Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Sofitel San Francisco Bay

Sofitel Redwood CityThis was the first time I have stayed at one of Sofitel's hotel. Distinctively European, the hotel has a very airy and spacious feel to it. The feeling continues as you enter the room; the pastel shades, floral curtains, and European styled furnishings are a pleasant change.

The hotel also has a fairly good French restaurant and a bar in the lobby level, both of which overlook the large lagoons. Sofitel Redwood CityI found the breakfast here particularly good; the breads, croissants and pancakes were very fresh and better than those I find in most other hotels. Also the seafood pasta I ordered for lunch after checking-in was good too.

The weather in California has been unusually cold and apparently the state will lose almost 75% of its citrus fruit this year. Until the weekend, I was busy with my business meetings and team dinners all of which were held in the same hotel, so I didn't venture out at all.

ErawanFinally, I went out with some friends to the Straits restaurant yesterday which features Singaporean food; while the food was good, the highlight was the excellent mango mousse we had for desserts. Today, we had lunch in a Thai place called Erawan; the Thai fried calamari and Spicy Basil Fried Rice were pretty good. I also discovered Thai style iced coffee in which they use coconut milk to give it that unique taste.

ErawanI catch my Lufthansa flight tomorrow to begin my journey back to Pune, this time over the Atlantic.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Redwood City, California

California yet again! For those of us in the business of high tech, a periodic pilgrimage to California is unavoidable. I have lost count of the number of times I have been to this sunny state on the West Coast of the USA. California is not only the most populous state in the US, but it's GDP of close of $1.62 trillion (as of 2005) is larger than all but eight countries' in the world.

I have visited multiple cities and destinations within California including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Mountain View, and San Jose. I have vacationed on Lake Tahoe when there was 13 feet of snow, and have watched the sun going down on the beautiful Santa Monica beaches.

Redwood City CaliforniaSo, what can I possibly discover in this trip to Redwood City? Well here are some interesting facts I found:

Redwood City's motto 'Climate Best By Government Test' dates back to the time of World War I, when the US government began conducting climate surveys and gathering meteorological data. Their findings revealed Redwood City to be at the center of one of the world's three best climates (The other two? The Canary Islands and the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa).

Redwood City is sometimes jokingly refered to as Deadwood City by the residents of San Francisco Bay. As a judgement, this is more reflective of an earlier time when the downtown was in decline.


Living the Same Day Twice

January 17th, 2007 is special. I got to live this day twice!

In Tokyo, I woke up late at 9AM and went down to the Cascade Cafe for breakfast. I had a couple of hours to kill, so I took some photos of people on the steets (I had heard so much about the street fashion in Tokyo which is true; everyone here seems well-dressed), updated my blog and then checked out of hotel to take the limousine bus ride to Narita Airport.

Narita Airport is one of the most efficient in the world. They had a large number of counters specifically catering to Business Class travellers which meant that checking in was a breeze.

Narita also has a good collection of duty-free shops: upscale designer stuff, local handicrafts, electronics, food, etc. I was travelling United Airlines after a very long time; they have a decent lounge in Narita and I could see at least a dozen gates occupied by United flights.

Somewhere over the Pacific, our flight crossed the International Date Time, which means Jan 17th began all over again for me! And so at 9 AM on the same day, I took a taxi from San Francisco Airport and checked into the very nice-looking Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City.

Other posts from my trip to Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun, Kawaii, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II

Gonpachi Ginza TokyoYesterday, the team dinner was at a place called Gonpachi in Ginza. Ginza is Tokyo's most famous upscale shopping, dining and entertainment district. We had a private dining area to ourselves, and the food was contemporary Japanese.

This time we ordered chilled sake which is easier to load up on! In Japan, you never fill your own glass, someone else does it for you, and you return the favor. Before we knew it, the guys were high on sake (some had ordered soju too, which is stronger like whiskey) and having great fun.

Gonpachi Ginza TokyoDinner consisted of portions of veggies, followed by skewers of meat, skewers of minced chicken that resembled corn-dogs, sushi (my first sea-urchin!), rice & soup, delicious fried crab-meatballs, and noodles. The picture here is of batter-fried prawn-meat. The multi-layered ice-cream was good too. However, with so much sake, a couple of guys needed help to walk out!

Monkeys Roppongi TokyoSome of my new friends weren't calling it a day yet! We had two Aussies, two Japanese, two from Singapore, one guy from Hong Kong and me, still going strong.

Gonpachi Ginza TokyoWe took a taxi down to Roppongi (second day in a row), navigated our way through those touts once again, and ended up in a dart-bar called Monkeys. We played dart and sampled their version of Singapore Sling late into the night. It was pretty late in the night when we took a taxi back to the hotel.

With this late night-on-the-town, all plans of sight-seeing had to be cancelled; that will have to wait for another trip.

Other posts from my trip to Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun, Kawaii, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I, Living the Same Day Twice


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I

Today I had a late lunch at Aburi, the charcoal grill restaurant in my hotel (the ANA, Tokyo). Entrees are usually served with a 'rice set' in Japan (see picture here); my entree today was the sea-food grill. Seafood in Tokyo are amongst the freshest I have ever eaten. And I have even begun to like Miso Soup and Rice, now that I know how to mix the sauces for just that right taste!

Roppangi TokyoIn the evening, a bunch of us went out to a Korean restaurant in Roppangi. Roppangi has some great restaurants and bars, but is more known for its night-life among foreigners and expats. African-American touts tried to get us into nightclubs, stripclubs, discos and bars that line the road.

Roppangi TokyoAnyway, coming back to the dining experience: dinner began with small portions of vegetables, noodles, and seafood served one after the other. We had ordered warm sake, which was served in small ceramic jugs and we drank out of even smaller ceramic mugs. It was good I had loaded up on sake, because now the dining experience began getting adventurous with a serving of yukhoe. Roppangi Tokyo

Yukhoe is raw minced beef topped with a raw egg yolk, mixed with seasoning and served on a bed of thin Korean pear strips! I couldn't chicken out now, could I? Not when I had proudly proclaimed my non-vegetarian credentials just 30 minutes back! Actually, this Korean delicacy tasted quite good. Yukhoe was followed by chilled cavier: pink, fine in texture, and perfectly seasoned, quite spicy but tasty (I had expected raw meat/fish to be smell stronger, but apparently very fresh meat has less smell than the fried variety).

Roppangi TokyoThen came heaps of prawns, squid, scallops, and strips of beef marinated in exotic spices. And now I realized what the strange rectangular plate set into the center of each dining table was. It was a personal gas-fired grill! And so, we cooked our meats at the table as we drank more sake. The barbeque was very tasty and we stuffed ourselves silly!

Roppangi TokyoWith all that sake, conversation had gotten progressively louder, and the jokes politically incorrect. We were, in short, having fun! Finally, dessert was served; I chose the green tea flavored ice-cream and followed it up with a strong coffee. The long walk back in the chilly night air through the lively streets of Roppongi topped off a perfect evening.

Roppangi Tokyo
Other posts from my trip to Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun, Kawaii, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II, Living the Same Day Twice


Monday, January 15, 2007


Since the 1970s, cuteness has become a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. To anyone who knows Japan, the pull of the cute is a powerful and omnipresent force.

As an article in Wired puts it, the Japanese are born into cute and raised with cute. They grow up to save money with cute (Miffy the bunny on Asahi Bank ATM cards), to pray with cute (Hello Kitty charm bags at Shinto shrines), to have sex with cute (prophylactics decorated with Monkichi the monkey, a condom stretched over his body, entreating, "Would you protect me?").

The Japanese word for cute is kawaii. You often hear it spoken alone, a sentence and a sentiment unto itself. "Kawaiiiiiiii!" The sound comes from a girl of perhaps 14, a plaintive, drawn-out keening, equal parts joy ("Look how cute!") and desire ("I want him!"). Minutes later, from a twenty-something OL ("office lady," a uniformed corporate secretary/beverage server). This time it was more of a low groan, as though the longing to possess was causing a tangible ache.

The Japanese teen magazine CREA called kawaii "the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese."

Other posts from my trip to Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II, Living the Same Day Twice


The Land of the Rising Sun

Flight SQ632 touched down in Narita Aiport, Tokyo as I peered out of the window into the cold, wintery morning. The sun had just begun to rise on the horizon which made for a spectacular view as the airplane was descending: a vast expanse of slate grey ocean, beginning to catch the warm glow of the rising sun, speckled with a few lights from ships and boats.

The temperature outside was a frosty -3 degrees centigrade. Immigration and customs were a breeze and I took the Airport Limousine bus service to my hotel. Downtown Tokyo is about 120 mins from the airport and costs about 3000 yen (approx . US $25). The ANA hotel is a huge 34-storied building with half a dozen restaurants and bars within its premises. ANA (which is owned by the All Nippon Airways) is entering into a partnership with InterContinental, and therefore starting April 2007, the hotel will be rebranded as the ANA InterContinental.

My flight from Singapore had a brief stop at Bangkok's spanking new Suvarnabhoomi International Airport. While the terminal building itself didn't seem particularly impressive to me, the airport and the roads feeding into it, as seen from the night skies, seemed extremely well planned.

I haven't yet ventured out of my hotel as I write this, so here are a a few pictures: on my way to the hotel, the imposing facade of the hotel, and a close-up of the high-tech electronic toilet in my bathroom!!

Other posts from my trip to Japan: Kawaii, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II, Living the Same Day Twice


Friday, January 12, 2007

Around the World...

I am off again, this time on business! I plan to visit Tokyo and Redwood City (California) during the next week. This will be my first trip to Japan and I am really excited about that!

This is also the first time I will actually fly around the world. My flight routing looks like this: Mumbai - Singapore - Tokyo - San Francisco - Frankfurt - Mumbai which is like Christopher Columbus' journey in reverse: I keep going East to go to the West and I eventually get back to where I started from. In these nine days I touch five countries. We have come a long way since Jules Verne, haven't we?


Monday, January 08, 2007

A Dish to Die For

I read an interesting article in DestinAsian recently. It's about Japan's obsession with the potentially deadly blowflish (called fugu locally). This national delicacy is not only very expensive, it is potentially lethal. The tetrodotoxin produced by fugu is said to be 1200 times more poisonous than cyanide. One milligram of the powerful neurotoxin is enough to ensure an agonizing death within hours.

Yet, fugu is still the epitome of gourmet dining in Japan, especially when served raw as sashimi. Tokyo restaurant-goers are prepared to pay upwards of US$200 per person for a near-death experience. There is even an old expression in Japan: "I want to eat fugu, but I don't want to die". Since fugu's poison can lead to instantaneous deaths of diners, only licensed cooks are allowed to prepare fugu. Apparently, this is one delicacy that can't be served to the emperor!

Fugu sashimi is served as transparent, paper-thin strips on painted porcelain plates. Master chefs in the upscale restaurants of Tokyo arrange fugu strips into intricate designs and shapes of chrysanthemum petals, Mt. Fuji, or creatures like butterflies, cranes, peacocks and turtles.

And so, if you are bored of bungee-jumping and sky-diving, try fugu in Japan. As the room holds its breath, lift the thumb-sized morsel to your lips, pause dramatically, then savour the slight numbing sensation on your tongue. Hero status is guaranteed - and you might even live to tell the tale!

Other posts from my trip to Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun, Kawaii, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part I, Epicurean in Tokyo - Part II, Living the Same Day Twice


Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Laguna Resort and Spa

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliThatched roofs, woven bamboo furniture, stone figurines, and balconies that allow you to step into the many interconnected blue lagoons! This resort is spead over a large area that is replete with waterfalls, winding paths, gazebos, and lagoons.

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliThe beach is very close to the resort's restaurants and pools. Our suite was located close to the beach. It had a large living/dining room, a seperate bedroom and a large bathroom housing the hot tub and shower stall. The hotel also provided a 24 hour butler service.

We woke up late almost every day to the chirping of birds and crashing of waves on the shore. We made good use of the complimentary tea from room service multiple times before getting out to spend the day lazing on the beach, in the pool or at the spa! Being on a coral reef, the beach can have hard surfaces under the sand and when you get into the water. Check out the coral we collected while strolling on the beach.
Laguna Resort and Spa BaliThe Cafe Lagoon laid out an elaborate breakfast buffet every morning. There were cooking stations for eggs, sushi, dimsums and fresh waffles. Exotic fresh fruits included kiwi, melons, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit and snake-fruit (the first time I have seen and tasted this fruit, see pic). Laguna Resort and Spa Bali
Laguna Resort and Spa BaliThe Mayang Sari restaurant offers modern Indonesian cuisine during dinner and also opens for high-tea, while the Cafe Lagoon serves Mongolian barbeque for dinner. The sea-side Ocean Terrace is best for its seafood grill and oyster bars. In addition to its two main bars, the Sand Bar on the beach serves fruity cocktails and other thirst quenchers.

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliThe resort was fully occupied, this being the peak season. However, there were few Americans or other Indians here. Most of the guests were Russians, Japanese and Australians.

The Spa at the Laguna provides an elaborate menu to choose from. I chose the most elaborate massage; what the heck, it was Jan 1 after all! The Balinese Lulur massage includes a full body scrub with a special blend of herbs, an aromatherapy massage (Balinese massage technique is similar to Swedish with long strokes), a 20 minute milk wrap, and a final moisturizing rubdown. All of this takes about two hours... 120 minutes of pure bliss during which you can easily convince yourself that you have been reborn as a royal in an ancient kingdom! Laguna Resort and Spa Bali

Other Bali posts from this trip: Ringing in the New Year at Bali, Indonesia, Islands of the Gods, Gourmet in Bali


Gourmet in Bali

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliFood included the ubiquitous Nasi Goreng (recipe here) which is fried rice made with local spices and mixed with chicken or seafood. Then there was Ikan Bakar which is prepared from a 5kg Padi padi fish, marinated in the chef's special spices and oven-baked in foil to keep its full taste. This is then served from a carving trolley in portions with a selection of rice and sambals and Lombok's famous kangkung (water spinach).

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliWe tried the Mongolian barbeque one night; you can select from many meats (I remember livers of lamb & chicken, chicken breasts, baby octopus, squid, salmon, and tuna), many different vegetables, a variety of noodles, and have the chef stir-fly your selection in a wok in your choice of sauce.

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliWe also savoured the Jimbaran-style seafood barbeque with a variety of seafood and fresh fish, marinated in the Jimbaran way before being grilled on coconut husks and served on rattan plates with banana leaves. All of this on the beach-front under a bright moonlit night, as the songs sung by the quartet of musicians from Sumatra mixed with the roar of the crashing waves nearby.

Laguna Resort and Spa BaliBut it was the desserts that were really, really good! Every one of them... From the flambed mango and kiwi in bali moon liquor, the heavenly fruit gratin made with the freshest fruit and then gratined with a thin crust, to the fruit medley in bali moon liquor and fresh whipped cream which was served with coconut ice-cream (see pic).

Other Bali posts from this trip: Ringing in the New Year at Bali, Indonesia, Islands of the Gods, The Laguna Spa & Resort


Island of the Gods

We arrived in Bali late evening on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur. The Ngurah Rai international airport is located in Denpasar, on the southern tip of Bali and close to the major beach and resort destinations of Jimbaran, Kuta and Nusa Dua. This was the first time I had travelled by Malaysia Airlines, and I found the experience a good one on all counts: professionalism, service and in-flight food.

BaliThe airport is not a glass and steel structure; you see wooden fixtures, intricate carvings, stone sculptures, etc. The entire process of getting a visa on arrival, immigration and customs took less than 30 mins. Our resort was in Nusa Dua, on the southern-most tip of Bali; this area has been developed relatively recently, relatively more secure, and home to some of the upscale resorts and hotels.

BaliWe were welcomed into our hotel with sounds of exotic musical instruments and two Balinese girls doing traditional dance moves in bright costumes at the entrance. Magnolia trees all around were in full bloom. Our magical vacation on Bali had begun!

Both magical and mythical, this land of volcanic lakes, spectacular rice terraces, stunning tropical beaches, ancient temples and palaces is an exotic melting pot of cultures and peoples. Renowned for its architecture, traditional theatre, dance and elaborate religious festivals, the colorful Balinese culture is constantly synthesizing the old and the new, the traditional and the innovative.

BaliThere has been considerable effort put into making this a prime tourist destination. All the high-end hotels have a presence here and more seem to be coming in every year. The airport has a nice ambience, friendly staff, and a good collection of duty-free and food outlets. I noticed that the roads are better than in most Indian cities. All this goes a long way in making your vacation experience one to remember.

There are temples everywhere. However, they are quite different from the Hindu temples in India. The temples are almost always black in color and have a distinct architecture. The idols and sculptures of the gods (Garuda, Ganesha, Vishnu) look different from the ones in India; some have very fierce expressions and look warrior-like. Visitors have to cover their legs before entering a temple; most temples will provide a sarong and sash for this purpose. However, you can wear your shoes inside (unlike Indian temples).

BaliBalinese dances are inspiried by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. We watched a Kecak dance performance at the Uluwatu temple in an open amphitheater. This temple is perched on a steep cliff 70 meters above the crashing waves of the oceans; the locals refer to this place as the Sunset Temple because of the spectacular views of the sunset from this location. Visitors beware of the monkeys here; they will snatch anything shiny or interesting in your hands or on your body including your glasses (I saw one unfortunate Japanese tourist being relieved of his glasses). Some locals will offer to get stolen stuff back from the monkeys for a tip! I am certain they train these monkeys to steal stuff :)

BaliWe also visited Kuta, the place where all the nightspots are located; this is a good place to shop, eat out and walk around. We bought some handicrafts and souvenirs here. I was intrigued by the figurines of Garuda, which is also the mascot and name of the Indonesian airline. For more info on the mythology of Garuda, go here.

There are places we could not visit: The 'mother temple' at Besakih, the active volcano at Batur Caldera, and the hot springs near Lovina on the northern coast. But even with the brief time we spent at Bali, we carry back lovely memories of this Island of the Gods!

Some tips for new travellers: Keep US $10 per pax in cash ready if you intend to get a visa on arrival. Also, keep local currency worth 10, 000 rupiah(approx US $10) per pax for exit tax which has to be paid after checking and before boarding.

Other Bali posts from this trip: Ringing in the New Year at Bali, Indonesia, Gourmet in Bali, The Laguna Spa & Resort