JR West × ABC Cooking Singapore West Japan Bloom Tour: Okayama

Continued from https://hungrybird.sg/2018/03/15/jr-west-x-abc-cooking-singapore-west-japan-bloom-tour-hiroshima/

Okayama is is the second largest prefecture (behind Hiroshima) in the Chūgoku region of Japan, with it’s capital city sharing the same name. Okayama station is accessible via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line, and it is almost located right in between Hiroshima and Shin-Osaka stations, being only 35 -45 minutes away from both of them. Travelers visiting and Hiroshima and Osaka should not give this prefecture a miss because it does have it’s own charm despite being less mentioned! If you possess the JR Kansai-Hiroshima pass, it fully covers all the JR lines around Okayama as well so do make full use of the opportunity to explore this prefecture.

Fun fact #1:

Like most other prefectures, Okayama has it’s own local specialties. White peach seems to be really popular in this region and throughout my 2 days here, I’ve seen it in various forms – the actual fruit, as souvenir snacks, ice cream, jelly, drinks etc. This is also the birthplace of a famous character known as “Momotaro” – literally translated as “Peach Boy”, hence you’ll also find Momotaro themed objects as souvenirs all over Okayama.

 

Image source: https://www.okayama-japan.jp/en/feature/momotaro

Dinner for our first night in Okayama was decided to be Yakiniku because the beef in this region is pretty good. Okayama has it’s own local produced Chiya beef, which is said to be comparable to the more famous Kobe beef from neighbouring Hyogo prefecture. However, this brand of beef is only available at exclusive restaurants. Nevertheless, any beef is good because this is Japan!

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Nandaimon 南大門  BBQ

Fun fact #2:

Yakiniku in Japan is basically just Korean BBQ with some Japanese influence, like how Ramen is actually considered to be Chinese noodle dish. To some Japanese people, Yakiniku and Ramen are actually regarded as foreign cuisine.

This Korean BBQ shop – Nandaimon 南大門 (which I believe is named after the district of the same name in Korea) was really no frills and authentic. The shop interior looks really dated but this also means that this restaurant has stood the test of time and customers come here really for the food, and not because it’s trendy. The owners are Korean, so you can expect an authentic Korean BBQ experience – real charcoal grill, the full array of Korean side dishes, dipping sauces, and free flow of alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) drinks. The quality of ingredients however, was of Japan standard. I’d dare say this Korean BBQ/ Yakiniku meal was better than anything I’ve had in Singapore, for sure! The quality of meat itself was a winner. I’ve never been to Korea, not even once, so I cannot speak for how it compares to BBQ in Korea, but I reckon that the Japanese quality and freshness of beef is what makes this BBQ taste so good. This is Japanese quality is not something you can easily find out of Japan for reasonable prices.

 

The first meat on the grill was Gyutan (ox tongue), and it was so tender, like those I’ve had in Sendai (the most famous city for grilled Gyutan)! This is my must have when having good quality BBQ meals. Those who have tried ox tongue at Korean BBQ places in Singapore may not like it because honestly, the quality we have in Singapore is way inferior – it tends to be rubbery and gives off an unpleasant taste. But if you’re going to have Yakiniku in Japan, I really recommend giving Gyutan a try. The quality of the meat itself is on another level – none of that unpleasant taste, only exploding with goodness! Digressing, I seriously want to revisit Sendai again one day, just to have Gyutan.

 

Karubi, beef short ribs was next on the grill. The marbling of the meat says it all – it was tender and soft. The ones we ordered had some Korean marination which was not overpowering and just right to bring out the naturally good flavour of the beef.

We also ordered an assortment of other things, but these 2 were my favourite. Prices are really reasonable and I think it would come to be around ¥3000/pax for a very filling meal. The shop is located within a short walk from Okayama station, but hidden in one of alleys along the shopping street. Restaurants hidden off the main streets are usually hidden gems don’t you think?

Nandaimon 南大門
1 Chome-7-16 Ekimaecho, Kita, Okayama, Okayama Prefecture 700-0023, Japan

Day 3

The morning plan was for us to get our hands dirty with a hands on pottery session at Bizen Shian 備前紫庵, a pottery shop in Imbe, Bizen Province, Okayama Prefecture. Imbe station is accessible via the JR Ako Line from Okayama Station and Bizen Shian is a 3 minutes walk from there. The Bizen province of Okayama Prefecture is famous for their local clay, which is used to make a unique class of traditional Japanese pottery known was Bizen Ware.

Bizen clay has a very unique properties – the finished products are lightweight, reddish in colour (due to iron content in the clay) forms at random during firing, and word has it that eating with Bizen ware makes food tastes better.

 

The pottery master (with 19 years experience yo!) from Bizen Shian demonstrated how to do a few items like cups, plates and bowls. He made everything look too easy. #pro

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And then it was my turn! I was really excited to get started. Pottery has always been something I wanted to try out, and I am so honoured that I can have my first taste of it using such special clay. I expected pottery to be a very therapeutic activity and I’m glad to report that it was indeed everything I imagined it to be – or even better. I totally want to do it again!

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Check out my masterpiece(s)!

I knew I wanted matcha bowls so I only attempted making matcha bowls. We could make anything we wanted from the 5kg of clay provided and it would create 6 – 7 pieces (including allowance for ruined pieces which was discarded. I discarded around 4 pieces). We could choose 2 pieces to keep which they will fire and touch up for us to keep.

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Wood fire klin

The pottery master also brought us to  check out the klin of which they use to fire up the Bizen ware with burning pine wood. It’s done with traditional methods burning for 10 whole days at a time, definitely no short cuts. Newly made pottery will take months to complete, so normally they will mail the finished products to customers when it’s ready, shipping cost not included of course. One of the special features of Bizen ware is that you wouldn’t know exactly what your product is going to look like. The colours and patterns formed on the surface will form during the firing process and it will develop at random, not within control.

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Bizen Ware for sale

The product could end up looking bad, normal or be a stunning masterpiece which can fetch a high price. In the retail section of his shop, I see many similar types items priced differently, and I think this price difference is due to how different the product turned out after firing.

We were pre-warned that they do not have control over whether our product will look nice or whether it will crack, so this whole Bizen ware making is an unpredictable gamble. Nothing in life is certain anyway, so just enjoy the process!

The pottery workshop cost ¥4000/pax and shipping to Singapore/ Malaysia region cost ¥4000. The shipping cost can be shared if there are several of you shipping it together. I’d say the session is good value for money considering how good quality this clay is, and for $50, you probably can’t even find a decent pottery class charging less than this amount in Singapore either. The space at Bizen Shian feels really homely, non-commercialised and definitely a hidden gem that’s not often mentioned in commercialised travel guides.

Those interested in pottery should definitely checkout this region, and take a pottery workshop if you’re game for that!

I don’t think they have their own website, but you can find out about the workshops and check for availability on either of these sites:
https://www.jalan.net/kankou/spt_guide000000184377/
https://wowful.com/activity/ceramicart/chugoku/okayama/okayama/545

I have also linked the Google map of their location in the address in case you can’t find it.

Bizen Shian 備前紫庵
1515 Inbe, Bizen-shi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

 

Interestingly, this randomly cafe UDO within Inbe station uses Bizen ware for most of their serve ware. I love how unique this is! This is a truly Bizen style cafe, in the Bizen province. The coffee cups are all so unique in the way of being perfectly imperfect. So looking forward to receiving my matcha bowls in months to come!

UDO
1657-7 Inbe, Bizen-shi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

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The afternoon plan was to check out Kurashiki, famous for the preserved canal area, also known as the Bikan Historical Quarter that dates back to the Edo era. You can get to Kurashiki by JR Sanyo/ Hakubi/ Yakumo train from Okayama station and it’s only a short 17 minutes ride. From the train station, you can get to the Bikan area by foot.

As you can tell, the weather for this particular day was really gloomy. Thankfully the rain stopped by afternoon so we could still check out the place on foot, even though it was super windy and chilly. The entire place is basically the attraction, where you just walk around to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the local vibes which you won’t find in modern cities. You can also grab a tourist map from the train station if you are interested in specific attractions.

 

Scattered all over the place are local delicacies (here’s where you can find lots of peach related snacks), souvenir food and also local products like masking tape – not the kind of masking tape used for cardboard boxes, but the cute paper sort which you use for scrapbooking and writing sweet notes. I am not a sweet person and absolutely do not write notes or cards, so I didn’t get any; but if you’re the arty sort of person, you’d find lots of cute and artistic things in this area!

On the other hand, I am a food person so I was more interested in the eateries with Japanese desserts, but the popular ones had queues :(((((

 

One of the first few shops you’ll come across at the beginning of the Bikan area is Kikkodo 橘香堂, a Japanese confectionery shop where you can get wagashi souvenir gifts. They offer a hands-on for visits to experience making their signature item, Murasuzeme むらすゞめ. This experience costs ¥600/pax and you get to make 3 of these. It was pretty simple – you basically make a pancake, fill it with coarse red bean and then fold it up with an indented tip. The catch is – YOU GOT TO USE YOUR BARE HANDS. They literally call this 手焼き and you need to use your hands to flip the pancake. The look on my face says it all. Times like this I wish I had nail extensions… My delayed reaction in folding the pancake (which resulted in the teacher doing it for me) resulted in a crisper, almost biscuit version though and it was better than the soft pancake version!

This hand burning experience is only available until 4pm each day despite the shop closing only at 9pm, so do come earlier to get your fingers burnt.

Kikkodo 橘香堂
2 Chome-22-13 Achi, Kurashiki-shi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

 

Everywhere in Kurashiki is photogenic. It won’t be long before you find that famous canal. If you’re the artistic sort, there are a few museums along the Bikan area as well, some of which housed in unique architecture like European styled buildings (sorry, no photos because it was freezing outside).

 

Museums aside, even the retail shops in this region keep up with the artistic facade. I was attracted by the shop front of GOHOBI and decided to walk in because the outside was beautiful. It pays to be shallow because ALL of us walked out with purchases. GOHOBI sells mainly this special collagen jelly with very delicious flavours, mostly from locally produced fruit. They gave us samples and all of us was sold instantly. It wasn’t even about the collagen I was after – that was just what I found out only after. The jelly itself was delicious and the signature flavour is… you guessed itPeach.

You can only find GOHOBI within the Chugoku region with 3 shops in Okayama, 1 in Fukuyama, Hiroshima and 1 in Akashi, Hyogo. Alternatively, they have e-commerce on Rakuten.

GOHOBI
8-33 Honmachi, Kurashiki-shi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

 

Within Kurashiki Bikan Area you can find several nice restaurants and we had our dinner at Cono Foresta Pizzeriaa Japanese-Italian restaurant serving authentic Neapolitan pizza. The restaurant was small and cozy and they provided blankets for the girls because it was a cold day.

Japanese are known to be really particular about Italian food and every random little Italian eatery I’ve tried in Japan was good. The authentic Neapolitan method of firing the pizza in a wood-fire klin at super high temperature is used here, resulting in the kind of authentic pizza I personally love. Just a side note, the only pizzeria I know of in Singapore which serves this sort of pizza, conforming to Neapolitan standards, is also owned by Japanese.

When having Neapolitan pizza, I always go for Margherita because the combination of basil, tomato and mozzerlla is unbeatable. Any extra ingredients would taint the perfect simplicity of the pizza. Trust me on this – whenever anyone orders a flavour with more ingredient because #FOMO, they’ll always realise the Margherita still tastes better in the end.

Cono Foresta Pizzeria created their own local special pizza flavour featuring local ingredients. And the name of the pizza can’t get anymore iconic of Okayama… you guessed it“Momotaro”. Ingredients include Okayama “peach pork” bacon, Okayama local leek, mozerella, BBQ Sauce, onsen egg and parmesan.

The tiramisu is also not to be skipped. If I could make a better decision all over again, I would order 2 portions for myself. One piece is not enough!

Cono Foresta Pizzeria 
2 Chome−23, Aichi, Kurashiki-shi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

Shopping

What I love about Okayama is how all the shopping options are RIGHT in front of the station. There’s a big AEON Mall, Don Quijote, BIC Camera as well as various shops within the station itself like Matsumoto Kiyoshi (drugstore). Even though the scale of shopping options isn’t as huge as Osaka (which is crazy huge, everything in abundance), the number of tourists fighting with you is much less and it’s so much more peaceful! I found pretty much everything I wanted to buy in Okayama and there wasn’t much of a queue anywhere I went. I’m so glad I got my shopping done here, because the situation in Osaka was crazy during the weekends.

AEON Mall in Okayama is huge has relatively more trendy shops compared to AEON In Narita. You’ll find WEGO, UNIQLO, Tokyu Hands, Muji, Afternoon Tea, Snoopy Town Shop, and even foreign brands like Zara Home, H&M in this mall, just to name a few. With only 1 hour to shop here before shops close, I had to strategise!

Fun Fact #3:

Most shops closes at 9pm, but there are a few which opens till late. The supermarket in AEON Mall closes at 10pm while Don Quijote (almost) never closes, so you can leave those for later! 

 

My eyes literally lit up when I spotted these sakura food products from AEON Supermarket. I bought some of these home to fulfill my dreams of having a sakura themed tea party (by myself though)!

 

Japanese strawberries for ¥537? Take my money! They have a fresh wagashi section as well and I found my favourite sakura mochi. I would have tried a variety of wagashi if I had someone share the portion with me.

AEON Mall Okayama
1-2-1 Shimoishii, Kita Ward, Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture

 

Over to Singaporeans’ favourite Japanese shop – Donki! The S$2.00/ S$2.90 sweet potato which has a perpetual queue in Singapore is going for just ¥98+tax (S$1.20) here and there’s totally no queue, like, I don’t think anybody even cares for it.

Matcha Pocky was going for an insane cheap price of ¥218+, so I bought the whole carton like a boss.

Ichigo Daifuku was for supper! I love wagashi.

I actually bought a haul of ¥12000+ here, no idea why I forgot to take a picture though. It’s tax free for all items (so long as you spend more than ¥5000) which you’d be bringing home so the before tax price is what you’ll pay! I got mainly cosmetic items and some long life food stuff like green tea bags, matcha etc to bring home. This particular Donki outlet is rather big with several floors so you can even get electrical items, bedding and all sorts of random things here, ALL TAX FREE!

Do note that this outlet operates from 09:00am to 02:00am everyday.

ドン・キホーテ岡山駅前店Don Quijote Okayama Ekimae
6-30 Honmachi Kita-ku Okayama-shi Okayama, JAPAN, 700-0901

Next up: Hyogo & Osaka…

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