72 Hours in London

I’ve recently come back from 8 days in Europe, for what will likely be one of my last work-sponsored trips for a while. The company I work at organises events in 10 cities each Spring and, this year I pulled the lucky (or short, depending on how you feel about long haul flights in economy) straw of covering London and Oslo. So off I went.

Flying in to London is always emotional for me. Whether it’s touching down on British tarmac or queuing for the Heathrow Express, there comes a point in my journey when I invariably find myself overwhelmed with feelings more weighty than nostalgia. We moved away from England when I was 12 years old; I moved away a second time when I was 24. Yet after all these years, an increasingly American accent and an address in Sydney, it’s still the UK that feels like “home”.

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Pulling in to Paddington Station

I’ve gone back to London almost every year for the past five years, almost always for work or in transit to some place more exciting. Two of my best friends still live there and I’m never wanting for people to catch up with or things to do. Each time I go back though, I realise how little I really know of London. It’s one of those cities that’s both vast and deep. It has the historical monuments, the architectural marvels, the sprawling parks, the perfectly manicured gardens, the museums, the galleries, the restaurants, the shops, the people…you could spend a decade in this city and not scratch the surface. I’m not sure I could say that about any other place.

Sister Cities?

I suppose though, in some ways, London is a bit like Tokyo: it’s a city straddling the old and the new. It’s trying its best to meet the modern-day demands of a booming urban population against the backdrop (and with the infrastructure) of a practically ancient city. Hey, Tokyo is arguably winning this race, but that’s a debate for another day.

Also like Tokyo, London is a walking city. Sure, there’s the tube, but you have to walk to it and in it and out of it. The whole thing can take a while. Unlike New York and Sydney (two other cities that tend to get slapped with the “walking city” moniker), London doesn’t offer many alternatives. Cabs are painfully expensive (although that’s changing with Uber and Hailo) and car owners are kept at bay with congestion charges and non-existent parking. Like many European cities, it’s easy to rack up 10,000 steps in London, and its residents are happy to embrace all the walking and bake it into their travel time. I’m always reminded of my European friends’ penchant for walking when a casual stroll turns into a 2 hour jaunt across the city. Not something you’d do in the US.

A new favourite

On this trip, I stayed in two neighbourhoods I’d previously spent little time in: Belsize Park and Waterloo. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the former. Belsize Park is a gem of an area in North West London, conveniently sandwiched by Hampstead Village in the North and elegant Primrose Hill in the South.
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
I was staying with a friend who’s recently moved to Belsize and, walking around, it felt like I’d been transported to a picture postcard. Beautiful stucco-fronted Victorian buildings sit along leafy streets; flower stalls and butchers add a charming old-timey feel, and boutique shops and artisanal cafés bring the whole thing to life. One of my favourite things about Belsize Park was the utter lack of tourists. It’s hard to get away from the crowds in London without feeling like, well you’ve left all the good stuff behind too, but Belsize Park does a stellar job of juggling both. It’s lively and vibrant, yet it retains that cute, village feel.

The other thing I loved about the area was the Heath. I went for an early jog and was consumed by the stunning views of London in the hazy morning light. My (iPhone) camera died, of course, so I later went back for a stroll and some less romantic pics.

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Hampstead Heath at midday

I was also impressed by the food on offer. Tuesday night, my friend Neha and I walked over to Hampstead for dinner at Jin Kichi. This tiny, unimposing Japanese izakaya serves up some of the tastiest yakitori and sashimi I’ve ever had. We sat at the bar of course, enabling us to take in all the action and soak in the sights and smells that make the meal so much more of a sensory experience. One bite of the asparagus yakitori and I felt I’d been transported back to Japan! Jin Kichi is a cozy, intimate spot so if you do plan to visit, make sure to book ahead. Its Yelp, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon ratings can’t hurt its popularity either.

Jin Kichi on Urbanspoon

London and New York

London has always been an international city. Mobs of tourists, hordes of European students, wealthy expats, hopeful immigrants, migrant workers — take your pick, the city has them all. Step out into its busy streets and odds are you’ll hear more than two languages and encounter at least three accents before you reach the tube. What always amazes me, however, is how all of London’s international residents manage to retain their identities while living in what was once the quintessential British city.

Mid-afternoon in Hyde Park
Mid-afternoon stroll in Hyde Park

Move to New York and you’ll become a New Yorker (and in turn, an American). Before long, you’ll be walking faster, planning Super Bowl parties, running after cabs in heels, and contemplating your Halloween outfit months in advance. You’ll “do brunch” and you’ll probably celebrate Thanksgiving (you’ll also have to break it to at least one American that Thanksgiving isn’t a universal thing) and you may well end up leaving your adopted country surprisingly infrequently.

Live in London, on the other hand, and you could be exactly who you were when you arrived. You could live in the French neighbourhood, hang out with only French people and visit your French family on a monthly basis. I once had a Moroccan colleague who, after five years in London, had never heard of Guy Fawkes. When I asked why he thought fireworks went up every November 5th, he remarked that it was “some British thing”. To lean on a cliché, if New York is the melting pot, London is the tossed salad — a giant bowl of ingredients, mixed but distinct.

Highs and Lows

London’s diverse population makes for uniquely interesting conversations. Nowhere else in the world have I sat at a dinner table and debated Greece’s economy with a Greek, learned about the Bosnian war from a Sarajevan and planned a Croatian holiday with input from a Dubrovnik native. If your preference is to talk European politics and history, rather than real estate and hot restaurants, this may well be your city.

London also wins when it comes to location. The fact that you can jet off to a different European city every weekend isn’t news. It’s been more than 10 years since RyanAir and EasyJet transformed the European travel market with their cheap, no frills services, but the trend is going strong. Wine in Bordeaux, chocolate in Bruges, skiing in Geneva… there’s culture, history, architecture, literature, natural beauty, food and it’s all just a short hop away.

The downside (and there always is one), is that living in London means you have to contend with the constant crowds, the heaving tube, the mediocre food (sorry, the bar is still low) and, of course, the exorbitant prices. (I’m not going to pick on the weather because I grew up on, and secretly adore, grey skies.) London has always been an expensive city but over the past decade or so, unbridled demand from overseas investors has driven the property market through the roof and sadly pushed locals farther afield. To make it worse, London salaries, for the most part, haven’t kept pace with the increased cost of living, making it harder to enjoy all of the perks and quirks that the city puts on offer.

One of the best things about London is its permanence; come what may, this bastion of culture and history and tradition will stand strong: steadfast, unyielding, unchanged. At times though, it feels like this is the exact thing holding it back. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

The Japan Diaries: looking back

We’ve recently returned from 12 days in Japan and what’s been one of the most remarkable trips of my life. As a Nippon first timer, I was, as expected, floored by the meticulousness of the Japanese, by their mind-blowing food and their ubiquitous vending machines that hail from the future and spit out perfectly hot drinks.

As you feed coins into the machine, the blinkers light up to tell you which drinks you can afford: blue means cold, red means hot

What really captivated me however, was how Japan has managed to straddle old and new — seamlessly marrying its rich cultural heritage and regard for custom with its place as a leader in the modern world. Japan has some of the world’s fastest trains, bustles with the world’s largest metropolitan area, has the world’s longest life expectancy and even boasts the world’s most advanced toilets (they’re also very clean) yet, on a quiet afternoon in Kyoto, if you look closely, you can spot a real Geisha hurrying to her next appointment in full costume. You can still find traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and stay in traditional ryokans and you’ll encounter sushi masters who’ve earned their Michelin stars, not by experimenting with the avant garde, but by adhering to Edo tradition and even shunning all modern appliances.

A focal point of our trip, of course, was the food (so far, you can read about Sukiyabashi Jiro, Robataya Roppongi and Gontran Cherrier). Japanese cuisine is as diverse as it is divine, and we had the opportunity to partake in everything from street eats like ramen and yakitori to high-end sushi and kaiseki. A standout meal and longstanding dream was lunch at Sukiyabashi Jiro, which we finished in a record 30 minutes on our last day. As incredible as that was, my favourite meal (probably of all time) was at the hands of the husband-wife duo behind Sushi Sawada: a tiny, 6-person restaurant in yet another nondescript, shiny Ginza highrise. No possible combination of words could do the experience justice (but I’ll try, so stay tuned).

Outside of the food, we spent our time skiing some incredible powder in Niseko, wandering the ancient streets of Kyoto, and stuffing our faces with fresh uni and Hokkaido crabs in Otaru (oh wait.. that’s food again).

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Uni, crab and ikura: simple yet fresh and delicious

Tokyo took me by surprise; I tend to be skeptical of capital cities, especially cities that are urban and sprawling. But Tokyo, with it’s ruthless efficiency, unexpectedly helpful residents, immaculate cleanliness, trendy boutiques (I hate malls) and endless alleys, buildings, basements, markets and department-store mazes of insanely good food, was impossible not to fall in love with.

Aside from requisite visits to the gorgeous grounds of the Imperial Palace, the jam-packed Meiji shrine, and mindboggling Tsukiji Market, we accomplished some serious wandering, taking in exhibitions at the MOMAT and exploring the bustling neighbourhoods of Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku. Despite several 20,000 step days, I’m sure we barely scratched the surface.

Chōchin along the path to the Meiji Shrine
Chōchin lanterns light the path to the Meiji Shrine

And I suppose that’s yet another thing about Japan that makes it special: it’s a place so full of stuff – of paradoxes and contrasts, of culture and tradition, of modernity and trendiness and of so much elegance and beauty, that it’ll keep you coming back. I, for one, can’t wait.

Tokyo Day 2: Gontran Cherrier

Jetlag kicked me out of bed at 630am and boy was I glad. This was the sunrise from the 30th floor: Tokyo’s formidable skyline, glass, steel and the occasional crane, bathed in the pink light of the morning sun and punctuated by the snowy peak of Mt Fuji. Stunning.

Tokyo sunriseAfter a pit stop at the hotel gym, we were hungry and ready to hit the streets. As it turned out though, Tokyo isn’t much of a morning city, not on a Saturday at least. Bondi cafés might be bustling at 6am, but at 930, Tokyo is barely getting started. Lucky for us, we stumbled upon this little gem while walking through Mitsukoshimae station.

gontran cherrierMeet Gontran Cherrier. A fourth generation baker from France, Gontran and his eponymous boulangeries are taking Asia by storm. In four years, he’s launched three shops in Singapore, expanded to 7 outposts in Tokyo and landed in Seoul. Interestingly, Gontran hasn’t ventured elsewhere in Europe or to the pastry-loving (and good pastry-deprived) shores of the United States.

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Focaccia topped with avocado and lardons

Anyway, as we stood in the cold subway tunnel, outside the entrance of Gontran’s Nihonbashi shop, the aroma of freshly baked bread and melted fromage filled the air. I felt my stomach rumble. Forget sushi, I want French pastries for breakfast!

After an appropriate amount of deliberation, we unscientifically chose three things that looked interesting. Those three things turned out to be tuna salad in a squid ink bread roll (for me),  a matcha white chocolate scone (to share) and a small, cheesy bread stick for hubs (he decided to he wanted to “save himself” for Tsukiji after all).

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White chocolate matcha scone

Everything was insanely good. The bread roll was soft and springy with just the right hint of squid ink flavour so as not to overpower the entire sandwich. The tuna salad was moist and beautifully paired with some lively micro greens. The scone was similarly mild in its adopted flavor yet perfectly crumbly and not overly sweet. I simultaneously wanted to inhale and savor everything.

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The famous “baguette noir” made with squid ink

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how authentically French everything tasted. Tokyo has 50 Michelin star French restaurants and a reputation for some of the best French bakeries in the world (for comparison, London has 55 Michelin star restaurants in total).

Still, what sets Gontran apart is his uncanny ability to embrace local flavors while maintaining the integrity of what is truly spectacular French baking. In a nod to local palettes, Gontran is experimenting with creations such as miso-infused bread, curried baguettes and a sandwich filled with ham, shiso and yuzu butter. The standout, however, remains the baguette noir, the squid ink infused jet-black loaves that appeared to be flying off the shelves.

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Gontran part deux

Gontran was so good that we returned the next day for more and picked up a curried chicken sandwich on a sesame roll and a lemony prawn sandwich on a matcha roll. We also grabbed a chicken and mushroom tart, a melon pan and what might just become an all-time favourite: a mont blanc.

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Mont Blancs: a new favorite

Oh and the best part? He’s coming to Australia in 2015. Vive la France!

Tokyo Day 1: Roppongi Robataya

Today marks the start of a 12 day adventure in Japan. We left Sydney early this morning and landed at Tokyo Narita at 5pm. After an hour on the train, a quick stop at our hotel and another couple of layers (it is COLD), we stepped out into the city.

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Dinner was in Roppongi, a neighbourhood that’s undergone a transformation in recent years, casting off its reputation as a hedonistic watering hole in favor of a more sophisticated, classier image. Today, Roppongi is known for some of the city’s best food, bars, shopping and culture.

As we stepped in from the cold to Roppongi Robataya, we were greeted with a chorus of irrashaimase’s and a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, vegetables and live seafood. The space is wood-paneled and cozy, in the way that you might imagine a Japanese ski chalet to look, and the staff is warm and engaging.

“Robatayaki” or, more commonly “Robata” translates to “fireside cooking”, and is a style of Japanese cuisine in which morsels of seafood and vegetables are skewered and slow-grilled over hot charcoal.

The origins of Robata can be traced back hundreds of years to the fishing communities of Hokkaido where, at the end of the day, fisherman would encase hot coals in a stone box on their boats and gather round the makeshift hearth to partake in the day’s spoils.Here in Roppongi, our chefs for the night sat at the center of the room behind a sunken grill, with less than 15 customers seated at the semi-circular bar around them.

After a hot towel, some tea and a pouring of saké, our server gestured to the spread and asked what we’d like to eat. For someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy looking at menus, it doesn’t get much better than this: I felt like a kid in a candy shop and immediately pointed at various delicious looking vegetables.We chose asparagus, some enoki mushrooms, an eggplant and a hearty plate of fava beans. We also picked out a cut of fish and a giant prawn from the gorgeous tabletop tank. Lastly, we ordered some sashimi and on the recommendation of our server, some Hokkaido oysters.
Needless to say, everything was delicious. The produce and seafood is all so fresh that robata seasoning rarely involves more than a basting of oil and sometimes miso. Most dishes are served with salt and a lemon wedge. Indeed, the British couple seated beside us were politely turned down when they inquired after “soy or some kind of dipping sauce”.
Other than the delicious food, it was the experience of Robataya that made it memorable. Each chef wields a long, smooth, wooden paddle. Once they’ve grilled and plated the food, they masterfully balance the plates and even bottles of beer and sake on these paddles, which they then extend to hungry guests. After plucking your dish from the wooden paddle, you load it up with empty plates, which the chef then deftly draws in and sets aside for cleaning.

The staff and servers at Robataya are equally engaging and will sneak up next to you and join the conversation. There was a lot of fanfare around a “changing of the chefs” where our two chefs stepped off the grills and were replaced by two members of the waitstaff.

Overall, it was pricey but an incredible meal in a very fun yet intimate environment — I only wish there were one of these in Sydney!