Saturday, February 28, 2015

Japan - Koyasan

Following a night on my own in Osaka, I spent the next morning slowly met up with my other friends who came in at different times from different countries…and squeezing in a quick game of DDR of course!

After we had all congregated, we grabbed a quick soba meal at Nanba train station (with wasabi root that you have to grate to get your wasabi…loving it), which has a vast selection of food before making our way to Koyasan.

Koyasan is a World Heritage site, and the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi who brought it to Japan from China. Following the building of the first temple by Kobo Daishi in 826, when he deemed that Koyasan was the best place for to be the home of the religion, more than 100 temples have been built there since. 

It’s a pretty straight forward trip, roughly a 2 hour train ride from Nanba station in Osaka, just be conscious that you may have to get off the train and move to a different carriage, as they shorten the train as it continues up the mountains! It’s a beautiful and relaxing ride, with the scenery constantly changing. Bring a good book, or load your tablet up with episodes of Ink Master (or maybe that’s just me).

My friends stocked up on Krispy Kremes for the train ride up. Just how cute is the snowman one? Highly recommended!

Once the train pulls into Koyasan station, you change on to a cable car, which climbs an impossibly steep slope through the forest, to take you up to the very top of the mountain. I can’t help but feel like I’m in a Hayao Miyazaki film, with nothing but dense trees surrounding, lush and green, with a couple giving away to the chill and turning orange as autumn creeps in. 

And once you’re up at the top of the cablecar, you will need to take the bus (there’s only one route fortunately!) to get to your accommodation. 

At Koyasan, there are no ‘hotels’ as such, instead, you stay in temple lodges that are looked after by monks. But don’t get it twisted, you can get some very, very, very nice accommodation here, which surprised me immensely.

My friend had organised for us to stay at Fudouin, and it is impeccably looked after. Although definitely traditional, it’s looking very new and clean, with beautifully kept gardens and an overall zen feeling, although I suppose you would expect that at a buddhist centre now right? 

I was fortunate enough to stay in one of the nicest rooms in the lodge, which was simply ginormous, with a room for the futons to be set up, a room with a kotatsu (a low wooden table covered by a futon, that has a heater underneath…it’s the best), and a brand spanking new bathroom that had a bath tub that filled up with the press of a button.

I hadn’t gotten much information from my friend before we arrived, and safe to say, this was far more than I expected. We even had wifi! 

We were a little early for dinner, so we walked around the small town, picked up some snacks for our evening meeting, as well as beer for dinner, the temple lodging obviously don’t supply alcohol but you’re welcome to BYO, and jumped like lunatics in front of temples. Just your average Thursday night out right?

So accommodation at these temple lodges include dinner and breakfast, both of which are vegetarian. Although some of my forum mates were bemoaning this initially (boys…), once we actually went to sit down (in the dining room that is over 150 years old, the oldest in Koyasan apparently) and eat…we were all simply blown away.


Composed of lots of little dishes, from cold and silky tofu, a range of pickles, to simple the best vegetable tempura I’ve ever had, to a couple of slices of potato seasoned just right; this was the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had. There’s also a bowl of hot udon in soup waiting for you, and the monks, who speak excellent English, bring around plenty of rice. I was surprised how full I was at the end of the night!

The next morning, if you wake up early enough, you can join them for morning service, which is around 6:30 or 7:00am, and is quite a surreal experience in the dim candle light as the monks chant, and go through their rituals which includes a variety of bells and instruments. At the end, the head monk actually gives you a little history lesson on Koyasan and Fudouin (most facts I’ve mentioned earlier in this post), before guiding you to breakfast…

…where you’re treated to another beautiful laid out vegetarian meal. I’m surprised how much care they take into presenting the meal as well, a visual feast before you even get to eating! And just in case you think the bright orange liquid in the egg cup is an egg yolk…it’s actually a carrot juice/puree. Tricked all of us. 

The thing most people come to Koyasan to see, is Okunoin, a ginormous graveyard with more than 200,000 grave stones that lead up to Okunoin Gyobo, a mausoleum that was erected by Kukai’s disciples when he passed. 

Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the mausoleum, which is beautiful, the graveyard itself is a stunning walk, where forestry has taken over most of the stones, and you do indeed feel like you’re suddenly in a Miyazaki film. I loved all the Buddha and deity statues that had been draped with little bibs or aprons, adding a flourish of colour to the forest.  

We also stumbled on to Torodo, the lantern temple, which is simply one of the most beautiful spaces, it’s walls lined with temples, some of which supposedly have been burning for thousands of years (with some maintenance I’m sure though). 

Just before we headed back to the cable car to make our descent down the hill, we popped into one of the only cafes in Koyasan, the Bon On Shya International Cafe. The small and cosy spot is very earthy, and once again, makes me feel like I’m in a Miyazaki film. Here, we have a delicious flourless chocolate cake, and a surprisingly good chai latte, who would’ve thought? My friends are also very appreciative for excellent coffee as well (especially after that early morning service!)

It was quite sad to be leaving Koyasan, where the air is so crisp and fresh, and the atmosphere is always calm and relaxed. If you’re ever visiting Japan and have an extra day or two to spare in Kyoto or Osaka, I would highly recommend an overnight stay, as it was definitely one of my highlights of the trip. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Flavours of Asia Market Festival Preview

Disclosure: I was invited as a guest to the preview of the Flavours of Asia Festival. 

“There’s horse-racing at this time of year?” my mother comments as a tv ad for the Sportingbet Blue Diamond Stakes Day at Caulfield racecourse plays in-between an episode of MKR. 

Although the Spring Racing Festival is certainly a huge event on the social calendar in Melbourne, it’s easy to forget that through the year there is always horse-racing going on, although I guess that might not generally interest the average person.

But what if you tie in a food festival in with that? A bit of racing and entertainment and actually good food at the race course? Well that perks my interest (I do like a bit of a bet)!

I was invited to a preview of the Flavours of Asia Market Festival, held as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, with carefully picked member of the food scene to feed the crowds, with dishes starting from just $5. 

I’m crossing fingers that the weather holds out this weekend, and that it’s as beautiful as our preview night; balmy weather is simply perfect for ‘The Market Mule with a Kick’, the feature cocktail for the evening and the weekend, with the usual vodka and ginger ale components with an addition of chilli. Yum!

To start us off, Hammer and Tong’s red and black rice salad was clean and refreshing, Wonderbao’s pork bao was steaming hot, fluffy and moreish; bringing me back to greedy lunches in Hong Kong as a kid. 

But honestly, not to play favourite’s, but Hoy Pinoy totally played it with their Lechon Kwali, slow braised and crisp fried pork belly with buco, chilli and yemma sauce. It was the kind of dish that when James Meehan, one of the founders, comes over to ask how it is, you can only thumbs up as the crunch of the crackling does all the talking for you. A little sweet, and perfectly succulent; I’d like thirds please!

As we chit-chatted amongst ourselves, there suddenly was an irresistible aroma in the air…and like bees to honey, we swarmed over to the barbecue, where Hoy Pinoy had their Inihaw na Baboy and Inihaw na Manok skewers barbecuing away, the deliciously smokey aromas filling the air. 

Inihaw na Baboy are the pork belly skewers in a banana ketchup glaze, which are beautifully cooked and sweet, and I simply adored the juicy beautifully rendered pieces of fat on the pork belly…however, I was a little more partial to the Inihaw na Manok, which are chicken skewers in a traditional soy glaze, or for those who are familiar with filipino food, something akin to adobo. 

The chicken skewers I found were much more tender, the meat and all the flavours just melting in the mouth. 

Wonderbao’s gua bao’s are always hard to go past, how do they get the buns so fluffy? One bun was filled with braised pork belly, which was luxe, moreish and decadent, whilst the other was stuffed with fried tofu, which were a refreshingly light option after all the meat! 

I always like getting involved in making food, so when Hammer and Tong asks for an assistant, I’m the first to throw my hands up, and teeter through the kitchen door in my heels, and form an assembly line with Simon Ward to get some soft shell crabs out to the other guests! (Thanks for helping take pictures Agnes!)

I make 10 in a pretty reasonable time period, but apparently on a busy night at the Queen Victoria Night Market, they can pump out around 1000 of these! Phew! 

I'm apparently more than happy to work for soft shell crab burgers. What can I say? I'm cheap labour. 

For some reason, despite it’s notoriety, I had not had one of the famous soft shell crab burgers from Hammer and Tong…and I’m so happy to say, that it totally lived up to all the hype. The bun is perfectly toasted, a slight crunchy char on the edges, but fluffy all up in the top. The soft shell crab flavour definitely comes through, despite all the other additions, and the light tapioca batter is just right…you can hardly tell it’s battered at all!

We’re definitely struggling by this point…but there’s always, always space for ice-cream. Especially when it’s a black sesame ice-cream gua bao by Cream Supreme (brought to life by the Wonderbao guys as well). Whoa. The black sesame ice-cream was intense and deep in flavour, the gua boa is fried until it’s golden and crisp, with a sugar crust over the top…what a clever bunch indeed. 

So, no plans this Saturday? Maybe you should have a date with some of Melbourne’s most delicious Asian food vendors, which includes more than what we sampled a couple of nights ago. I’ll probably pop down myself at some point in the afternoon to also check out Overdosa's dosas (obviously), Lankan Tucker's roti rolls and Eat the Chicken's fish cakes (funnily enough) so say hi if you see me there!

Need to know: 

Saturday 28th February 
Gates Open: 11am - 6pm 
Caulfield Racecourse, Gate 22, Station Street, Caulfield VIC 3145

$20 Adult entry which includes admission to the racecourse and the Flavours of Asia Market Festival. Tickets available at