2015 best Japanese hotels, based on their breakfasts

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RocketNews 24:

Soft beds, nice views, good location; sure, these are all important factors when choosing a hotel, but what really makes a hotel, or even a trip, memorable is the food, more specifically, the breakfast.

Everyone needs a good breakfast to start their day, so why not eat the best of the best? Next time you’re in the area, you should probably check out one of the Japanese hotels with the most delicious breakfasts.

When you think back to the last hotel you stayed at, does your memory automatically cut to what you ate for breakfast there? Do soggy eggs or undercooked bacon ring a bell? Even if it was a pretty good meal that left you with fond memories, prepare yourself, because you may never look at hotel breakfasts again. You may also be finding yourself booking hotels just to try the breakfasts.

The TripAdvisor Japan website compiled the 2014 opinions and scores of hotels (and their breakfasts) posted on the site in order to create this 2015 ranking of “Hotels with Delicious Breakfasts.”

While many of the hotels have managed to hang on to their 2014 spots in the top 20, there are plenty of newcomers on the list too.

1st Place: Hotel Piena Kobe (Kobe City)

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Holding first place for three consecutive years is kind of a big deal, but after hearing about their buffet breakfast spread, you’ll understand how they’ve managed to pull it off.

To start off with, there is the sweets section filled with all-you-can-eat, freshly made pastries, like seasonal fruit tarts and strawberry shortcake. If you’re more of a fan of  savory breakfasts though, there is also a selection of traditional French-style breakfast items and, of course, traditional Japanese breakfast foods. All dishes are made from the freshest and highest quality ingredients you could ask for and being in Kobe, expect some breakfast steak too! To wash it all down, there is a drink bar of coffees and teas from a variety of specialty shops.

Usually, the breakfast itself costs 2,200 yen (US$18.50) per person, you can sometimes find deals for a room and breakfast for under 10,000 yen ($85).

2nd Place: La Vista Hakodate Bay Hotel (Hakodate, Hokkaido)

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Hotel Piena’s closest rival has held their spot at second for another year and they offer some stiff competition. Their breakfast spread offers fish and vegetables grilled before your eyes, a plethora of fresh Hokkaido seafood, and a healthy selection of well-prepared Western-style breakfast options.

3rd Place: Sapporo Grand Hotel (Sapporo, Hokkaido)

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These guys have their eyes on the prize, rising 9 spots since last year’s ranking. The Sapporo Grand Hotel offers three different breakfast venues for their morning diners. One location offers a Western-style breakfast with an on-sight bakery and cooked-to-order eggs. At another site, you can choose from three traditional Japanese-style set breakfasts, overflowing with delicious seasonal dishes. Finally, there is the buffet of grilled meat and veggies, as well as their famous creation, “ramen salad.”

4th: Hotel Keihan Sapporo (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: 3rd]

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5th: Hakodate Kokusai Hotel (Hakodate, Hokkaido)
[2014: 5th]

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6th: Century Royal Hotel (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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7th: Hotel Shiroyama (Kagoshima City)
[2014: 9th]

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8th: Hotel Rocore Naha (Naha, Okinawa)
[2014: 16th]

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9th: Hotel Nikko Alivila (Yomitan, Okinawa)
[2014: 4th]

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10th: Asahikawa Grand Hotel (Asahikawa, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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11th: Mitsui Garden Hotel Okayama (Okayama City)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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12th: Rihga Royal Hotel Osaka (Osaka)
[2014: 8th]

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13th: Richmond Hotel Yamagata Station (Yamagata City)
[2014: 20th]

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14th: Hotel Nikko Kanazawa (Kanazawa City)
[2014: 13th]

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15th: Sheraton Grand Tokyo Bay (Urayasu, Chiba)
[2014: 6th]

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16th: Hotel Okura Tokyo Bay (Urayasu, Chiba)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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17th: Daiwa Roynet Hotel Naha Kokusaidori (Naha, Okinawa)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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18th: JR Tower Hotel Sapporo (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: 11th]

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19th: Laguna Garden Hotel (Ginowan, Okinawa)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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20th: Dormy Inn Premium Otaru (Otaru, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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Apparently, Hokkaido hotels are proving that they are not a force to be reckoned with, as they settled into nearly half of all spots in the top 20 and took six of the top ten spots! It must be all of that fresh seafood and dairy! On the other side of the country, Okinawa held its own this year too with four on the list. While it’s easy for us to give Honshu hotels a hard time, since they are few and far between in the rankings, we can’t forget that Hotel Piena Kobe has won three years in a row! That food must be out of this world!

Monjayaki, the popular Tokyo dish you’ve probably never heard of

monjayaki

RocketNews 24:

When people think of Japanese food, most think of sushi, sashimi or even some of the more popular Japanese comfort foods like okonomiyaki or udon noodles. If you’re a tourist, however, you’ve likely never experienced one of Tokyo’s most popular dishes:monjayaki. But don’t feel bad; even some Japanese people who don’t live in the Tokyo metropolitan area (75 percent of the population) have never tasted it. This is one reason why Tsukishima Monjadori, a street with over 100 monjayaki restaurants, ranks in the top five sight-seeing spots in the capital for Japanese tourists (FYI, the other four are Harajuku, Tokyo Disneyland, Odaiba and Tsukiji Fish Market).

Monjayaki is simple but complicated: it has just a few easy ingredients and can be made in under three minutes yet it requires instructions to make, and even eat, properly. It helps to know, for example, that monja is not usually eaten with chopsticks, and that there’s a good reason why.

Read on to learn more about this unexpectedly delicious fare: watch a how-to videoshowing you how to make it, check out photos that show you how to eat it, and get tips from a master monjayaki chef.

I first met monjayaki chef Yasutami Ōhashi (who goes by “Tommy”) when I came to Japan in 1994. At that time he was running a restaurant in Okayama City called “Hibachi,” where he served a varied menu of Japanese izakaya favorites such as braised fish, gyoza, and edamame, accompanied by lots of draft beer. Tommy cooked in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by a counter which could seat up to 20 customers. Whenever you went into Hibachi, he’d immediately introduce you to the person sitting next to you giving both parties just enough information about each other to pique a conversation. Tommy knew that getting people to talk to each other was central to creating a friendly atmosphere where people would want to come back not just for the great food, but also to socialize.

▼Master chef Tommy Ōhashi is going to teach us how to make monjayaki.

Tommy

In November of 1999, Tommy became the first person to introduce monjayaki to Okayama through his restaurant called Taiyo no Jidai (太陽の時代). It was so successful, he now has four restaurants, (two in Okayama City, one in Kurashiki, and one in Takamatsu) all specializing in monjayaki.

Taiyo no jidai means “sunny era” and refers to the new century we were about to enter when he started his endeavor. “People were trepidatious about the new century,” said Tommy. “They were worried about Y2K and some thought the world was going to end! I wanted people to be happy and optimistic about the future so I called my restaurant Taiyo no Jidai so people would have something bright to look forward to in the new year and the 21st century.”

Ingredients:

Although the ingredients for monjayaki vary, Tommy treated me to three different dishes he makes at Taiyo no Jidai: 1. mentaiko (cod roe) & mochi 2. seafood & green onions 3. eggplant & cheese. These each arrived in separate metal bowls.

ingredients

Underneath the main ingredients in the bowl were shredded cabbage and a liquid made by combining wheat flour (komugiko) and fish broth (dashi). “Monjayaki first became popular after WWII, ” Tommy explains, “because during the war when food was scarce, the easy mixture of flour and dashi was a cheap way for families to eat.” He then gave me his first tip to making tasty monja.

Tip #1: To make the best monjayaki, use the highest quality flour.

▼Tommy uses the same flour used to make cakes.

flour

Next, he gave me a plate and one special utensil: a tiny spatula.

▼Plate and small spatula, called a moji-bera which means “word spatula.”

plate

▼The teppan grill, the same as is used for okonomiyaki, is embedded in the middle of the restaurant table.

teppan

“Pencils and paper were also hard to come by during the war so children used the grill like a chalkboard to practice writing their letters in the flour and water mixture” Tommy said while pouring the mentaiko and mochi mixture onto the heated plate. “They’d draw letters with the small spatula. This is why the spatula is called moji-bera, or ‘word spatula.’”

With the monja on the grill, it is now time to use two bigger spatulas to beat it up! With a spatula in each fist, you cut up the ingredients rapid-fire by pounding the spatulas onto the grill thereby cutting up the ingredients (see video for action shot).

And Rocketeers, you can rejoice because this is one time when it’s okay to play with your food–in fact, it’s encouraged! Monja is surely the only Japanese food that allows you to get rid of stress, practice your drumming, and hone your culinary skills all while at the dinner table!

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When the ingredients are chopped small enough to make the monja a runny liquidy paste, let it rest to cook on the grill. After several more minutes, it’ll still be gooey but this time it’ll be ready to eat.

▼Monja on the grill, finished cooking and ready to eat!

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You’ve probably noticed that monja is not very aesthetically pleasing: it would not win a culinary beauty contest. You could even say it looks kind of, well, sick. If you’ve ever gotten drunk on shots of tequila, you know what I mean. This unappealing visual was a big barrier for me the first time I ate monja. So I tried eating it with my eyes closed, which helped. But I eventually overcame the association with drunken tequila nights by thinking of dogs. Yes, dogs. When dogs throw up, they eat their vomit. Some people say this is instinct, but I don’t think so. I think dogs eat their vomit because…it’s delicious!

Monjayaki tastes best when it is piping hot, so eat it straight off the teppan plate with themoji-bera. There is a special technique, which brings us to Tommy’s second tip.

Tip No. 2: The proper way to eat monja is to pull off a portion with the moji-bera and press down on it to get the piece to stick to your spatula…

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Then turn over the spatula and put it straight in your mouth.

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The plate is there only if you need it, such as when the monja has been sitting too long on the grill and is burning and you want to get it off the grill quickly. Speaking of burning, Tommy has another tip for us now.

Tip No. 3: Don’t waste the okuge! It tastes good with beer.

▼Okuge is the burnt stuff on the hot plate, located around the perimeter of the liquid.

okuge

The fun in monjayaki is definitely in the creation of it on the grill and sharing the food among friends and family.

Tip No. 4: You can make dessert monja!

This is a specialty of Taiyo no Jidai restaurant, and isn’t available anywhere else that I know of, but Tommy shows us that the same technique can be used to make a delicious strawberry dessert.

▼Strawberries and cream is just one of the dessert monja served at Taiyo no Jidai.

dessert

▼Yep, you’re gonna throw that beautiful concoction straight onto the grill!

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▼And mix it and beat it up just like regular monja.

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All that’s left to do is eat it with the moji-bera. The warm dessert melts in your mouth and tastes just like it has been baked in the oven–amazing!

There you have it, straight from the master chef who brought monjayaki to Okayama and started us all off with a sunny monjayaki 21st century. So Rocketeers, get to work making your own monja and be sure to let us know if you come up with something original and amazing that we just have to try!

Taiyo no Jidai has four restaurant locations in Western Japan:

Okayama Prefecture:
3-13-56 Omote-Cho, Okayama City 700-0822
1-17-2 Aoe Kita-ku, Okayama City 700-0941
619-2 Shimosho, Kurashiki City, 701-0112

Kagawa Prefecture:
4-20 Kajiyamachi,
Two Feet Bldg,
2F, Takamatsu 760-0028

Beautiful 400-year-old garden in Okayama, Japan about to be replaced with condominium complex

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RocketNews 24:

 

Japan loves to devise top three lists, and Okayama City’s Korakuen is held to be one of the country’s three best gardens. Anyone who’s visited will tell you that it’s indeed beautiful, but Korakuen isn’t the city’s only garden, or even its oldest.

Okayama is also where you’ll find Tokoen,a garden with a history that stretches back to the early days of Japan’s feudal Edo era. Tranquil and easily accessed by public transportation, Tokoen would make an ideal spot for history buffs and nature lovers looking for a less crowded, quieter urban oasis than Korakuen.

Sadly, though, after roughly four centuries, Tokoen has closed down, and is soon likely to be demolished and replaced with a condominium complex.

Although the exact year Tokoen was completed is unclear, historians do know that it was initially the private retreat of Ikeda Tadakatsu, the lord whose domain included present-day Okayama City.

 

▼ Ikeda Tadakatsu

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Ikeda’s short life lasted from 1602 to 1632, making Tokoen one of the oldest gardens in Okayama Prefecture, and also several decades older than Korakuen, which was built in 1700.

The garden’s layout is thought to be the work of noted landscaper Kobori Enshu, who designed Tokoen in the kaiyu style, in which visitors are led on a course that winds around the grounds and past a spring-fed pond and tea house. As with many Japanese gardens, it was created with sight lines that ”borrow” aspects from the surrounding scenery, which in Tokoen’s case means affording visitors views of nearby Mt. Misaoyama.

 

▼ Tokoen, bursting with greenery…

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▼ …tinged with autumn crimson…

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▼ …and blanketed in snow.

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After the death of Ikeda, ownership of the garden was transferred to the Niwa samurai family, and Tokoen has remained in private hands since. Although Okayama was bombed in the closing days of World War II, the garden escaped damage, and several of its features, such as the pond and seven-layer granite tower (which itself was constructed during the Kamakura period which lasted from the 12th to 14th centuries), have been left as they were when Tokoen was first opened centuries ago.

 

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Despite remaining in private ownership, for many years the roughly 700-square meter (39,826-square foot) garden was open to the public for a modest 400 yen (US $3.95) admission fee.

Tragedy struck, though, in 2012, when the then-owner of Tokoen passed away. The heirs to the property said they were no longer able to continue operating the garden in its previous capacity, and in May of 2013, entrance to Tokoen became limited to those making advance reservations.

Apparently even this austerity measure was not enough, and on December 3 of the same year, Tokoen closed its gates for good.

 

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Tokoen was never registered as an official cultural property, and as such does not seem to be eligible for any sort of special protection from the local government. With its former owners incapable of serving as caretakers, the land has been sold off to property developers. According to an article published by the local Sanyo Shimbun newspaper, a multi-floor condominium complex will be built on the site.

 

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A quick look at the cramped dimensions of the average Japanese home is enough to make almost anyone long for more modern, spacious, and comfortable housing. Still, the loss of what should have been considered a cultural treasure is a high price to pay for such amenities, especially when it seems like more could have been done to prevent the garden’s loss.

 

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Tokoen is not located in a remote, outlying corner of Okayama City. The city streetcar’s Kadotayashiki Teiryujo stop is right in front of the garden, sitting just 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) from Okayama Station and the city center. Nonetheless, little if anything was done to promote Tokoen as a destination for travelers. Most tourism literature makes no mention of it, and even Okayama City’s official website seems to have given no more than a single page to Tokoen, lacking even such basic information as directions for visitors.

We were alerted to this sad tale by a resident of the neighborhood where Tokoen is located. Our source informed us that towards the end of its days, the garden was indeed struggling to draw visitors, who primarily consisted of elderly couples and small groups of amateur photographers and artists.

 

▼ Demolition of Tokoen’s teahouse is already underway, as can be seen in these photos.

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With buildable land always scarce, it’s an unfortunate fact of life in Japan that in order to put up something new, something old often has to be swept away. The area surrounding Tokoen isn’t immune to such changes, as our source reports. “A little over a year ago we got a new grocery store and the nearby school is expanding. Parking lots are being turned into houses and houses are renovating.”

Still, the sale of Tokoen came as a complete surprise. “A few old homes may have been torn down, but nothing like this.” What makes the situation particularly frustrating is the lack of an earnest attempt to engage the community in finding a way to save the garden. “Had they come forward…people could have helped,” the resident laments. “There have been no signs posted or anything, and the city has said nothing.”

▼ This series of photographs shows the continuing dismantling of structures and removal of trees inside Tokoen.

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With the sale completed, it’s likely too late for historical conservationists to do anything to halt the construction project now. An outpouring of support could, possibly, encourage developers to preserve at least a portion of the garden, or at the very least plant the seed of such an idea in the heads of those in charge of future projects.

If nothing more, hopefully all this will serve as a reminder of the dangers of taking things for granted. Almost every town in Japan has its own Tokoen, someplace that’s been part of the local cultural heritage for so long it’s slowly becoming forgotten, even as its need for support grows more and more critical. So whether you’re a resident or a visitor to Japan, next time you’re at what seems like just another shrine, temple, or garden, consider putting a few yen into the collection box or the hand of a local vendor. Otherwise, you just might find a condo there the next time you stop by.

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