Sunday, 18 August 2013

Brisbane Date NIghts: Summit Restaurant, Mt Coot-Tha


The beautiful Mt Coot-tha view is the perfect backdrop for a date night.
When it comes to date nights - I'm a little too ambitious. More and more I'm beginning to realise how big the culinary scene in Brisbane is for a smaller city and I'm struggling to keep up. It's come to the point where I've noticed one couple only has so much time - so I've become roping in my lady friends for date nights to tear through my Brisbane date night bucket list faster (even if they’re more platonic occasions than romantic).

One particular date I've had in mind for a while was to visit the iconic Mount Coot-tha Lookout. On Sundays especially the peak is packed full of families, tourists and couples (both the sophisicated kind and the P-platers whose steamy sessions have been forced out of the family home).

The Summit Restaurant atop the Lookout offers a very generous 3-course sunset menu for just $40 pp. It starts at 5PM which gives you optimal time to watch the sky change from a gorgeous pinky-orangey hue to pitch black. Every time I looked up from my meal to the skyline more and more lights became visible on the cityscape.

The restaurant's atmosphere and service was fantastic – they were very accommodating of vegetarians and my glass of water always seemed to magically refill itself.

I just wish my cocktail glass refilled itself magically, too.

Cocktails are priced at around $18 each and there's a nice selection on offer. We settled on the Toblerone cocktail and Raspberry mojito.



$40pp for a fine dining 3-course menu? A classy date night on the cheap.
The entree plate featured a chickpea and lentil kofta topped with a piece of fried tofu, San Choy Bow (they kindly substituted mine with a second kofta because I'm vegetarian), soup and sourdough with balsamic and EVOO. The standout was the sourdough which was everything bread should be - warm, fluffy and deliciously yeasty.

For our mains, my companion opted for the Pork Belly and I dove into the Pan-fried Pumpkin Gnocchi  Both mains were everything we dreamt of, however my only criticism was that the Gnocchi was seasoned a little too heavily for my taste.



The desserts were incredibly generous servings and left us feeling full at that perfect level that sits comfortably before that treacherous "what have I done" guilty point of the night.

The venue certainly seems to have improved after a string of negative online reviews and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to couples for a romantic night out.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Movies to Watch Before Heading to Europe.

It's just 15 days before I leave for my six week tour of Europe. Suddenly I'm realising how little I know about the place and desperately hoping I can cram in some history before I leave. At first I was horrified knowing I'll be visiting places I don't know every inch about, but that's the beauty of travel, there's always more to know and more places to be explored!

I have conceded defeat and brilliantly decided to watch films based in the continent instead. You'll find some of my favourites, which I think are a good introduction to "Europe 101" below, as well as some tacky embarrassing additions. I'll be watching some of these for the first time, but others I've always watched to exhaustion.

You'll immediately notice most of these films are about love and I certainly hope the cities I visit are as romantic as the cinemas have always promised. Even if I'll be engaging in a more of a romance with the culinary and scenic side of things.

Although I'm yet to visit Europe myself and can't compare these depictions to the real thing - I certainly know how fond they've made me grow of the place.







When I get to Spain - it's Sangria, tapas, more Sangra and tapas again in that order.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona.


Juan Antonio: I'll show you around the city, and we'll eat well. We'll drink good wine. We'll make love.
Vicky: Yeah, who exactly is going to make love?
Juan Antonio: Hopefully, the three of us.

Starring a suave Javier Bardem (one of the world's best Spanish actors, husband to Penelope Cruz and most recently in Skyfall), Scarlett Johansson  (international girl crush and apparently Woody Allen's muse) and Penelope Cruz herself, this movie tells the story of American tourists who fall in love with the same man. Although you might not have your own steamy Catalan romance with a middle-aged man on your trip, it captures some beautiful scenery (both man-made and natural) and it's a good introduction to the culture.

Biutiful.
This movie captures a dirtier, darker side of Barcelona and I wouldn't recommend if you're easily distracted - but it's a genuinely thought-provoking movie.

Other Notables: If you'd like to delve a little deeper in Spanish film, Pan's Labyrinth is a good place to start (granted it's  a fantasy movie set in wartime Spain) and sensual Diario de una Ninfómana is a favourite of mine too. Granted they're not exactly tour guides to the city and one might leave you scared of the dark and the other sex-obsessed, they're still a good watch.








One of Amelie's favourite things is cracking into a Crème Brûlée with spoon (if you haven't already done this in life - abandon what you are doing right now).


Amelie.
It's quirky, witty and it will make you fall in love. It stars Audrey Tatou before she became known to Western audiences in the Da Vinci Code. If you struggle to concentrate with subtitles, this film moves fast enough to keep you on your toes or Tatou's beauty might be enough to glue your eyes to the screen.

Midnight in Paris.
After being romanced by Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I couldn't resist continuing my forage into new-age Woody Allen. Midnight in Paris not only makes Owen Wilson bearable, but it's a charming movie about love and self-discovery in the world's most iconic city. The enviable Carla Bruni also makes a cameo.

Other Notables: In Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn leaves her home town an ugly duckling, goes to a culinary school in Paris and returns a swan. Humphrey Bogart, her older lover, was infamously hostile towards Audrey Hepburn during filming. The stand out line: "Paris is always a good idea". I'm about to find out for myself how true that remark really is.

Another French favourite of mine is The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus). It's set in a dystopian fantasy world, but given that it's a creative collab between multiple European nations, maybe you'll enter Europe an expert on its cinema.

Some popular Western movies that must satiate your Parisian palate or inner-Francophile are Julie & Julia, Chocolat and Marie Anotinette (2006).







I don't think my travel insurance includes this activity - but it's definitely on my bucket list.

Roman Holiday.
This classic features two of my favourite original Hollywood stars the handsome Gregory Peck and the inspiring Audrey Hepburn. Embrace the poor green screen filming for what is is and take in the scenery and on-screen charisma between the awfully good-looking leading duo.

Romeo & Juliet.
If you're heading out to Verona in Italy to exclaim, "Oh Romeo," next to Juliet's balcony perhaps re-watching one of the many interpretations is a good idea. For the classic, watch Roman Polanski's version, or if you're wanting something a little edgier, Baz Luhrman's blockbuster take might hit the spot for you. Neither of those do the trick? I can shamefully admit to having watching the animated Gnomeo + Juliet and I wasn't even babysitting.

Under the Tuscan Sun
If at this point you're exclaiming, "Get those old movies away from me", I'd suggest you watch this one. I watched it when I was a little younger and it made me want to retire in Tuscany, especially if the people, food and landscapes really are that appetising.

Other Notables: Sabrina Goes to Rome for some daggy 90's nostalgia. Letters to Juliet is a great guilty pleasure and indeed set in Italy, but its bad accents and clichés are a little yawn-inducing.

What I'm planning to watch: I've always loved Katherine Hepburn as a strong, leading lady and I hear Summertime, set in the floating city of Venice, is worth watching.





I'm 15 all over again.

Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 1 & 2.
Oh how I wish I had a more sophisticated film to add to this list - but I secretly adored these movies when they first came out. Aside from watching Getaway on TV, these films might have been the first to introduce me to the beauty of Greece and its iconic architecture.

What I'm planning to watch: I might just watch Life in Ruins and Mamma Mia, even if they're not exactly the authentic exploration into Greek culture I was hoping for.









These two prove you don't need to speak the same language to be in love.. but, uh, it does make it a tad easier.

Love, Actually.
If you haven't seen the one, you must hate romance or not have a functioning TV. It'll leave you screaming at the television demanding love for all of its characters.

Sliding Doors.
I loved this movie growing up and it still makes me dream of being a successful career woman in London, even if the dream realistically diminishes every year I age.

Other Notables: Notting Hill wouldn't go astray for some London sights and who could resist taking a time machine into the past with Spice World? That's the Spice Girls official masterpiece, for those unaware. Or heading to the famous Abbey Rd Crossing like I am? The Magical Mystery Tour or Yellow Submarine movies, starring The Beatles themselves, might inspire you to get a bob cut and rally your musical friends.


None of these titles catching your eye? Are you craving the semi-racist, outlandish interpretation of Europe? I'm about to watch the terrible EuroTrip, the rom-com Le Divorce, teen movie Monte Carlo and some other embarrassing movies just so I can say I can.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

One Week in Tokyo, Japan



Before June this year, I had never been overseas. I've always been the kind of person who's far too elated to cross any state border and whose experience with holidays haven't extended far beyond Schoolies or long weekends.

Choosing Japan as my first adventure abroad was a perfect introduction to exploring new cultures. Even former Getaway present Jules Lund has remarked that although he’s travelled there so many times, Japan is the one place where he still gets hit by culture shock every time. I was blown away by every new sensation – the colours, the bright lights, the baffling technology and the unique cuisine. Although I'm usually very health-conscious at home, I had hesitation letting go and trying every morsel of food and drink that came my way.

Seeing Koi for the first time.
Two months before I boarded the plane I didn’t even know I was going on this trip – it was planned pretty spontaneously after my boyfriend proposed it to me and flights coincidentally were available at $500 return. I am the kind of person who loves to be organised, but at the same time I’m plagued with the terrible curse of being a little lazy (clashing traits, obviously). I did lots of reading before our trip to plan our itinerary, but didn’t invest a lot of time learning much Japanese.

Trying new cultures means embracing different toileting habits. Enter my very first futuristic Japanese toilet,.
I was like any over-prepared inexperienced traveler who had read Trip Advisor to exhaustion. I had a super-detailed itinerary planned, both my own suitcase and my boyfriend’s perfectly packed, and I was even walking around with a dorky travel pillow around my neck. (I learnt quickly that when you travel, you will gladly replace looking good with feeling comfortable). But regardless of how much I tried to prepare myself – I didn’t really know what to expect and I guess that’s one of the intoxicating, albeit daunting, things about travel.


When we walked across the tarmac to the biggest plane I’ve been on, my giddiness really kicked in and I kept turning to my boyfriend to repeat annoying lines like, “We’re going to Japan!” or “This is my first time overseas!”. In comparison my fellow traveler was pretty nonchalant, finding my childish excitement amusing and maybe a little exhausting.

The flight with Jetstar was surprisingly good; I was very comfortable, the entertainment was adequate and the food was, as to be expected, quite average (but hey, I knew I wasn’t flying Emirates).

I don’t know what this meal was, but it was an Asian-inspired dish with a cheese sauce. (Is this actually a thing?)
We caught the N’EX (Narita Express) train to Shinagawa station and walked about 10/15 minutes to where we were staying with my boyfriend’s lovely family. I think there are probably cheaper options than the Narita Express, but it was comfortable and spacious, plus it’s included in the Japan Rail Pass. On our way to our short stay abode, I had my first visit to a Japanese convenience store where I was awed by the wacky array of foods and products to be tested. Any ambitions I had to be health-conscious on the trip were quickly abandoned when I discovered Salted Caramel Kit Kat balls.

Unlike Australia, in Japan convenience stores are super cheap and if you’re on a budget or just can’t wait to eat, they have heaps of options for every meal. There was always an unlimited selection of delicious pastries, sushis, salads and drinks. We frequented the 7/11, Lawson stores & Family Marts regularly, binging on a different snack every time. One particular morning my breakfast consisted of a packaged Acai smoothie, Melon Bread (a popular Japanese sweet bread) and two macaroons.

On every corner are huge vending machines, filled with colourful cans of softdrinks, cordials and milk drinks. Similarly to the convenience stores, every time I felt even a hint of thirst I was eagerly slotting a few hundred yen into a new machine excited to try a new flavour of iced coffee or vitamin drink.

I endeavoured to try a different drink every time. This is only a small selection!
The Senso-ji temple was one of my favourites. (Can you tell I saw a lot of temples?)
On our first day we headed out to Asakusa to see the grand Senso-ji temple. By the end of our week in Japan, visiting temples and shrines had almost become second nature to me. I couldn’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to life there, despite how different it is to home.
The Senso-ji temple is only a short walk from the station, past a strip of eccletic markets targeted at tourists. I inhaled this Soy Bean ice cream sandwich.
There were quite a few people around – tourists, locals and even hospital patients on stretchers. We washed our hands and I watched on as some Japanese people drank the water and then spat it out. At every shrine or temple in Japan there’s some opportune touristic moments if you’re willing to spend a dollar or two. We paid a few yen to light some incense and also to discover our fortunes.
My Bad Fortune. Apparently it's actually a good thing, because it means things can only get better. I like your thinking, Japan.
Akihabara - a great shopping excursion to men and women alike. Here's an unrelated photo - because, you know, Kirby.
Later that day we ventured to Akihabara – the famous electrical district of Tokyo – home to cheap electronics, adult stores and enough anime merchandise to send a Weeabu into a coma. We also sampled Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain, for the first time, even though it’s now available in Brisbane.


A little something I found in a multi-level department store in Akihabara. Apparently it has something to do with anti-ageing!
Eating Mos Burger in Japan - discovering fast food is fast food no matter the country you're in.
Later that night we Googled our options for dinner and settled upon the popular Ninja Asakusa restaurant in Chiyoda. It's a Ninja themed restaurant and if you're visiting Tokyo - don't miss out! I won't spoil it - but it involved following our assigned Ninja through secret passages and over a drawbridge, dipping into exotic meals and watching our very own magic show. Make sure you reserve a healthy amount of cash to indulge in the sumptuous cocktails and impressive dishes.

Can you believe this is actually a salad?
On our second day we visited the controversial Yasakuni shrine. It quite often features in Japanese and even International news when politicians even consider visiting it, given that it pays homage to, among 2.5 million lives lost in World War II, 14 war criminals as well.


Prayers at the Yasakuni Shrine.
Afterwards we became a little lost trying to find a vantage point for the Imperial Palace which we thought was nearby. Eventually we conceded defeat and headed to its cultural polar opposite – the famous hubs of Shibuya and Harajuku.

The moat surrounding the Imperial Palace gardens.
Although nearly every inch of Tokyo is packed with people and skyscrapers, walking through the central district of Shibuya was a whole new experience.  We crossed the world’s busiest intersection and mindlessly wandered through the backstreets through hoards of people.

The world's busiest intersection - made all the more hectic by a nearby demonstation.
We returned home to rest, before hitting the famous night life district of Shinjuku to watch the Robot Restaurant show. Built in a multi-millionaire dollar pimped-out basement in the Red Light District, The Robot Restaurant cannot be missed! It's also essential that you book beforehand, which can be done over phone during your stay (just ask if they speak English as soon as they answer). Think Cabaret meets Godzilla meets Pacific Rim... on steroids. It's definitely worth the high price tag. The provided dinner was less than mediocre  but the heavy alcoholic drinks on hand distinguished the awful taste. When my boyfriend suspected that the cold sausage and chicken he had eaten might've made him ill, I was thankful in that moment for being vegetarian.

Pre-mixed alcohol in Japan is both cheap and strong. 
Words canot describe the things we saw that night.
Bright lights, loud music and some of the craziest visual displays.
 On the subject on being vegetarian, it's not easy going meat-free in Japan. The concept is a little difficult for many Japanese people to understand, and they'll quite often mistakenly thinks it's OK to sneak bonito flakes, animal stock or even bacon into your "vegetarian dish". (I should point out Japanese people are very polite and eager to please, but it's just a cultural barrier). Needless to say I ate a lot of edamame – green beans at restaurants when faced with few meat-free options. I was happy to discover there were a lot of Indian restaurants in Tokyo, which always had multiple vegetarian options. Afterwards the Robot Restaurant we needed real food, so I mopped up a delicious platter of curries with thick Naan bread.

After a few drinks, this really hit the spot.
On my third day in Japan, I parted ways with my boyfriend for 24 hours to visit my cousin in Osaka. It's about 2-3 hours by bullet train, the Shinkansen, depending on what line you find yourself on.

In a few short days we had become seasoned veterans of the Japanese railway system. Originally I was a little anxious about getting about and even more worried about navigating to Osaka from Tokyo on my lonesome (that’s 500km away!). 

A Totoro mural painted by local school kids in Osaka.
My cousin showed me around her neighbourhood and I got a feel for what it's like to be a white-Australian in real Japan. There was a few double takes in my direction, let's just say. We visited the oldest shrine in Japan, indulged in crepes and then later that night dined in the city at a Turkish restaurant. We were thrilled when we realised we had an English-speaking waiter, as if your Japanese skills are scarce outside of capital city Tokyo, eating out can be a challenge.
You can't go to Japan and not adopt the signature photo pose.
The most delicious cream I've ever tasted, courtesy of an obscure Crepe place in downtown Osaka.
The view from the Mori Tower.
I returned the next day and ventured out to the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi - the cultural district of Tokyo. It's sky-high in one of the tallest buildings in Japan and at the time we were lucky enough to be visiting during an exhibition on Love.

It was more than a little romantic strolling through an exhibition on Love..
The exhibition featured somethought-provoking and disturbing works, but also some more romantic and comical displays (including Japanese vocaloid, Hatsune Miku). We had two very aesthetic and tasty cocktails at the pop-up Hatsune Miku café and I couldn't resist posing next to a life-size version of the artificial pop princess.

These cocktails blew my mind.
The Mori Sky Deck provides an unrivalled panorama of Toyko and shouldn't be missed.
We then paid a small fee to head to the observation deck which was an amazing experience and gave us an amazing view of all of Tokyo.

For our forth day, we headed back to Shinjuku to visit the Calico Cat Café. 

The downside of travelling in off-peak season with such cheap flights, was we were unfortunately smack-bang in the middle of Tokyo’s notorious rain season. Luckily it didn’t impede upon our trip too much, but there were perhaps two days when our adventurous efforts were dampened.

Entry to the Café involved paying a small hourly fee & wearing the provided slippers.
However, we conquered the rain and our poor sense of direction (we might’ve gotten a little lost and sought refuge in a Krispy Kreme café for far too long) and eventually located the Cat Café. The cats weren’t all cuddle-friendly, but they were very peculiar creatures to watch and I definitely recommend a visit for the sheer oddity of it all.

So many awesome photo opportunities when surrounded by cats.
But seriously - I have so many great cat photos. I don't know where to stop.
The rain fortunately cleared up and we realised our itinerary had a big blank spot. And so we decided to do one of the best things you can do when travelling – get lost! We hopped off at a random train station and were pleasantly surprised to find it was only within a short walk of the landmark Tokyo Tower. We had a moment of solitude in the busy city in a peaceful park where there was a tiny, unmanned shrine with matches and incense, feasted on the best Japanese vegetarian curry I’ve ever had and stocked up some tourist trinkets. Considering we hadn’t planned for our expedition at all, I certainly look back on our time together exploring fondly.

Planning time to have no plans - I recommend it. The Tokyo Tower.
Fried vegetables and starchy rice, mmm..
On our fifth day, we decided to see more of the main city sights despite the monsoonal weather. We headed back to Harajuku, which sits just next to the majestic Meiji Jingu shrine. We explored the quirky clothing shops and the 100-Yen Daiso store (featuring everything you need in life). In one of the side streets we found a homely American-style burger joint.


Although the rain was proving troublesome and my Vans were already soaked through, we clung together under our single umbrella and made our way to the beautiful Meiji Jingu shrine where we partook in some people watching as we sheltered from the weather. 

I don't regret visiting in the rain season - most of the time it only intensified the beauty of the city.
On our last day we visited the Studio Ghibli Museum. I was a little disappointed by the crowds which affected our visit slightly, but was so overjoyed to be visiting the home of some of my favourite films. I even became teary at one point.


As a note for anyone travelling to Japan in the future – do not been overwhelmed if you do not know the language. My boyfriend and I got by with the essentials, “where is ___?”, “thank you” and “excuse me”. I honestly don’t know how we did it, but we survived and miraculously made it home every night. And I only accidentally ate meat three times (I even stopped to take a selfie of my disgusted face on one occasion).

I returned home with a sudden urge to abandon everything and take up a job in Japan teaching English. Although my dreams have subsequently diminished since then, I will forever hold a really fond place in my heart for this beautiful country. It's just the beginning of my travel and I can't wait to see what weird and wonderful things lay ahead of me - getting lost, meeting new people and eating and photographing my way through different places.

My next adventure is just in 19 days - I'll be exploring Europe on my lonesome for a week, before joining a Contiki tour to see some of the highlights. Although I'm anxious about travelling alone and I will certainly miss having someone to share the memories with, I can't wait to prove to myself that I am capable of adventuring unaccompanied. 


I have a lot more exploring to do!