Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Breakfasts at the Peninsula Tokyo

Today I finally checked out of the Peninsula Tokyo after a last-minute extension. I was actually supposed to leave yesterday, after spending a very blissful weekend here, but at exactly 10 minutes to the time I was supposed to leave the hotel, there I was still completely unpacked and in no mood to leave my lovely room and head out into the cold of Tokyo.

So I decided to stay on one more day, and with that extra 24 hours I really did nothing but read the newspapers, eat lots of room service (scroll down to see the photos), work on our next issue on my Mac, and spend some time by the indoor pool and jacuzzi.

This morning I did a last swim, and then afterwards, from the lounging bed, I answered emails and even found time to write up and email a contract. How nice to be by the pool with my computer when it was close to zero degrees outside. If only all days were as productive and enjoyable, and warm, as this.

Then, after lunch, that feeling of not wanting to leave the hotel came back all over again. It made me rather sad to leave, actually, and this sentimental feeling was just doubled because at the same time I got an email invitation to a sayonara party in Manila for one of my favorite ambassadors.

He and his wife are packing up and moving out of Manila at the end of February. I'd known this for a while, but this reminder made me feel sad that I didn't meet up with them more often, or that we didn't have more conversations together. His wife and I also talked about having lunch a couple of times, but somehow I never found the time.

For over three years, we lived ten minutes away from each other and we'd seen each other fairly regularly at various social functions; but now I realize that we hadn't actually met up often enough. And now it's rather too late. Next time I want to see them, I'll actually have to get on a plane and fly across the continent.

This then got me thinking about friends in Tokyo who I haven't seen often enough either since I moved to Manila. I guess these are the necessary pains of living in different cities, being always so busy, and being constantly on the move. But at times like this, it certainly makes one regret so many missed opportunities for a deeper friendship.

So I was pretty sentimental packing up at the Peninsula Tokyo this afternoon, thinking about friends in Manila and Tokyo I was missing, and also about leaving a beautiful hotel where I'd just spent a lovely time.

Here are a couple of photos of room service breakfast at the Peninsula Tokyo, by the way. I can't think of a better way to start the day in this part of Asia.

This was my absolute favorite breakfast.
A beautifully-done Eggs Benedict,
and I always requested
one egg to be done with smoked salmon
and the other egg with Canadian bacon.

The scrambled eggs with veal sausages
and steamed veggies were pretty good too.

Waffles with assorted berries

A Peninsula original:
French toast with caramelized banana,
plus a vitamin booster smoothie
made with ginger, olive oil and fruits

The Peninsula Tokyo's famous French toast

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.




Monday, January 30, 2012

Weekend of art in Tokyo

On Saturday, there I was at the Peninsula Tokyo reading my favorite Financial Times (FT) Weekend supplement which had an advertisement for a course towards a Diploma in Asian Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. In a previous life (a.k.a. before I started a travel magazine and life was way simpler), I would have taken up without hesitation the idea of a short course on Asian arts in London.

But of course that's not possible now. But it did put me in the mood for a weekend of arts and culture -- and how very apt that I was ensconced in my favorite hotel in Tokyo and the next brochure I happened to pick up was the hotel's Peninsula Academy brochure, which lists all the interesting cultural experiences hotel guests can avail of if they would like special experiences during their stay.


I used to live in Tokyo so I'm quite blasé about hotels offering cultural experiences like an afternoon at the tea ceremony or a trip to the Kabuki. But the Peninsula Tokyo has quite a variety of interesting activities on offer including tours for the family and tours specifically for children.

If you're traveling with kids and you'd like to have some time off for yourself to get a shiatsu or just to have a romantic lunch with the hubby, for instance, you can just sign the kids up for the Peninsula's Toy Wonderland program and I can almost guarantee that you can happily go about your business and they'll never miss you.

That's the Peninsula Tokyo Toy Concierge
holding the Peninsula Tokyo teddy bears

A very friendly young lady from the concierge team -- officially called the Peninsula Tokyo's Toy Concierge -- will escort the children in the latest BMW 7-series limousine (equipped with apple juice and Peninsula Tokyo teddy bears) to Hakuhinkan in Ginza, which is Tokyo's oldest and largest traditional toy store. There, the kids will be followed around by the Toy Concierge and a Hakuhinkan staff member carrying a shopping basket, and together they'll pick out the toys for your children.

And how does everything get paid for, you might be asking. Well, the Peninsula Tokyo Toy Concierge will pay for the purchases and then it will all get added to your check-out bill later. Nothing's free in Tokyo, of all places, of course, but at least you get some quiet time to yourself and the kids get the time of their lives.


But that's another story. And today, I wanted to tell you about my experience signing up for the Art of Hospitality program of the Peninsula Academy. It lasts about three hours, and it all starts with an enthusiastic send-off by the hotel and a 20-minute ride in their signature green BMW limousine across town to the area of Daikanyama, where the gallery curator and his staff are waiting to greet you.

The gallery staff took us first to a traditional Japanese house owned by a big Shibuya landowner, that was built in 1919. One of the few houses of its kind in Tokyo that still remain today, it was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2004 by the Japanese government. The house only has one Western-style room and the other rooms are tatami mat-rooms, so it gives you a pretty good idea of how Japanese aristocrats once lived.


Then we walked back to the gallery next door, which has been around for 30 years and it's one of the most cutting-edge galleries in Japan. They deal mostly with modern artists, and they work closely with hotels, museums and local governments to create great exhibitions.

This weekend, in the main exhibition area, they had on exhibit the works of Akinori Matsumoto, an installation artist who has been creating simple and humorous works that make sounds and movements since the early 1980s. He uses bamboo a lot and he rotates or moves them like windup toys by using wind, water and electricity.

His works looked very simple but they were the kind of artworks that grow on you over time. In one small room, he'd installed all kinds of works on the floor, ceiling and walls so that the effect was an entire room of all sorts of contraptions singing and moving at various times that you felt you were inside a Swiss cuckoo clock.

It was nice and interesting, making special effects using movement, light and shadows; but I just couldn't imagine who would buy it.

"Who would buy something like this?" I finally managed to ask Kondo-san, the gallery curator. After all, the entire installation would take up the entire living area of an average Tokyo family's apartment.

"He has a big following," Kondo-san replied. "And you can buy just a portion of the installation. He can even tailor-make something for a specific area. Something like this (and here he gestured towards the entire room installation) was once installed in an old Japanese house, and it was a bespoke installation to suit that house."

I tried to imagine what I was seeing, but in an old Japanese house such as the one I just saw prior to coming to the gallery. That would be really amazing art indeed. I could now even imagine having at least one of the small installations in my foyer, for instance.

"How much does one of these cost?" I asked Kondo-san.

"About three or four thousand dollars. For each," he said. "But that includes the installation charge and all the electrical wirings needed." Each installation required electricity, after all.

That's when I started to try and count the installations in the room. There must have been about forty of them. Times three or four thousand dollars. Nope, I wasn't buying any art this weekend. But it certainly made for a very interesting and mind-blowing morning courtesy of the Peninsula Academy.

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.




Sunday, January 29, 2012

A staycation at the Peninsula Tokyo. And about the new Aman Hotel and Palace Hotel.

We took one of these around Tokyo last weekend

Staying at the Peninsula Tokyo. And about the new Aman Hotel and Palace Hotel. For last weekend in Tokyo, we decided to book a staycation at the Peninsula Tokyo, one of Japan's best hotels and certainly my first choice for a quick R&R. There are two hotels in Tokyo I have proprietary feelings over, as I've been with them from the very beginning and for many milestones: the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which was probably the world's first truly modern hotel, and the Peninsula Tokyo. For both hotels, I attended the grand opening parties and I have also been part of many of their amazing events.

The Peninsula Tokyo's opening party was certainly one for the books. Guests had run of the house and you could go to any of the outlets and sample the best of what they had to offer, so all evening we went back and forth between Peter, Hei Fung Terrace, the ballroom and the different function rooms as there was something different in each one. It was literally one big party with music, food and merrymaking all night.

Peter, the signature restaurant of Pen Tokyo

Hei Fung Terrace

I've also been invited to some very fancy dinners at this hotel both on a grand scale and on an intimate scale.

One of the most enjoyable events I've been to at this hotel was a dinner for eight in the private dining room of the Peninsula Tokyo, which is definitely Tokyo's most beautiful private dining venue, arranged by general manager Malcolm Thompson. Patrice Martineau, chef of Peter, the Pen's flagship restaurant, had created a very special menu and a magician had come in sometime during dinner to mesmerize the guests.

The prettiest private dining venue in Tokyo

Meanwhile, over three years ago, I was also invited to a very formal and fancy dinner at the Pen, where I was seated next to Malcolm in his table. The general manager's table had been full of interesting personalities, but he'd very thoughtfully sat me next to B, who was then living in Tokyo as well but on the way to make the big move to Manila. This was how I met my friend B, with whom I have had so many fun times with in Manila.

The living room of Peninsula Tokyo's Park Suite

It's been a while since I'd stayed at this hotel so a staycation was long overdue. However, the last time I'd stayed here, I'd had a beautiful Park Suite with a living room that faced the Imperial Palace. This was just before I'd made my own big move from Tokyo to Manila, and it was so fitting an end to a pretty grand stay in Tokyo.


I stay in beautiful hotels all over the world so not too many hotels faze me, although I do appreciate a great hotel when I stay in one. But I have to say that my stay here was nice -- especially in the little details, which is what count a lot.

Much has already been written about the room amenities of this hotel. When it first opened, everyone was in awe with its game-changing room amenities. At a time when these were non-existent elsewhere, the Peninsula Tokyo had built-in nail dryers (yes, nail dryers and not hair dryers, although of course they also have hair dryers) and Lavazza coffee machines in the room.

Here's a photo of the built-in nail dryer in the dressing room.


But what I really appreciated on this stay is the way the room is really thoroughly planned out with intelligence. The switches are exactly where you need them, so you don't need to think twice and look all over the room for which switch goes where.

I stay in hotels half of my life, so I can tell you I'm always wishing for a switch or a button somewhere and I won't find it. And super high-tech hotels are quite the norm these days so I stay in one every few months; but it always takes me a day or two to figure out which button goes where as there's probably a logic to these but it's nothing outrightly obvious.

There's no need to sort out a puzzle at this hotel. Every switch is where you need it, and I've been here three nights now but I still have to find a switch that's superfluous.

Here, there's a privacy button in the dressing room and the bathroom (and even in the toilet!), for example, so that you can push it if you hear housekeeping knocking on the door. And you'll only really appreciate it when you're taking a shower and you hear the bell, and you realize you don't have to rush out in a towel just to tell housekeeping to come back later. And that happens to me a lot in other hotels, by the way.

And, yes, the dressing room and the bathroom are actually separate rooms from the bedroom, even in the regular rooms, and the bathroom is across the dressing room. So it makes everything neat and orderly. No clothes or bags in the bedroom, even if you're not staying in a suite!

Controls everywhere, including in the shower

There's also a temperature reader in the main room and also in the dressing room so you don't have to wonder how cold it is outside while you're choosing your clothes for the day.

There's a hands-free phone on the mirror in the bathroom so you can make calls or take calls while putting on your makeup or washing your face.

And the sound system in the room is just fantastic. I brought some DVDs to watch while vegging in the room and it's made movie-watching a simply fantastic experience.

So my home in Tokyo is about ten minutes away from the Peninsula Tokyo. But I can certainly imagine myself doing a staycation here every so often.




Friday, January 27, 2012

Extra lessons from Ricky Gervais

In Tokyo tonight, the discussion over dinner was about the BBC sitcom called Extras, which was created and starred in by Ricky Gervais, the creator of the original hit UK series The Office. I'd seen Seasons 1 & 2 of Extras when it first came out, buying it at a Virgin Megastore on a trip to London, and I'd enjoyed every single minute of it.

But recently, a friend had schlepped over to California for a few days and he'd finally bought me the Downton Abbey series I'd so been wanting to see, as well as the Christmas special and final episode of Extras, as he knew I liked Extras and think it's a brilliant piece of work.


The concept is pretty good: top stars -- mostly British performers although there are a couple of Americans who do cameos as well -- star in Extras, but they're literally the extras; the icing on the cake. The main performers are Ricky Gervais as the extra who gets a shot at the big time, and his C-team (instead of the ideal A-team) composed of a female best friend who's quite lacking in brain cells, his hapless agent and Barry, a former famous actor who's been down on his luck for years.

As we discussed it tonight, we agreed that the humor in Extras is very British; so if you're familiar with British culture and the British way of life, you'll find yourself in stitches throughout. But even if the UK isn't your thing, you'll find it funny enough all the same.

"I think people will like it, whether they understand English culture or not," my friend said. But when I thought of all the nuances and scenarios that were so brilliant if you know the background, I had to disagree. Barry, the down-and-out actor, for instance, was the real-life star of a very big television show called East Enders many years back -- so in a way, he was playing himself, although in a highly satirized version.

I don't know if East Enders ever made it to our part of the world (although I'm sure it was a hit in Australia and NZ), but I'm almost sure there was not a single Londoner who didn't know of the show at its height -- although of course, lots of people who pride themselves in appreciating the finer things in life never admitted to watching the show.

But, again, if you know how big the show East Enders once was, you'll appreciate better the depths to which the actor Barry fell, that he ended up doing roof repairs in pretty low neighborhoods and finally -- although happily -- selling mobile phones at the Carphone Warehouse, a discount retailer that is all over London.


What's universal about the Extras, I said tonight, is the fact that every single person in the world wants that big break that will change his or her life forever. Everyone is waiting and dreaming about it.

The tragedy here is not that there are too few breaks; but that when the break finally comes, some people are too un-clued in to realize or recognize it, while others throw their opportunities away and thus, the opportunity to change their life as well.

Extras is really a season full of laughs, but beneath the craziness of the stories are some undeniable truths: regardless of where you are in the food chain, life is generally shallow and it's really up to you not to make it so; and everyone has their weaknesses, but it's the way the weaknesses are managed that make some people different from the rest.


And to add: a good friend of mine when we were both living in Tokyo -- I've returned to Manila and she's long returned to the United States -- used to always tell me that her husband never failed to remind her: "Kiri ga nai." This basically means that no matter how hard you strive, there will always be someone better than you in some way; so it's good to keep striving but it's best to know when to stop thinking that the grass is always greener elsewhere. It'll always be greener in some parts and browner in others.

Everytime she mentioned this -- she was a very ambitious lady and as far as I could see, she had everything anyone could ever want: brains, beauty, personality, pedigree, a picture-perfect family (you could literally use them for an ad), lots of friends and the kind of life most people only get to read about -- I always thought to myself how ironic such a statement was coming from someone like her, to whom everything was given in amazing abundance.

Just some random thoughts on a pretty cold night in Tokyo, ensconced in one of my favorite hotels in this city for a weekend staycation. My home is only 10 minutes away but I can so live in this hotel.

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.




Thursday, January 26, 2012

The best siopao in Tokyo

Perhaps because we just finished Chinese New Year, but yesterday I went to the old and very traditional area of Kagurazaka, home to some of the finest Japanese restaurants in the country, to buy a couple of siopao. Yes, I know it sounds very strange to venture all the way across town to a neighborhood full of ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants serving kaiseki meals) and then to buy a Chinese snack food.


But Gojuban is no ordinary Chinese siopao place. It's been doing business and selling the very same siopao in the exact same location since Showa 32, which in Western years means 1957. That should give you an idea of just how good it is, for it to have been in business for so long.

That's the siopao kitchen of Gojuban

They have at least 18 different kinds of siopao here as well, so you're spoiled for choice and there's no excuse for getting tired of eating siopao as you can literally have a different one for every meal and even for dessert.

These are just some of the siopao I saw yesterday when I visited. And, yes, I did buy siopao here but I also ate at the very highly-rated ryotei next door whose chef used to work at one of Japan's very few Michelin three-star ryotei. I like these kinds of places more than the actual Michelin-starred ones sometimes, especially in Japan where the language and cultural barriers mean that so many very good restaurants slip the Michelin radar. And less hype means more value for money and easier tables to book. But that's another story.

Those are cases of siopao waiting to be heated and served.


Back to my siopao yesterday first.

The standard siopao that Gojuban has been selling for over 50 years is the regular nikuman, which is basically a meat siopao. It's a mixture of meat and vegetables.


Then they have an original siopao called the Gomokuman, which is Gojuban's most famous siopao and its bestseller. It's stuffed with all sorts of good things including seafood, vegetables and an egg.


Another bestselling original siopao is the agoo pork siopao. Hope I'm getting the spelling in English right as I'm translating from Japanese here. But this siopao is made with Okinawa's famous Agoo pork and it's also got peanuts inside. The store is very proud of this siopao.


My own favorite is the kurobuta siopao which is made with a mixture of black pork from Kagoshima and vegetables, and everything is mixed with black sesame for a very refined taste.

Kurobuta man

They also have another kind of siopao made with black pork from Kagoshima, but this time they use black pork alone without any combination of vegetables and black sesame. This one is highly recommended as well. It reminds me of the xiao long bao with its rich soupy sauce trapped inside, oozing out of the siopao when you bite it.



Another popular siopao, although not personally my favorite, is the anman siopao which is basically a sweet siopao which uses red bean paste with sesame oil to bring out the rich sweetness.

The serious business of bringing maiko to Japan
for TRAVELIFE Japan Night at the Dusit Thani of Feb 16.
Japan Airlines (JAL) is flying the maiko over,
and two seats have been reserved separately for their maiko headpieces alone.


Kaibashira nikuman

Then there's a siopao called kaibashira nikuman, full of tender scallops that reminds you of the sea when you take a bite out of it.


Ebi chili man

And the ebi chili siopao which is very representative of Chinese food, and it's another original of Gojuban. Basically shrimps in chili sauce are used as siopao filling.

Pirikara nikuman

There's also an addictive pirikara nikuman, which is flavored with lots of spices. And, if you're still into spices after this, there's always the Korean-inspired kimchi nikuman, which of course is full of kimchi.

Kimchi nikuman


Yasai man

And the yasai nikuman, which is the healthy option, made only with vegetables; and the matsutake nikuman, which uses Japan's famous matsutake mushrooms mixed with pork and shredded bamboo shoots.

Matsutake nikuman

They also have the mozzarella man, which is a siopao filled with mozzarella cheese and pizza sauce; and the custard man, which uses a Chinese-style cream custard fillling for an addictive dessert.

Custard man

And what did I buy, you might be asking. I bought the regular nikuman, as well as the black pork nikuman. And for lunch today, I've just had the black pork nikuman and it was absolutely delicious.

Kagurazaka 3-2, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Tel (03) 3260-0066

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.