Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Of all the cities in Japan, Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. Its narrow alleyways and immaculately groomed gardens are filled with old world charm and are the "Japan" that always comes to mind when I picture the country.

There are temples galore in the city - most of which we'd explored during our last trip. This time, we did a few different things.

Firstly, a fantastic Japanese cooking class, where we learnt all sorts of traditional techniques starting from the very basic (dashi stock and Japanese omelette) moving through to beautiful, melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef. Our teacher, Taro, was a talented communicator and very passionate about his country's food. It was a pleasure to work with him and the feast afterwards was the icing on the cake...figuratively - there was no cake!

We also enjoyed some more extravagant...okay, maybe downright decadent food in Kyoto. There were the Kyoto-style okonomiyaki (by the way, we did eat more than okonomiyaki during this trip, though you wouldn't think it based on my last couple of posts!).

Then there were the desserts. My goodness, the people of Kyoto know how to make a dessert! The first two are actual desserts enjoyed by yours truly. The third is an ever so slightly larger option available to diners.

One cannot write about Japan without at least briefly discussing the toilets. My personal favourite on this trip was in Kyoto. It had so many buttons, features and automatic functions and was quite simply awesome! The in-built motion detector raised the lid in a quasi-ceremonious fashion every time I entered the bathroom. The in-built seat-warmer meant my posterior was never chilly and the trickling sounds of a small waterfall effectively hid the sound of my own...umm...waterfall...

This baby was in our hotel room - a hotel I feel is deserving of a special shout out, as they were simply outstanding - head and shoulders above anywhere else I stayed in Japan (and that's saying something, because Japanese hospitality is second to none!).

Another fun thing I did during my time was go for a run along the canals, with a fellow Up and Runner - my only exercise of the trip, but definitely an enjoyable and novel way to see the the city and, of course, meet a new friend.

Then there were lots of walks, lane exploration and just chilling out and watching the world pass us by.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Hiroshima is a city that really resonates with me. It is very easy to get around (lots of English signage), is full of stunning flora and satisfies my inner history buff. This was our second trip to the city and instead of visiting the main tourist attractions as we had on our previous trip (i.e. the Peace Memorial Museum and Hiroshima Castle), my beloved and I decided to walk from garden to garden. We spent an entire day walking the perimeter of the CBD from park to park, stopping to explore interesting shops and areas and, of course, to eat.

Here are some of the beautiful sights:

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
 A-Bomb Dome

 View from the CBD
Shukkei-en Garden

Traversing a city by foot takes a reasonable amount of energy. This means good fuel is essential. We enjoyed a particularly lovely lunch in the Shukkei-en Gardens - a big bowl of wakame udon soup for me under the shade of some of the garden's established trees.

At around $4, this meal was an absolute bargain!

Aside from some of the more sobering things that Hiroshima is famous for, its name is also associated with one of Japan's great foods - okonomiyaki. This layered savoury pancake/omelette is available throughout Japan, with each region claiming that their take on the dish is superior. However, Hiroshima is undoubtedly the most okonomiyaki-obsessed city that I have visited - there's even an entire multi-storey building devoted to the food - Okonomimura. Naturally, we had to sample one a few okonomiyaki.

I especially love the interaction of this food. The chef prepares your pancake on the grill in front of you serve yourself right from the hot plate. A casual, fresh and friendly way to eat.

The mixture of noodles, prawns, pork, egg, spring onions, cabbage, pickled ginger, kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce and various other condiments is an absolute winner. Oh, and there's only one thing better than okonomiyaki after a long day of travelling - okonomiyaki and beer!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Spectacular Saigon

Dear blog (and readers), I'm sorry for neglecting you, but I have been overseas having fabulous adventures for the last month and, rather than documenting them as they happened, I wanted to enjoy myself and really try to live in the moment. So here we are, some weeks later and it's time for me to start posting about our mischief. Today's first post - Saigon (as the locals call it) or Ho Chi Minh (officially).

We spent five nights in Vietnam's largest city in late August. Originally, we had anticipated a shorter stopover somewhere in south-east Asia before heading to Japan, but we decided to extend our time and really get a feel for the city.

Our trip could not have started off more perfectly - an upgrade to business class. We thoroughly enjoyed the (amazingly!) edible plane food and the warm service. If I was able to fly business class everywhere, I definitely would...but I think there are a few financial obstacles in my way right now.

Our first impression of Saigon was "crazy traffic". The road rules (as far as I could tell) involved copious horn honking until one is able to push through. This was all well and good in the back of a car, but was a little more nerve wracking on the back of a motorbike or on foot. Crossing the road entailed a very deep breath and a small prayer. We were told the best way to cross was simply to do so confidently and at a steady pace and drivers would swerve around us. That appeared to be the right approach, as we're still here to tell the tale...

So what did we do in Saigon? Well, this portion of our trip was all about relaxing and unwinding after a crazy couple of years of work, study and other pressures (not necessarily all bad, but pressures nonetheless), so we decided to indulge. To eat. To sleep. To be pampered. To take tours. To shop.


Let's start with the bit I'm sure everyone wants to know about first - food.

I think I consumed a phở a day (you know what they say....) while in Saigon. Our hotel offered a delicious array of local and western breakfast options. I wasn't interested in the latter, but gobbled up all the Vietnamese treats. I should add here that we did not try the street food except for one evening during which we participated in a street food tour (where the places had been carefully vetted for hygiene). Ordinarily, I'm not quite this careful, but as we had 2.5 weeks planned in Japan after Vietnam, I didn't want to take any chances.

Anyway, back to phở (because all roads lead to phở!): the stuff is so darn fortifying, not to mention delicious. I'd continue to happily eat it for breakfast regularly, even in Melbourne. The soup in Vietnam had a slightly different flavour to the broths I enjoy at Vietnamese eateries at home. It was a little more herby and healthy tasting - really nourishing.

Vietnamese drinks also proved to be fantastic - freshly cut coconuts spilling over with juice and my new favourite coffee, cà phê đá (pronounced "cafe da", as far as I could tell), were slurped up in generous quantities at breakfast time with my soup. Come to think of it, there was lots of slurping going on at breakfast!

We also enjoyed spring rolls, Vietnamese omelette, bánh mì (i.e. Vietnamese pork rolls) and rolled rice noodles among other things.

...not to mention canapés with a view thanks to our hotel's happy hour.

Thanks to Saigon's large Chinese population, there are some outstanding Chinese options also. An entire Peking duck prepared three ways at our table at a 5-star international hotel for less than $20? Yes please!

I mentioned that we participated in a food tour - this one specifically. During the tour we were able to sample some food that is a little less accessible to tourists. Bún bò Huế was a personal favourite of mine from the evening - a spicy beef noodle soup with a strong hit of lemongrass.

My beloved was even brave enough to try the balut (if you're squeamish, skip ahead now). Basically this is a cooked egg with a semi-developed foetus inside. Yeah, told you...kinda gross, right?! I pride myself on being adventurous with food and was intending to try this, but after peering inside and being confronted with the bluish-yellow mush, I just couldn't. The beloved claims it tasted of "chicken-y egg", which may solve the age old question of which came first...or perhaps not.

We also enjoyed barbequed okra and frog, as well as lots of seafood and were transported to each destination on the back of a motorbike with our guide, which was great fun.


We didn't anticipate we'd buy too much in Vietnam (it's certainly no Hong Kong, Singapore or KL as far as shopping is concerned), but I had heard that tailoring was very cheap and of a reasonable standard. As such, we signed up for another tour (again with XO tours - they were really fantastic!) to take some of the hard work out of the day for us.

We were met at our hotel by our drivers and guide and were asked what we wanted to buy. I mentioned that I wanted some dresses made for work and we were off to their recommended store. I tried on a variety of samples (where it was loudly noted by the employees that "You have very big bottom, but white skin. So lovely." Umm, thanks. I think?!). I was happy with the outcome at $40 a garment! We were also taken to a real lacquerware factory after stating that we would like to look for some home wares (there's a lot of poor quality imitation lacquerware in Vietnam, so it was good to get a better understanding of what to look for). Later in the day we were taken to a local market (not the dreaded tourist trap of Ben Thanh), as well as a shoe manufacturer. The bargaining was all taken care of by our guides and we walked away with some really good buys and great memories.


When massages are only $20 for 90 minutes (at an upmarket place), it is imperative to enjoy more than one. Likewise, when manicures and pedicures complete with nail art come in at under $10, there's no excuse for shabby nails.


One of the coolest things we did during our time in Vietnam was a Mekong Delta tour, complete with cooking class (because clearly I haven't spoken enough about food yet!). This tour was marketed as the "risk-takers" tour of the Mekong Delta region, as it involved travelling on a Vespa, which is quite easy for the unacquainted to tolerate around the city, but a little more challenging for hours and hours on end. I loved being in the open air and whizzing past my surrounds. In particular, I enjoyed being able to go off-road (i.e. on paths too narrow for cars or trucks to use).

The cooking course was a highlight of the day. Ingredients were used that I hadn't even thought would be incorporated in Vietnamese cooking - for example, black pepper. We learnt some tricks to making perfect rice paper rolls, enjoyed well-seasoned greens, an array of shellfish and some very tasty pineapple fried rice.

At the various other stops on the tour we soaked up the day-to-day lives of the locals at cafes and their places of work and worship.

Aside from formal tours, we of course did a tonne of self-directed exploration. We took ourselves to the War Remnants Museum (a very interesting and harrowing place to visit), the Reunification Palace (a completely retro blast from the past), Notre Dame Cathedral and simply wandered the streets stopping as we pleased.

I loved lots of things about my brief time in Vietnam, but most of all I loved the genuine warmth of the people we encountered, who were just so happy to engage with us and impart some of their culture. From the fruit sellers on the streets to cab drivers to hotel staff and tour guides, we were always greeted with big smiles, their very best English and a healthy dose of cheek.

Would I return to Saigon? I would certainly stopover in the city for a couple of nights, but I feel that I have explored it sufficiently (at least in the short term). However, now that I have both a literal and figurative taste of Vietnam I am totally excited about the prospect of returning in the near future to see more of the country. I hear Hanoi and the beaches of the east coast are particularly special and will make it a priority to get there in the next few years.

Friday, August 23, 2013

5km best-to-date

I mentioned when I ran my 10km event last month that I was training to try to achieve a 5km personal best (noting that a PB for me is probably much slower than for most people)...and I'm pleased to report success on that front.

I headed to the very pretty Beach Road with a speedy girlfriend last weekend, for what I thought would be a flat and easy run. Boy, was I wrong?! Melbourne has been experiencing some crazy weather of late and the coast, typically the windiest of all locations, was probably not a prudent choice in light of this. The bureau even issued a wind warning (which sounds like something I issue after eating too much curry...). I digress! It was certainly a very picturesque spot, despite the wind.

The run was an out and back portion of the road and the entire way out (2.5km) was slightly uphill with an extremely strong headwind. I was utterly stuffed by the time we turned around and contemplated easing into a walk. I knew, however, that I'd be disappointed with myself if I did so, so persisted with my slow waddle.

The second half of the run should, theoretically, have been easy - tail wind and slightly downhill. While this was indeed a welcome relief, I was so exhausted from battling the wind on the first half of the course that I could barely pick up any pace.

The outcome? Well, I didn't crack the sub-32 minute goal I had in mind, but was only seconds off it at 32:37. Yes, it was considerably slower than many of my training runs, but still a good'un and a personal best (given my training tends to be divided up into intervals that include walking segments).

Upon reflection, maybe it's a good thing that I didn't crack the illustrious 32 minute mark - gives me something to continue to work towards and aspire to....

Onwards and upwards! 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

August update

Things have been busy for me in the last month - more time at work, more time running and less time blogging. That's why I thought I'd share some highlights of the last couple of weeks.

1. A new toy.

Our rice cooker recently had a meltdown and committed suicide in fairly dramatic fashion. I knew he (she?) wouldn't be long for this world the day I bought him...for $9! This time around, I opted for a device that could do more than just steam rice and bought a pretty sexy five-in-one contraption that steams, pressure cooks, slow cooks, fries...and has some soup function that I'll never use (this one's definitely a "she"!). We've been experimenting with the slow and pressure cook functions over the last few weeks. Highlights have included flaked lamb shank ragout, a slow-cooked American-inspired chicken dish (that was, among other things, cooked in pickle juice!) and a Moroccan lamb stew (pictured).

2. More cycling.

We have enjoyed some warmer weather down in Melbourne and my beloved and I have seized the opportunity to squeeze some more cycling into our lives.

Bikes pictured in Southbank, Melbourne.

3. Markets. 

We're about to head overseas for a few weeks (fear not - there'll be updates, as always!) and find markets to be great places to stock up on presents for our OS pals. Locally made products always seem to please....not to mention the benefits for the shopper - sunny weather, beautiful scenery and crepes smothered in Nutella!

Images from the Southbank Sunday market, Melbourne.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Chicken soup and chocolate

I haven't been feeling 100% these past few weeks. The weather's been cold and wet and my body has taken that as its cue to morph into a dribbly snot-monster. Whenever I'm struggling with a cold, I crave two things - milk chocolate and chicken soup.

The former is somewhat, but not entirely, surprising. You see, at practically any other opportunity I opt for dark chocolate - the darker and more intense, the better. When I lose my sense of taste though, intensity doesn't do it for me and instead, I'm after a physical reaction. The more sugar and fat, the greater and quicker the physical high.

Thankfully, my German mum came to the rescue during my time of need and, without even being told of my ailing condition, sent me a huge parcel or German goodies containing, among other things, enough milk chocolate to feed a small village.

My other default comfort food is chicken soup. I've been a fan of chicken soup since...well...probably since being in utero. My Nana was the best chicken souper of all time - the queen of kreplach, the matzah ball messiah, if you will. Since her passing, my mum has inherited those titles. Though I try to contest, I'm resigned to the fact that I will never be able to top her soup. But that doesn't stop me trying!

I cooked up a big batch of chicken soup over the weekend. I don't really follow a recipe, but simply throw a chicken frame or two into a big soup pot, along with chopped carrots, celery, a parsnip, onions, parsley and 3-ish litres of water. After it comes to the boil, I skim off the layer of fat that rises to the surface, whack in a stock cube (to intensify the flavour) and leave it simmering for a good few hours (at least 3 - more, if possible).

While it doesn't look pretty (my mum always peels her carrots and strains her soup, resulting in a much more aesthetically pleasant consommé), it tasted fantastic. I love my chicken soup with noodles or matzah balls (as pictured above). Mind you, these are cheat, packet matzah balls and they're really best made from scratch.

Best bit of all of this? I'm feeling better - woop! Who said chicken soup's medicinal properties is only folklore, eh?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Age Run Melbourne 10k - race recap

As promised, here's my recap of The Age Run Melbourne 10km event held on Sunday. 

The weather was absolutely horrendous on Saturday. I believe it may have been one of the coldest July days on record in Melbourne. It was certainly one of the wettest...not to mention the icy winds! I was absolutely terrified we'd have a similar day for the run, but by the evening, the weatherman was assuring me that rain would be, at worst, light. 

I woke up with a sore throat and achy glands, but I wasn't going to let that deter me. Although it was dark and chilly, I could tell the day was going to be an okay one for running. Win!

I forced my beloved to get up early with me. As my live-in barista, his mad espresso skillz have rendered me dependent on a nice brew to start the day, and this day was no different. Along with my flat white, I had two pieces of chia bread toast - one with peanut butter and the other with Vegemite (Aussie gold, for any unacquainted readers) - a glass of water and my usual vitamins.  

Then it was off to meet one of my friends who was also competing and, quite fortunately, lives only 15 minutes (by foot) from the starting line. Car park win! We rugged up and wandered down St Kilda Rd to Federation Square in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. There, we collected our race packets and spent the next 45 minutes huddled for warmth and queuing for the toilet. After dropping off our bags and additional clothing, we headed towards the start line and this happened:


There were thousands of participants in the 10k event alone (nearly 8,000, I believe) - plus there were also 5km and half marathon events on the day. As such, there was definitely a little waiting as wave after wave were started and we shuffled our way forward. 

At one point, the announcer made the comment that in the wave ahead of me, the leader of the Australian opposition was about to start the 10km event. Now, I am not, have not and will never be a supporter of this man. However, irrespective of political leanings (and, let's face it, there's no longer a way to lean in this country - grrr!), I thought about how blessed we are to live in a nation where our political leaders can feel comfortable enough to complete a fun run with the rest of us. I honestly cannot see that happening in many other developed countries.

And then....we were off! 

As I'm training to achieve a few personal goals in a 5km event next month, I wanted to take this event pretty casually and decided, with the help of coach extraordinaire, Julia, that I would walk a minute of every kilometer of the race. Well, that was all good in theory, until I couldn't work out how to get my Garmin to display time elapsed and had to guesstimate. As a result, I applied my own run/walk approach. I ran the first two kilometres (I was going to walk at the end of the first, but remembered that virtually the entire second kilometre was downhill and it wouldn't be very strenuous to jog) and, at the first hill, I thought "uh huh, this is my new plan - walk the worst hilly bits"...and that's exactly what I did. About 7 or 8 times through the event, I conserved my energy by walking up the steepest hills.

Now, I know this was a timed event, but I'm going to report on what my Garmin told me....because there was a MASSIVE bottleneck under a bridge next to the Yarra River in Richmond (along the northern bike path for anyone who rides into Melbourne from the east), where not only were we all forced to walk, but there was even a period where I came to a complete standstill thanks to a whole bunch of walkers blocking the narrow pathway. I didn't personally have a problem with the stop (though couldn't help myself turning to the bloke next to me and informing him facetiously, "that's it, PB is shattered"...teehee!). I estimate that this delayed me by about an extra minute, which is reflected in my Garmin times, but not in the overall race times.

Anyway, let's back track a little. 

Kilometre 1: 6:19
The adrenalin kicked in as soon as I heard the starting gun and I jogged off feeling great. There was one hill in this first part of the course, but aside from that, it was largely flat. I listened to my breathing and simply felt great to be participating in this event with the extended Melbourne community. 

Kilometre 2: 6:08
Downhill!! This portion of the course was almost entirely flat and downhill. I definitely could have pushed harder, but Coach Julia's words were echoing in my ear - 10km is a long way - you need to conserve energy at the start of your run. I was feeling simply sensational at this point!

Kilometre 3: 7:27
My first walk was during this segment - up a pretty steep hill. I then recommenced jogging, turned a corner and was faced with yet another hill (right next to the Royal Botanic Gardens). Instead of forcing myself to jog up it, I slowed to a fast walk again. I was grateful, as it meant I could fly down the notorious Anderson St hill and make up a bit of lost time.

Kilometre 4: 6:41
Kilometre 5: 6:47
The next two kms were an out and back section along the south bank of the Yarra River (i.e. down Alexandra Ave for the Melburnians). This was one of my favourite sections of the event last year and it remained so this year. It's long and flat, with a couple of music stages and a drink station. As I approached the turn around point (probably around 4.5km through), the musical duo were playing an acoustic version of Easy (i.e. like Sunday morning). I kid you not, I got teary. Why? I cannot tell you - I just felt so blessed at that very moment to be out running in such a beautiful city. I do wonder if running somehow heightens your emotions - any thoughts on that?

I finished 5kms in 33:22 and felt fresh, happy and invigorated. I certainly hadn't pushed to my limits and I'm thus pretty stoked with the outcome of the first half of the run. As a consequence, I'm going to modify my 5km time goals for next month accordingly. 

Kilometre 6: 6:45
It was during this segment that the aforementioned bottleneck/standstill incident occurred. Towards the last part of this section of the course, I started to find that moving from a walk to a jog was increasingly difficult. Once I started jogging, I was fine and moving from a jog to a walk was also okay. However, getting back into that bouncy gait after walking was tough. I think my butt, calves and feet were beginning to feel the distance. No matter, I just kept up the jogging lightly and soldiered on.

Kilometre 7: 7:17
All was going along relatively smoothly. And then this happened.

That's right folks, your favourite "unco" did it again. My foot landed on an uneven piece of curb, my ankle rolled and, no doubt, hyper-extended, and then over I went. I grazed my "good" knee pretty impressively, but I was more annoyed about putting holes in yet another pair of expensive leggings (any Lululemon executives reading this, please note that you should definitely send me a new pair of running leggings...with a zip waist pocket, if possible. Pretty please!). 

The fall was a bit humiliating. Everyone around me was so lovely and concerned, asking if I was okay and needed help. I pulled myself up, dusted myself off, thanked everyone for their concern and shot them the biggest grin and thumbs up that I could muster to let them know I'd be okay. The knee wasn't too painful at the time - I was far more concerned about my ankle, which was a wee bit tender. 

So, what's a girl to do when she falls over spectacularly? Jump right back up and start walking/jogging again. I knew from prior basketball experience that I hadn't sprained anything, but that once I cooled down I'd likely be a wee bit sore - i.e. best to keep moving. 

Kilometre 8: 7:07
I think it's around the eighth kilometre mark of Run Melbourne that the course takes you over a long foot bridge in the heart of the Richmond sporting precinct. This may well have been the toughest part of the course for me. I knew that slowing down to walk would mean it would be difficult to get back into a jogging rhythm and the overpass, while not especially steep, was looooong (and virtually all uphill!). I waddled my way over it (by this stage, I wasn't lifting my knees much and I'm sure I could have walked faster!) and was glad to come down and out the other side.

Kilometre 9 and 10
I chugged along and was beyond relieved to see the marker for the final kilometre of the run. I remember from last year that there's one mammoth hill (Wellington Pde South) before a 500 metre downhill/flat dash to the finishing line. I made the decision to walk up the hill (evidently the correct one, as I was even passing some stubborn joggers who refused to walk!). Once at the top, I knew all the tough bits were over and I could enjoy the last 500 metres. I bolted down that last hill and sprinted to the finish line. It never ceases to amaze me that even though EVERYTHING hurts, I somehow have enough energy to sprint to a finish line - just goes to prove that you can always push a little harder than you think you can. 

My final time? Garmin says: 68 minutes, 44 seconds
In the back of my head, I was hoping for a sub-70 minute result, given that I knew I'd be walking throughout (mind you, I had told myself that it would be very unlikely). My official race time is also sub-70 - yesssss! 

Upon reflection, I am super dooper proud of myself, especially given how sore I am today in all sorts of places I didn't know could hurt! 

After collecting our swag we wandered back to the apartment, I cleaned up my knee and it was time to relax and recover - a big bubbly spa bath, followed by pizza and beer. Bliss!