense stories and this drama has a nice blend of these elements with bromance and a very interesting love triangle featuring Michael Tao (陶大宇), Kenix Kwok (郭可盈) and Amy Kwok (郭藹明).

Recently, this drama has returned for yet another re-run on cable TV and I'm watching it for the nth time (can't remember how many times I have watched this to date). Although I know the story inside out, I still continue watching it and have never lost interest in this all these years.

However, when it comes to the HK dramas in the last 10 years or so, I struggle to come up with a title which gives me the same amount of satisfaction and the motivation to keep watching it over and over again. Perhaps it is due to the fact that many of the big-name HK drama actors and actresses have left the TV station so the casting choices do seem quite limited these days. However, I feel that the issue of dissatisfaction lies more with the storyline rather than the cast. There were a few dramas which were engaging from the beginning but faltered right at the end which was a great pity. Many were lacklustre for a variety of reasons.

As I rewatch Detective Investigation Files II for another round, I can't help but wonder when I will come across another good and enthralling HK drama again.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Marriage of cheese and matcha from Otaru - LeTAO's double fromage matcha cheesecake

To be honest, it is tough to be a fan of anything Japanese. You have to pay a premium for anything imported from there to here unless you head to the country itself and bring back the things yourself. Much as you understand the quality and effort put into their products and the costs involved in bringing these items from Japan to Singapore thus justifying the higher price tag, it can sometimes be deterring to shell out so much money to get the real deal. This is why it took me so long to get LeTAO's double fromage cheesecake even though it has already entered Singapore some time ago. For those who are not familiar with LeTAO, this company from Otaru, Hokkaido, is famous for their cheesecakes which have been in production since 1998. They currently have a counter at Orchard Ion's Level B1.

Honestly speaking, the size in relation to the price was the biggest reason why I held back. I have no doubts that the quality of the cheesecake will be quite good especially after hearing rave reviews about it everywhere. However, the common grouse was also that the cheesecake was not available in single slices and that the whole cake was small at just 12cm wide and weighing 330 grams but cost SGD 28. Of course, I've come across more costly cakes than this but the size was still an issue for me. And since there was no option of buying single slices to test the flavour, it was even riskier to buy the entire cake while not knowing if I would like how it tastes.

What got me to "take the plunge" literally into unknown territory was the magical word - matcha. I am a big lover of anything matcha and the sight of this matcha version which is only available for a limited period only and has only 30 pieces per day was really tempting. Still, it took a fair bit of deliberation even up to the last minute when I was right in front of their counter before I finally decided to get the cake.

First of all, the taste is really as good as the reviews say. I don't really like cheesecakes with a very dense texture but this version which is made from Hokkaido cream cheese and Italian mascarpone cheese was so light on the palate. The green tea layer made from matcha from Kyoto was already so aromatic before eating and upon tasting, it did not taste as heavy as I imagined it to be from the matcha scent. As such, don't be surprised to find that you are able to eat more than what you usually can because the light sensation will have you craving for more. The sole disappointment was the appearance of the cheesecake though because the matcha powder on top was sort of "flaking" and you could see patches of white here and there which wasn't how it was featured in the promotional materials. I didn't take a long time to get home after buying this nor applied a lot of movement to the package which could possibly "shake off" the powder. As such, my hunch for this happening could be that I bought the chilled version which is most likely defrosted from the frozen version thus the matcha powder did not stay onto the top surface as it should have been. Alternatively, it could be that this issue doesn't arise for the original cheesecake and chocolate flavours because their topping is not in powdery form like matcha powder? Perhaps I need to buy the regular cheesecake or chocolate frozen versions next time to test my hypothesis?

Note though that the matcha version is pricier ($35) than the regular versions selling at $28 but since it's a limited edition item and daily quantities are limited, I guess that explains the price discrepancy. Another thing to be aware is that these cakes should be consumed within two days after you open the packaging. On a related note, I noticed that there is a slight difference in the taste when you eat it on the day of purchase compared to the following day which I attribute to the cool air from the fridge being in contact with the cake.

Much as I didn't regret my purchase this time, I still have this lingering thought that the deal would have been sweeter for me if the price was lesser. Guess there is no such thing called perfection after all.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Chocolates with a "wa" twist - Salon de Royal Kyoto's pop-up store @ Japan Food Town

At the mention of chocolate, most people would probably associate it with countries such as Switzerland and Belgium which are well-known for their quality chocolate. This is intriguing in the sense that cocoa beans, the source ingredient for chocolate, are largely grown in Africa and South America and these countries famous for chocolate don't actually grow their own cacao plants. In the same sense, you might not associate Japan with this sweet treat, especially not when it comes to Kyoto, the old capital which embodies everything Japanese even in this modern era of speed and technology. Interestingly, there is a chocolatier from Kyoto which has been around since 1935 and is well-known for its amazing range of chocolates and by-products. This spring, if you are in Singapore, you should visit their pop-up store located at the event square of Japan Food Town (Level 4 of Wisma Atria) to find out what makes them so good.

I attended the opening day event on 18 April, thanks to the invitation of J Passport after I signed up for it on their website. Today's event was restricted to the media and invited guests (about 50 as per the website) but due to the size of the venue, it was a bit difficult to move around without running into another human wall. Coupled with the spot lights dotting the perimeter of the event square, I got rather hot and bothered especially after I had rushed to make it in time for the event. In addition, despite the fact that I had provided my blog URL in the application, I was classified as a guest rather than media which I can understand to a certain extent since I don't belong to a formal media outlet. The main differences between being a guest and media representative were that the latter got a detailed write-up about the company and the pop-up store and a bigger goodie bag.

Salon de Royal was founded in Kyoto on 1 April 1935 and combines the best of East and West influences in its products. As mentioned above, chocolate is usually seen as a Western product but it goes through an amazing transformation here which is quite unlike the chocolates you find in Europe. As explained by the company's representative during the event, it produces three main categories of chocolate i.e. chocolate bonbons, Hannari (Rinpa) chocolate and pecan nut chocolates. Not only does the company incorporate ingredients with a strong "wa" (Japanese) feel into its products such as matcha and arare (rice crackers), its packaging also embodies the deep Japanese influence due to its roots in Kyoto. For example, urushi boxes i.e. lacquer coating and Japanese tea bowls (chawan) are used as packaging for the chocolate bonbons. For its Hannari and pecan nut chocolates, the outer packaging is influenced by Rinpa-style paintings which is one of the major historical schools of Japanese painting.

The highlight of the event would have to be the live demonstration by Chef Emori Hiroyuki who is Salon de Royal Kyoto's official adviser and the 2015 champion of the World Trophy of Pastry Ice Cream Chocolate. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a good look at his demonstration because there were too many people crowding around the table. I couldn't help but think that it would be nice if there was a video camera hanging above to capture the process and project it on a TV screen just like what we see in a lot of those cooking demonstration videos online. This would ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to observe the demonstration. Otherwise, it might be better to reduce the number of people attending each demonstration because the venue is simply too small. If you are attending the event for the public held on 19 April, you might want to get near to the demonstration table before it starts so as to secure a good spot.

As it was too hot and uncomfortable for me to squeeze in, I ended up catching glimpses at parts of the demonstration through the mobile phone screens of those who took videos of it. This photo I have here was taken after the matcha ice cream cake was completed. Apologies for this unflattering picture which does not show the true beauty of this cake because I was standing too far back.

After the photo session, the participants were treated to samples of the matcha ice cream cake. In terms of taste, I think that it was pretty good especially the matcha layer which was flavourful and aromatic. However, it doesn't seem that the pop-up store will offer this item though so you might want to attend the public event to sample this.

In the goodie bag given to the guests, there were a pack of candy-coated pecan nuts and a piece of chocolate bonbon. I don't eat bonbons that often because they are usually quite pricey so I can't say that I know a lot about this type of chocolates. Nonetheless, the bonbon given to me was very smooth and the aroma of the chocolate lingered on my palate for a while. Impressive taste but I think I would need more convincing to actually shell out money for it. As for the pecan nuts, the package contains two small packs each with 3 pieces. Considering that you need to pay $7.50 for each package, that works out to about $1.25 per piece. The refined taste and texture you get definitely justifies this price tag but to be perfectly honest, this is probably something you would want to buy to indulge yourself once in a while or as gifts to people who matter most to you. While looking at the displays, I saw a few more flavours which interest me so I should be going back to the pop-up store to buy them.

For those who are interested in attending the demonstrations open to the public on 19th April, the two timings are 12.30pm and 6.30pm and you would need to register through J Passport's website. Even if you can't make it in time for these, there will be five demonstrations daily by different patissiers and the pop-up store will still be around till 31 May.

Other than showcasing the company's products, there are also a series of events lined up during this period to introduce Kyoto's culture to Singapore. Do check these out if they interest you:
- Shakuhachi flute: 30 April
- Noh drama maskmaking: 6 May
- Calligraphy: 7 May
- Nishijin Ori Textiles: date to be announced

If you happen to be going to Japan, you can visit their main shop cum cafe which is located beside the Kamo River where you can sit outdoors during the warmer months from May to September. The shop offers a wide selection of the company's chocolate products along with desserts and beverages like coffee, tea and wine. Alternatively, if you are in Osaka, you can go to their shop at the B2 level of Hankyuu Sanbangai Departmental Store to buy their products.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thai goodness amidst fresh greenery - Basil Thai Kitchen @ Paragon

Whenever I go to Orchard Road, I sometimes find it difficult to find a nice place to eat at without burning a huge hole in my pocket or having to queue for ages just to get into the restaurant or put up with the buzz in a packed place. Coming across Basil Thai Kitchen was a coincidence as I needed to eat dinner on a weekday night near 9pm but some places were about to close then. As the food photos looked rather decent and the prices seemed reasonable, it was then decided that we would eat here.

Before I entered the restaurant, I wasn't aware that it was a different dining concept under Thai Express. As compared to the signature orange-themed Thai Express, Basil Thai had a lot of greenery in the form of flowers and green plants placed on the tables which gave it a fresh feel in line with the basil element in its name. Upon closer scrutiny of the menu, you would then notice some similar dishes between the two restaurants although servings and how they are plated do differ to a certain extent.

The first dish was tom yum soup which I thought was pretty good and whetted my appetite. To be honest, I usually do not like tom yum soup because some versions can be too sour while some are too spicy to my liking. However, this had the right balance and the amount of ingredients was more than I expected for a price of $8.90. I don't know if there are any differences in how they make this tom yam soup as compared to Thai Express because I usually found the latter to be too sour for me.

Next up was another Thai cuisine signature dish - pineapple fried rice ($11.90). The portion did seem a bit small as compared to the price but the saving grace was its taste and generous portions of seafood hidden within that bowl of rice. There was a nice aroma when this was served and the rice grains were fluffier than what I tasted before at Thai Express. The freshness of the seafood embedded within the rice also made a good impression on me. However, it might be good to alter the size of the plate as the extra space as seen in the photo reinforces the impression that the serving is small. Personally, for a big eater like me, this portion size is hardly satisfying but for small eaters, they might be content with this amount.

The Massamam chicken curry served with rice ($13.90) was definitely my favourite because the chicken's texture was so tender and the curry went very well with the plain white rice. The amount of chicken was also quite substantial for a big eater like me. Some curries tend to be quite heavy on the palate and leave a very strong aftertaste but this version was actually lighter and not that spicy as it looked even though I was slightly worried when I ordered this. Actually, the default option was to eat the curry with the crispy roti but I was too famished that night and wanted to have rice instead. Thankfully, the staff members were very accommodating and accepted my request for an alternative for this dish. Perhaps I will go back to try the roti version and see which pairing is better.

On a separate occasion, this time on a Saturday evening, I went back and ordered their green curry chicken with rice ($10.90). Visually, it was rather disappointing to see such a big plate with so much empty space. The lone piece of lettuce didn't do much in enhancing the visual appeal of this dish and the rice wasn't even in a complete circle shape. As for the curry which I always order when I eat at Thai Express, the portion seemed somewhat smaller because I didn't get that many pieces of the chicken and the curry was on the bland side but somehow looked oilier. Considering the price, I might have been better off getting the pineapple fried rice which would at least satisfy my taste buds even though the portion sizes still left much to be desired.

Last but not least, here's the Virgin Basil Mojito ($3.90) which I considered to be a steal because you hardly get drinks below $5 in most restaurants these days. This is the perfect antidote for the sunny and hot weather here with its refreshing sensation and taste being a match for the spicy Thai cuisine. In terms of the portion size, there is also nothing to complain about.

Considering that there are still many dishes which I have yet to try here, I should be coming back for more visits especially if I need to get a decent meal at relatively affordable prices. Especially considering that the restaurant is located in the middle of Orchard Road and in a shopping mall known for its high-end branded offerings, this will be a good place to keep in mind during your Orchard Road visits. However, even though it is another dining concept under the same company, there needs to be a bit more done to differentiate the offerings from both brands. In terms of decor, there is nothing that links both brands together because the main theme colours are different but some of the dishes are replicated across both menus so there may be a need to adjust accordingly to the positioning of the brands. And one last thing, the portions either need to be adjusted to make them more filling or the plates need to be shrunk or else that feeling of dissatisfaction will probably mar the dining experience to a certain extent.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hanami in our forever tropical land - Blossom Bliss 2017 @ Gardens by the Bay

Thanks to Gardens by the Bay, you can indulge in the annual hanami every March without having to fly to places like Japan to view these little blossoms of pink and white heralding the arrival of spring. Having been to this event last year and this year, I noted that there were some noticeable enhancements in this year's edition although there were still some improvements to be made. In terms of crowd control, I can't really comment because I went to the 2016 event on a weekend (which was a really bad idea) while I went to the 2017 event on a weekday (crowded but still manageable). As for the condition of the sakura blooms, I noted that there were a lot of buds this year which were yet to bloom. It could be that there were some new sakura trees planted towards the end of the event to replace those which had too many wilted flowers so that was why I felt that the floral coverage was a bit sparse in some sections.

The first time when I went for hanami in Japan, the best shots I took were those with the cloudless pastel blue skies as the background or along a path with sakura trees lined up to form a natural tunnel of flowers. Unfortunately, due to the limitations we face in Singapore due to the sweltering weather and that the sakura trees were displayed indoors, these two settings are unlikely to be replicated here. Nonetheless, I still appreciate the effort in trying to showcase such a fragile flower here in unfavourable conditions. However, there were people who clearly do not appreciate this and do uncivilised acts such as tugging at the branches forcefully to take selfies with the sakura at close proximity or holding up the flow of human traffic by refusing to budge until they get their perfect selfie. When you come face to face with such behaviour, it no doubt affects the pleasure derived from the hanami experience.

Rather than using words to describe the beauty of these fleeting blossoms, I'll let the photos below do the talking ~