Tag Archives: japan

The best Japanese ramen in Seoul at Ittengo

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The Tonkotsu Ramen at Ittengo, a Japanese ramen restaurant in Hapjeong, Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

For months, my friends and I have been obsessing over Ittengo, a small Japanese ramen shop located in a hip dining neighborhood near Hapjeong station. Day after day, rain or shine, the line of customers waiting to dine at Ittengo never seemed to get shorter. We pressed our faces up against the restaurant’s small windows like stray cats trying to see what made this food so special.

After watching dozens of people brave Seoul’s humid summer nights and, later, the freezing winter ones just to eat some of this ramen… We knew we had to try it. And, finally, we did.

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The minimalist facade of Ittengo in Hapjeong. SCREAMfmLondon

There was, of course, a long wait when we eventually made it to Ittengo. And, of course, it was extremely cold out. But, at this restaurant, you write your name and your full order on the list out front, so you can kill some of that wait time deciding what to eat.

Ittengo is known for its special basil-based broth that comes out a kind of algae green color, but this was unfortunately all sold out when we dined there. There are three types of ramen served at Ittengo, all given animal names in Japanese depending on the broth’s color. Kitsune (wolf) is the lightest, a traditional tonkotsu ramen (7,000 KRW). Next on the list is the Midori Kame (green turtle), which is the aforementioned basil pesto-infused ramen (10,000 KRW). And last is the Kayomasa (red tiger), which is the spicy ramen (8,000 KRW).

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Ittengo’s Kitsune (wolf) ramen, named after its light-colored broth. SCREAMfmLondon

Once your party is taken inside and seated, the ramen is served almost immediately. The restaurant’s intimate set-up is, I’m sure, a main reason for the lengthy wait. The dining room is comprised of just one central table around which all of the customers sit and eat together. The room is dimly lit, and the counter is sprinkled with candles and small knick-knacks.

Another reason for the wait is, obviously, because the ramen is delicious. It’s absolutely the best Japanese ramen I’ve had in Seoul. The pork bone broth is beautifully rich and flavorful. The noodles are thin and mixed with green onions, served with tasty slices of braised pork belly on top. Every bite is excellent, and every element of this dish is done perfectly. Peppers covered in yuzu juice are served on the side to contrast the strong savory flavors of the ramen.

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Amazing thin ramen noodles at Ittengo in Hapjeong. SCREAMfmLondon

Ittengo
11 Poeun-ro, Mapo-gu
Hours: daily from 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Closed on Sundays.

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Film review: The Handmaiden (Agassi)

Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee star in “The Handmaiden.” Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

It’s always been interesting to me how deeply twisted and delightfully macabre Korean cinema can be — in sharp contrast to the conservative cuteness in popular television dramas. And no one has mastered the perverse and gory in this genre like director Park Chan-wook, who brought the world “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and, most recently, “The Handmaiden.”

His latest creation takes place in 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation of the country. Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is a beautiful but frail heiress living on an expansive estate with her tyrannical, book-collecting uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). When she hires Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to be her new maid, she has no idea that the woman is secretly a double agent, raised from childhood as a pickpocket and chosen by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) to help him seduce the heiress and steal her fortune.

Although it runs for nearly two and a half hours, “The Handmaiden” never seems to drag and each scene keeps the audience anticipating more. The first half of the film moves along at a pleasant pace as Sook-hee and Hideko begin to get to know each other. The building sexual tension between the two women is masterfully executed, and Tae-ri is particularly charismatic in her role as the endearing criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold.

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Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

When the film finally reaches its peak of excitement, it never relents. There are nonstop twists that constantly change the audience’s perception of the characters’ alliances, as well as flashbacks and revelations that reveal deeper levels to every element of the story. It’s a thrill to watch and try to keep pace with the film’s progression.

And when it gets grisly (because of course it has to), it does not disappoint. The climactic conclusion is absolutely satisfying and every bit as fucked up as is expected of Park Chan-wook.

“The Handmaiden” is also filmed beautifully — each scene is a pleasure to observe. The scenery is complemented with skillful framing and camera angles that complete the film’s artistic aesthetic. “The Handmaiden” is a great thriller and pleasing to the eye as well.

I love the kind-of feminist focus on the powers of the two female heroines, as well as the unique love story that develops between them. My only real complaint about the film is that the lesbian romance is so completely shot for the male gaze it’s a bit cringe-worthy in parts. The entirety of “The Handmaiden” is pretty kinky, and it’s clear a straight male director was behind the helm.

But, hey, no one could claim this film is not aesthetically exceptional, and the story is quite an exhilarating ride. I highly recommend “The Handmaiden.”

‘The Handmaiden’
Release Date: June 1, 2016
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo and Kim Tae-ri
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: A

Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

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Trees in full bloom at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Every year, people wait for the perfect few days in April to head out to the best parks in Seoul for viewing blooming cherry trees. Yeouido and Jinhae are particularly popular spots for cherry blossom picnics and photoshoots, but Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong offers a less crowded, more peaceful alternative.

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Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring weather in Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Seoul National Cemetery is known for its weeping cherry trees, which have flower-covered branches that hang low and swing in the wind. The elegant weeping cherry tree branches fit the tranquil mood of the cemetery.

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

The cemetery is reserved for Korean veterans, including those of the Korean independence movement, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Several former Korean presidents are also buried there. In addition to the cherry trees, there are photo exhibits and memorial monuments to appreciate.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Although viewing cherry blossoms is so popular in modern-day South Korea, the country’s relationship with the national flower of Japan is actually kind of complicated. Because Yoshino cherry trees were planted on Korean palace grounds during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the continued cherry blossom festivals have been controversial. Some Koreans view the trees as symbols of the occupation, and many trees have been chopped down as a political statement.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Regardless of the contentious history of cherry blossoms in Korea, the beautiful and short-lived blossoms still attract huge crowds during the first few weeks of April. This weekend, the weather was warm, but the skies were gray — not with fog but with awful air pollution. Such is spring in 2016.

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Spring! SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

I got a Lolita makeover in Harajuku, Tokyo

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Inside the “Alice in Wonderland” book at Maison de Julietta in Harajuku, Tokyo. SCREAMfmLondon

If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be an adorable porcelain doll, Maison de Julietta in Harajuku, Tokyo has a solution for you.

Maison de Julietta is a small shop on the bottom floor of the LaForet Department Store that offers guests a “Harajuku Lolita Experience.” The experience includes a head-to-toe makeover featuring Lolita clothing, hair and makeup, followed by a professional photoshoot in the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed photo studio.

Maison de Julietta’s official spokesmodel is Misako Aoki. Misako is a well-known Lolita model and a government-appointed Japanese Kawaii Ambassador, which, yes, is a thing. So, you know that this shop is pretty legit.

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Lolita fashion at Maison de Julietta. SCREAMfmLondon

LaForet is filled with impressive and trendy boutiques selling all the latest fashion and accessories — from Lolita styles and beyond. The Maison de Julietta boutique is fully stocked with the biggest, most deluxe Lolita brands there are: Metamorphose, Angelic Pretty, Alice and the Pirates. My Lolita outfit was comprised mostly of pieces from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright — a popular brand that typically retails around $300-500 for just one jumper skirt.

The base price for a Lolita experience is 9,980 JPY (about $84), but there is an additional charge for adding a wig (1,500 JPY), false eyelashes (500 JPY) or an undershirt (200 JPY). Included in the package are three professional photographs from your shoot — any additional copies you want to save will cost 1,000 JPY each.

I recommend going all out with the wig and the eyelashes because YOLO, when in Rome, etc. Once you make your selections, the adventure begins.

“Do you know ‘kawaii’? You’re going to be hearing it a lot today.”

“First, you’re going to pick out a dress!” said one staff member, gesturing toward the impressive rack of clothing in one corner of the shop.

“Are you going to help me?” I asked weakly. I didn’t know the first thing about putting together a coordinate. I didn’t really know anything about Lolita in general, aside from the fact that it looked cute and fun.

I also didn’t feel particularly confident that I was going to be able to squeeze my entire self into these delicate, cutesy outfits. I expressed this concern, and she waved me off, assuring me that the clothes would fit and, if not, they just wouldn’t zip it up all the way and would take photos from the other side. I was lowkey discouraged by that prospect: it didn’t seem very Lolita to be walking around with your zipper hanging open, but what can you do?

I selected a bouncy pink dress with lots of lace detailing and an undershirt with delicate bell sleeves. (“All the foreigners pick this dress!” the staff member told me.) She helped me find matching glitter socks and chunky pink heels, and then sent me to change.

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(✿◠‿◠). SCREAMfmLondon

To my surprise, the dress fit! It was a Harajuku miracle. But I cannot say the same for the undershirt, which would not at all button over my chest. However, the jumper ends up covering everything but the sleeves, so it didn’t really matter. Add several layers of petticoats, fluff, and you’re all set.

Finally, I emerged! They told me I was wearing it wrong, so I slunk back to the changing room to fix it. Finally, I reemerged!

The next step is hair and makeup. The artist worked her magic on me with various blushes, glosses and, of course, the false lashes. I wish I had been paying more attention to her process, because this was the best my makeup has ever looked in my entire life.

After makeup, I picked out a dark, curly wig. I was very wary of this step, but they reassured me that I could take it off if I felt weird. And I definitely did feel weird: I laughed hysterically at how goofy I looked when I first put it on. But once it was styled into cute pigtails and topped with a pink bonnet, I had started to feel comfortable in my new skin.

I sat in the makeup chair and took more selfies in a few minutes than I had in the past few years.

“I thought you said it looked weird,” said one staff member, checking in on me after a while.

“Yeah, I did. But now I’m feeling it.”

“Yeah, but now I’m feeling it.”

Eventually, it was time for the grand finale: the professional photo shoot. The photographer was very skilled and had his shoots down to a science. He told me exactly where to stand, how to pose, and what props to hold. It put me at ease since I felt extremely awkward the entire time.

Honestly, I was having the time of my life just standing around wearing the outfit. I don’t particularly enjoy being photographed, but a Lolita’s gotta do what a Lolita’s gotta do.

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(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧. SCREAMfmLondon

I was perfectly alright with only getting to keep three photos from the shoot. I knew that if we took 100 photos, I’d probably only like three of them.

And guess what! I only liked two of them. My selfies turned out way better. In all the professional photos, I have this highly skeptical look on my face; you can almost hear me asking, “Are you sure this is going to look cute…?” through the lens.

When the shoot was finished, I was very reluctant to change back into my street clothes and undo the transformation. I was amazed at how cute and comfortable I felt in the Lolita look. I wanted to wear it all day, and the next day, and every day after that.

Maison de Julietta’s Lolita experience was the most fun I had in Japan. The staff was sweet and helpful (you even get a little Lolita sugar cookie on your way out the door!), the clothes were darling, and the whole experience was a blast. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants a unique taste of Japanese culture.

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(◡‿◡✿). SCREAMfmLondon

Capsule drama reviews: The Secret Message, The Lover, etc.

‘The Secret Message’
Starring:
Choi Seung-hyun, Juri Ueno and Yoo In-na
Genre: Romance, Drama
Episodes: 18

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Photo courtesy of CJ E&M and Amuse, Inc.

Like “EXO Lives Next Door,” “The Secret Message” is a quick web series comprised of short episodes that are each only 10-20 minutes long, which is such a wonderful format. Unlike “EXO Lives Next Door,” “The Secret Message” is pretty sophisticated, well-written and well-executed. Sorry about it.

The show takes place half in Korea and half in Japan. Juri Ueno plays Haruka, a Japanese woman who is staying with a friend in South Korea, trying to deal with the end of her first romantic relationship. T.O.P plays Woo-hyun, a Korean filmmaker working in Japan on a documentary about love who is, himself, still hurt from a recent breakup. When Woo-hyun accidentally texts Haruka’s phone number, the two begin communicating despite the distance and language barrier between them.

The cinematography and scenery showing off the beauty of both Korea and Japan adds a really nice touch to “The Secret Message.” And, although the show tries to take the subject of moving on from a lost love pretty seriously, T.O.P’s goofy personality, interspersed jokes and references to Big Bang keep it cute and entertaining. But “The Secret Message” is kind of a big exercise in product placement. The show originally aired on Line TV and is clearly sponsored by the Line messaging app — quite a lot of the communication takes place through the app, and the trademark Line characters appear throughout. That being said, “The Secret Message” totally makes me want to download Line. I mean, if there’s a possibility T.O.P will accidentally text you and fall in love despite the odds… Well played, Line.

‘Twenty’
Release Date:
March 25, 2015
Director: Lee Byeong-heon
Starring: Kim Woo-bin, Lee Junho and Kang Ha-neul
Genre: Comedy
Rating: Not Rated

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Photo courtesy of Next Entertainment World.

I got quite a kick out of “Twenty.” This is a raunchy coming-of-age sex comedy/buddy movie — just like “Superbad,” only funnier and with better-looking actors.

The story follows three best friends who have just turned 20 and are at a crossroads in their lives. Chi-ho (Kim Woo-bin) is the spoiled rich boy whose only aspiration is to have sex with as many women as possible. Dong-woo (Lee Junho from the idol group 2PM) dreams of being a comic book illustrator, but has work part time jobs instead of attending art school after his family’s bankruptcy. Kung-jae (Kang Ha-neul) is a preppy college student who falls in love with a smart upperclassman in the stock market club.

“Twenty” is awfully entertaining. Each of the lead characters is charismatic in his own way, and each individual plot arc is interesting. Although “Twenty” is decidedly a comedy, there are some well-done dramatic moments that add a lot of depth to the story. Even the cinematography is interesting — the film features some well-placed surrealism (the group of friends arriving at a literal crossroads in the dirt) and a solid soundtrack to enhance key scenes. It’s a bawdy, laugh-out-loud funny movie (seriously, it is), but it’s also slightly tragic. Basically, “Twenty” is a great movie that perfectly toes the line between soul-searching melodrama and dudes making dick jokes.

‘Oh My Ghostess’ (aka ‘Oh My Ghost’)
Starring: Park Bo-young, Kim Seul-gie and Jo Jung-suk
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Episodes: 16

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Photo courtesy of tvN.

“Oh My Ghostess” is a fun show to watch — it’s a kind of sexy romantic-comedy that slowly turns into a murder mystery. With solid acting from all of the cast members, this show just gets more exciting to watch as it progresses. It’s, at times, funny and dark with an action-packed conclusion led by the show’s cool group of heroines.

Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seul-gie) is a ghost who is unable to cross over until she resolves her grudge: that she died a virgin. Unfortunately, in order to resolve her grudge, she has to find and seduce a “man of vitality” who is able to withstand sex with a ghost without dying (she learns this the hard way). Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) is a meek assistant chef whose shaman grandmother enables her to see ghosts, making her body the perfect vessel for opportunistic spirits. And Kang Sun-woo (Jo Jong-suk), the handsome celebrity chef who employs Bong-sun, seems to be full of vitality, if you know what I mean.

“Oh My Ghostess” is very amusing, and Park Bo-young especially does an excellent job portraying both shy Bong-sun and gregarious, sexually liberated Bong-sun-as-possessed-by-Soon-ae. The budding romance is cute, and the relationship between Bong-sun and her coworkers at the restaurant is sweet. However, the show really gets interesting when Soon-ae’s memories of her life begin returning and she starts to question the suspicious circumstances of her death.

‘The Lover’
Starring:
Oh Jung-se, Ryu Hyun-kyung and Jung Joon-young
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Episodes: 12

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Takuya Terada and Lee Jae-joon star in “The Lover.” Photo courtesy of Mnet.

“The Lover” is kind of a stupid show, but I just couldn’t stop watching it once I started. Although it starts out highly ridiculously (there are entire long episodes hinged solely on double entendres, innuendos and sex jokes), the characters become relatable and, suddenly, the plot of “The Lover” seems very serious. I even cried a little during the last episode!

The show follows four different couples in the same apartment building who are — scandalously — living together before marriage. The primary focus is on Oh Do-si (Oh Jung-se) and Ryu Doo-ri (Ryu Hyun-kyung), who are both in their 30s and have lived together for two years. In the next apartment over lives Ji-nyeo (Choi Yeo-jin) and her cute guitarist boyfriend Young-joon (Jung Joon-young), who is 12 years her junior. On the seventh floor lives Joon-jae (Lee Jae-joon), a quiet homebody who is quickly falling in love with his Japanese roommate Takuya (Takuya Terada from Cross Gene). They get very little screen time, unfortunately, but their story arc is the most tense and compelling. And, finally, on the fifth floor lives Hwan-jong (Park Jong-hwan) and Seol-eun (Ha Eun-seol), an engaged couple who just moved in together.

Some of the couples are more entertaining than others: Ji-nyeo and Young-joon are adorable, hilarious and touching, while Hwan-jong and Seol-eun are awkward and lack chemistry. “The Lover” is definitely worth watching, though, for its amusing, in-your-face portrayal of cohabitation, sex and love in Korea (without marriage!), and its focus on more unconventional romantic pairings. Plus, it has a pretty sufficiently satisfying ending for everyone. “The Lover” even presents the happiest ending I’ve seen for gay characters in a k-drama so far! I’ll take it.

Food: Ichiran Ramen in Shibuya

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Fantastic ramen at Ichiran in Shibuya, Tokyo. SCREAMfmLondon

Ichiran is the perfect restaurant for someone like me who likes to travel alone and eat delicious food at all hours without having to interact with mankind. This 24-hour Japanese ramen chain is famous for its tasty dishes and private, one-person booths in the dining area.

You can spot Ichiran’s Shibuya location from down the block because of the long line that winds up the narrow staircase and spills out onto the street. It moves moderately quickly as you inch your way closer to the red cloth signs hanging over the door.

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The ominous entryway to Ichiran. SCREAMfmLondon

Once inside the foyer, you insert money into a vending machine and make your initial ramen selection. The machine dispenses change and prints out a ticket.

While you wait for a seat to open up, you will fill out a worksheet about all the exact specifications of your desired bowl of ramen. The worksheet is super detailed and even offers suggestions, which I mostly took: medium-strength flavor, medium richness (oil content), regular garlic, green onion, sliced pork, half a serving of Ichiran’s original red sauce, and medium firmness for the noodles.

When a seat is available, you’re lead into the dining area. This is the best part. I love this set-up. I feel like every restaurant should be like this.

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The private ramen-eating booth for one at Ichiran in Shibuya, Tokyo. SCREAMfmLondon

Each diner is seated in an individual cubicle with high wooden walls separating you from the diners beside you and a thick bamboo curtain separating you from the kitchen staff. It’s just you and the ramen. When you’re ready to order, you ring a bell and slide your order sheet under the curtain. When the food is ready, they slide it back under. You never even see the chef’s face. It’s wild, and I love it!

There’s a little spout in the cubicle from which you can pour your own ice water, and you can even order extra noodles if you still have broth left after you finish.

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It’s so beautiful. SCREAMfmLondon

Have I mentioned that I love this restaurant? Because I love this. The ramen was delicious. The medium richness was perfectly spot-on, and the noodles and pork were tasty and flavorful. I wish I had gone a little stronger on flavor and definitely on the red sauce, which was not noticeably spicy. I would make some alterations to my ramen requests and add a soft-boiled egg next time, but Ichiran is certainly customizable enough. And all for about 800 JPY.

So private. So atmospheric. And nobody was there to see when I somehow dipped my hair in the broth. It was perfect.

Food: Angels Heart in Harajuku

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Angels Heart crêpes in Harajuku, Tokyo. SCREAMfmLondon

Crêpes are big in Tokyo, and there are about a million crêperies along Takeshita Street, one of Harajuku’s most popular pedestrian-only shopping streets. The foot traffic on Takeshita is so intense that there’s little room for actual movement, so the small restaurants and side streets are essential for a quick escape from the crowds.

Angels Heart is a crêperie located on the corner of one such side street, which provides a nice reprieve from the chaos of the main drag. There was periodically a line, but it went quite quickly.

Angels Heart serves a variety of freshly-made crêpes (both sweet and savory) with your choice of fillings. The girl in front of me definitely ordered some sort of leafy green crêpe filling, but I went with banana, chocolate and cheesecake for around 500 JPY. It was prepared quickly and served wrapped in a sturdy, pink paper cone. The entire side street is lined with people chillin’, eatin’ crêpes, and I was happy to join them.

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Banana, chocolate and cheesecake in one great crêpe. SCREAMfmLondon

The street is on a slight incline, so it provides a good vantage point from which you can do some great people-watching. While I was hanging out, I heard lots of shouting and clanging coming from the main street as several groups of men dressed in short robes pushed their way through the shoppers carrying some sorts of altars on their shoulders. I assume it had something to do with the Mid-Autumn Festival, Tsukimi, that was going on around the same time as the lunar eclipse during the last week of September.

But who knows.

At any rate, the crêpe was delicious: the slice of cheesecake was solid, the chocolate syrup was plentiful, the whipped cream was cool while the crêpe itself was warm. What more do you need? Angels Heart is a sweet spot to stop by when you become overwhelmed by the crowds in Harajuku.

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The view of Takeshita Street during Tsukimi 2015. SCREAMfmLondon