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A taste of Tokyo

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Though travel restrictions have put a hold on holidaying, we can still experience the beautiful and amazing parts of our world through stories.

It’s 2am and I’m playing drums in a deserted and tiny back-street bar in the shady Yakuza-controlled, red-light district of Kabukicho and I think I may have had one whisky too many. It all started so well when the hotel receptionist told us that our free upgrade allowed us to visit the Executive Lounge which had an open bar for two hours each night. We were on a kid-free Tokyo long weekend prior to work meetings so the offer of free booze was definitely hitting the target market.

We were staying in the lively Shinjuku district in the inner-western part of the sprawling city so after cramming in as much free booze as we could we wobbled nearby to the atmospheric Piss Alley which is a 200m long stretch of tiny bars generally serving yakitori skewers, beer and whisky highballs.

After another couple of hours of generous whisky pours we followed the crowds and neon lights to Kabukicho, where you can find anything from amusement arcades to robot cabaret shows to love hotels. After wandering around and taking in the sights we made our way to Hammond Orgasm, an 80s rock bar recommended by a friend due to the lovely hosts and excellent music. As I discovered, they also have a drum kit set up in the bar and displayed typical Japanese hospitality in allowing this drunk tourist to play. Before long my wife’s pained expression told me it was time to leave and we headed back to the hotel as snow started to fall. 

kabukicho district

The next morning we decide on a morning run to clear the hangovers and head to the beautiful Yoyogi Park. The serenity was a huge change to the previous night’s neon overload however the peace was quickly shattered by the arrival of thousands of decoratively dressed locals carrying shrines and giant drums set on long wooden poles across their shoulders marching through the park to the amazing Meiji Shrine within. We later discover that this was the annual National Foundation Day parade which celebrates the ascension of the first Japanese emperor in 660BC by marching to Emperor Meiji’s shrine and we were very lucky to accidentally stumble across such an amazing spectacle.

Over the next couple of days we visited other spectacular temples and shrines such as Senso-ji and neighbouring Asakusa, explored historical sites such as Hamarikyu Gardens and Imperial Palace, walked the fashionable districts of Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza, and ate as much Japanese food as was humanly possible. Japanese restaurants take a very simple approach of focusing on a limited menu and making everything on it perfect and I am drooling just thinking about them whilst I write this.

Having visited Tokyo several times for work and holiday, it is the extremes that I love the most. There aren’t many places where you can walk 5 minutes away from bustling tourist sites down streets so deserted and immaculately clean you can hear your shoes squeaking, then go to work in an office with extraordinarily hard-working and friendly colleagues who are passed out drunk on the train 3 hours later. The weather ranges from snow to typhoon and each district has its own distinct personality. From Akihabara the colourful centre of anime, manga and gaming culture to black trouser/white shirt business districts like Shinagawa or traditional villages like Ueno.

No matter how many times I visit there is always more to see in Tokyo and it will be one of the first places I go back to once the borders re-open.

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Stunning Sri Lanka

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Though we are all still stuck within our borders, it’s never too early to start dreaming about a holiday. This month we bring you a place that is probably not on your bucket list. Until you read this.

I’ve driven in crazy traffic in many countries but our first morning in Sri Lanka made me glad we had taken the easy option and arranged for a driver and van to take us from the airport to the historic north of the country, home to ancient kingdoms and some of the world’s holiest Buddhist sites. Our driver Rohan had the world’s calmest temperament, which was needed to cope with the constant squeeze of traffic into our lane, swarming motorbikes and the odd elephant crossing the road.

Our first stop was the 2,400 year old city of Anuradhapura, the location of many beautiful and significant Buddhist stupas and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree planted in 288 BC which is reputed to be from a branch of the historical Sri Maha Bodhi in India under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment, and the oldest living tree in the world with a known planting date.

Following beautiful Anuradhapura, we travelled to the Dambulla Cave Temple complex which contains around 160 statues of Buddha, Hindu gods, and Sri Lankan kings, and from there we visited Sigiriya, site of a 1500-year-old fortress on top of a rocky outcrop that dominates the landscape. Climbing the steps to the top and seeing the stunning views was a major highlight.

Breaking up the historic part of our holiday, we took an open jeep tour through Minneriya National Park to see dozens of elephants, water buffaloes, and monkeys along with many birds before discovering the fantastic ruins and temples of the enormous 1,000 year old city of Polonnaruwa.

After three amazing days of exploring the amazing historic northern cities, we felt we deserved a couple of days lazing by the beach with cocktails in hand so we headed to the east coast village of Pasikudah, whose beautiful beach is seeing a growing number of 5 star resorts at very reasonable prices.

Our next stop was down the coast to pretty Arugam Bay, a famous surf town which was filled with an incongruous mixture of young European surfer backpackers in bikinis or shorts drinking beers and conservative Muslims fasting through Ramadan.

From here we left the coast to head up to Ella, a bustling tourist hill-town renowned for hiking trails such as Little Adam’s Peak and local teas or juices, and home to one of the friendliest B&B’s we have ever stayed in. Ella is also the starting point of the famous Ella-Kandy train, the country’s most scenic train route which heads through picturesque tea plantations and waterfalls to Sri Lanka’s second biggest city Kandy, our last stop before home.

Sri Lanka is one of the best holidays we’ve ever had, with a mesmerising diversity of cultures, history, landscapes, and extraordinarily friendly people and I can’t recommend it enough for your first international trip once the borders open. Our 3yo ginger daughter was like the second coming of the Buddha, with hundreds of requests for selfies from locals obsessed with her hair.

It was fascinating to the see the changes in religion, language and culture as we travelled throughout different parts of the country, as the country is predominantly Catholic in the west, Buddhist in the north, Muslim in the south east, and Hindu in the south. Because of this, if you are visiting it is important to remember some of the rules around religious sites, such as not taking photos with or turning your back on statues of the Buddha and wearing appropriate clothing in temples and mosques, but that is a small price to pay for visiting such a beautiful and unique island.

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Exquisite Cuisine at Coquun

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Coquun is a modern and elegant café, bar and bistro charmingly situated along the Hunter River in Maitland serving bright and beautiful flavours of the native food bowl.

Not only have they created an absolutely delectable menu of refined, mostly locally sourced cuisine inspired by native flavours; Coquun has also established a unique and welcoming meeting ground for people to come together and enjoy.

Coquun is on Wonnarua country and respectfully acknowledges the ancient history of the land and it’s first people, drawing inspiration from native flavours and customs. Relaxing views of the Hunter River and warm and welcome service from staff makes it the perfect spot for a relaxing breaky or lunch in the sun.

The menu is fresh and modern with a beautiful selection of wines, beer and cocktails to tastefully accompany each dish. My sister joined me on our visit to Coquun on a sunlit Wednesday lunch, and we enjoyed taking in the scenery as we selected our entrée’s, mains and beverages.

Browsing the assortment of cheeses, charcuterie, sausages and smaller plates to start, we decided on the Marinated Olives and the Salt and Vinegar Brussels Sprouts. Never having tried a variation of the traditional brussels sprouts (which my sister and I are not fans of), I was pleasantly surprised to find they were absolutely delicious, with a crispy tang. If you have a fussy kid that refuses to eat healthy foods, this may be a game changer. The olives were also fresh and well marinated; I went through them like popcorn.

We shared the Damper Dip Bowl; we can never seem to go past a damper dip. The toasted damper dipped into a melted, herby cheese was enough to make us both look at each other with our eyes wide with excitement. Needless to say, it was a race to see who got to have the last bite and it was gone within minutes.

On to the Cheese and Bacon Burger with Fries; a classic favourite. Except it was anything but ‘classic’. The beef was a high-end super thick, juicy patty that was absolutely full of flavour. It was the kind of meat that just melted in your mouth. The burger also had a bush tomato type relish that was unique in taste, fresh and a great addition to a beautifully cooked patty. Served with a side of crispy fries, it filled us up quick smart.

We ran out of time for dessert, but we had to mention some of the delicious options. The Dropped White Chocolate Panna Cotta caught my eye with wattle seed and sesame crack, caramelised white chocolate and eucalyptus caramel. And for next time, we have already decided on the Pear, Rum, Ginger Pudding, Caramelised Fig, Honey Macadamia Hunter Valley Gelato.

Our quick Wednesday lunch on our work break turned into a delightful experience that made us wish we could stay for a cocktail or two.

If you’re looking for a lunch or dinner spot this weekend, head to Maitland, take a stroll along the river and make your way to Coquun.

Visit http://www.coquun.com.au to check out their full menu.
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Treated Like Royalty

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With a modern elegance, The Royal Federal Hotel Branxton has created a sophisticated yet classic pub aesthetic that has set the bar high for pubs in the Hunter Valley.

We love a good pub feed here @ The Coalface, and I’ll tell you what…we have done the rounds when it comes to pubs in the Hunter Valley. So, when a pub stands out, we’re not shy about sharing the news.

A stunning, cloudless Friday saw my colleague and I visit The Royal Federal Hotel for an afternoon pub lunch that left us dazed and amazed. Classy, refined and modish, the country pub has skilfully fused a classic pub feel and modernised menu with that of a high-end restaurant.

As you walk through back entrance of the impressive two-story hotel, you’re met with a traditional, classic style bar that encompasses that Aussie pub experience. The beautiful wooden features and exposed brick make it a homely stop for a post work bevvy.

Moving upstairs to the bistro the setting effortlessly shifts towards a more contemporary, quirky and artistic design. Beautiful artworks and private function areas lead you through a quaint little library archway, filled wall to wall with books you can borrow.

We were lucky enough to be seated in one of the available function spaces, a stunning room decorated with empty frames placed artistically along the walls. We sat down at the head of the huge dining table and placed our order.

For starters, we shared the Bruschetta – a toasted sourdough topped with prosciutto, tomato salsa, burrata cheese, pesto and balsamic reduction. Fresh and flavourful, this dish was a delightful way to kick things off.

Then came our entrees and mains. The twice cooked Pork Belly was served with sweet and sour sauce, kumara puree and roast baby vegetables. The meat was tender and succulent, and the puree and vegetables complimented the dish with their vibrant presentation and flavours.

We also had the Seafood Chowder with flathead, clams, squid, prawns, smoked bacon and vegetables served with dinner rolls. The warm soup of fresh seafood and vegetables made for a tasty winter entrée.

Our mains consisted of the Portuguese Chicken, marinated in peri peri sauce with a Caribbean style salad and grilled corn; and the 200g Eye fillet, pan seared with butter, garlic and thyme serviced with potato gratin, greens and red wine jus.

The Eye Fillet was absolutely to die for. The meat was tender and juicy and with every bite I was enchanted. My colleague stole the last few bites and was equally impressed.

The Portuguese Chicken had a peri peri flavoured, spicy kick that was lively and enjoyable. This dish was huge and would be sure to satisfy even the biggest of eaters.

Finally, we shared a Baileys cheesecake. We absolutely LOVED this dessert. The flavours were rich, and the biscuit base was crunchy and delicious. It was the perfect ending to a feast fit for two queens.

The Royal Federal Hotel will be heading into Spring with a fresh, new menu in mid-September 2020 and we can’t wait to see what’s in store.

To make a booking call (02) 4938 1335. To keep up to date with specials and the new Spring Menu visit https://www.royalfederal.com.au/

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