Karatsu favourite eats and shops

Eating my way through the best of Karatsu signature foods and amazing pottery (7 - 8 Sep 2016)
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After our stay in Onyado Chikurintei in Takeo, we made our way through Imari for a quick stopover Imari beef lunch, before arriving at Karatsu in the late afternoon. Karatsu (唐津) is a coastal city on Kyushu, about 50 km west of Fukuoka. Karatsu has always been prosperous since ancient times, being an important trading point for Mainland China. Its most famous attractions is the Karatsu castle and the annual Karatsu Kunchi festival in November, which unfortunately we were too early for, and especially famed for its local pottery – yeah!

Beautiful pine grove lined road – known as Niji no Matsubara Pine Grove

Me in front of the famed Karatsu Castle (nope I didn’t walk up there if you were wondering!)

We stayed at Shioyu Naginoto – a simple modern Ryokan Hotel (as compared to Onyado Chikurintei) and ate our way through Karatsu in lightning speed, it was definitely an eating expedition, with hardly any sightseeing other than yes that fateful shot I insisted on taking in front of Karatsu Castle. Here’s my must eats for Karatsu discovered in a mere 2 days:

CAKES AND TEA

Tea & Space 基幸庵 1 Chome-9-21 Higashikaratsu, Karatsu-shi, Saga-ken 847-0017, Japan, Tel: +81 955-72-8188

Beautiful cafe selling tea and traditional Japanese desserts including my favourite Kakigori, with an attached gallery space selling pottery and other locally designed homeware. The beauty of this shop is its homage to local wood, where every piece of table and chair is made by craftsman of Nagasaki. This was a perfect rest stop for us after we just arrived in Karatsu, for a much deserved drink and some nice yummy Japanese desserts. Y and I shared the kakigori, while LY had a hot traditional Japanese dessert which is made from mochi.

Outside of shop, and enjoying my matcha kakigori with adzuki beans

My favourite Matcha Kakigori

LY’s traditional Japanese dessert

The gallery shop

Some cute decorative pottery for sale

What was also really nice about the place was the owner – an elderly lady who spoke pretty decent English, and told us she visited Singapore quite some years back. She was the first person we had met so far in our trip to Kyushu who could converse with us in English, and she was nice enough to share with us some great places to eat, and we took this opportunity to verify with her if the places we had booked so far were good, and she said yes to all, even saying some of them were must eats – phew! Through her, we understood more about the concept of the shop and gallery as well, and she gave us some recommendations on buying lovely pottery (erm, yes I know I mentioned I would stop buying in my last blog, but it’s really hard to resist when you are in Karatsu – the origin of pottery). There was something really relaxing and homey about this place, and I would have gone back there again if we had more time. I am amazed Y and I actually walked out without buying anything from here – talk about self control!

Outside Patisserie Shogetsudo – one of the best cakes I’ve had!

Patisserie Shogetsudo 〒847-0861 Saga-ken, Karatsu-shi, Futago, 1 Chome−2−22, Japan, Tel: T: 0955-73-8401

Oh my lord, I have to say, this is hands down one of the best Japanese cakes I’ve had. This location is a pure takeaway shop, but that didn’t stop us from eating it immediately in the car after. In typical LY and Lovey fashion, yes Y was trying to slow us down in terms of not overbuying cakes but we ended up buying 5 cakes and a soft ice cream, with our hotel breakfast still barely digested. They are known for a chocolate dome shaped cake which has a slight molten centre, as well as the swiss roll. Generally, the swiss roll was light yet really hearty at the same time, as the portion size for a slice is quite thick and generous, and the famed chocolate dome cake, had a beautiful dark chocolate richness to it, with the molten centre being not too liquid so we were still able to enjoy it in the car without it leaking everywhere. This is definitely a must stop for sweet tooths like me!

Inside the shop

Cute trick or treat bags for Halloween

Swiss roll – one of the best!

Famed chocolate dome

Minori 〒849-5131 Saga-ken, Karatsu-shi, Hamatamamachi Hamasaki, 2269, Tel: +81 955-56-6802

This cute little tea house has their own chicken farm, where chickens are happy and free, and the eggs are free range. They pay a lot of attention to the quality of these as these are an important ingredient in their cakes – yes swiss rolls and chiffon cakes are quite known here, plus their oyako don is one of their signature dishes as well. Once we arrived through the entrance, we queued up in the tiny cake shop area to order and pay for our food before taking a seat in the traditional tea house with tatami mat seating.

Entrance of Minori – very useful if you are trying to find this place.

Food on poster at entrance beckoning to us

Oh no, more cakes, can’t decide which to have

My only regret about coming here, is not having an emptier stomach, this was my 3rd meal in the morning after a hotel breakfast and Shogetsudo pastries I just stuffed my face with some 10 minutes ago. So we restricted our orders to a swiss roll, chiffon cake and a small Oyako Don. The color of the egg was a beautiful golden yellow, and that’s really a reflection of the diet of the chickens – very telling in the high quality of eggs here. Y had some sampling of the cakes, giving the rest to LY and myself to finish, we were so stuffed so we had to takeaway the remaining uneaten portions of the cake back.

My 3rd meal this morning – trying very hard to eat all of these.

THE ONLY TOFU TO HAVE – LUNCH SPOT

Kawashima Tofu 1775 Kyōmachi, Karatsu-shi, Saga-ken 847-0045, Japan, Tel: +81 955-72-2423

Located in the main shopping area of Karatsu (don’t be deceived by the simple appearance of this town, there are some gems here to be found – be on that topic later in this blog under SHOPS), this famous 200 year old tofu shop is definitely worth a stop over even if you are not a huge soy lover – trust me on that, given I am not super crazy about soy. And reservations are a must given it’s a really small restaurant sitting around 8 people around a counter sitting.

4th meal of the day at 2 pm – outside Kawashima Tofu.

Lunch course is a fixed kaiseki course – comprising of a basket of fresh tofu is presented and then scooped individually to each diner, sesame tofu, fried tofu, cooked fish, and ends off with soup and barley. It sounds really simple but every single tofu dish was really quite something and pure. The fresh tofu looked like a beautiful large mozzarella ball, which we could have a second round of, but I was definitely too full by then given this was my fourth meal by 2 pm. I loved also the fried tofu which was perfect – crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The meal was ended with a sublime smooth tofu pudding, mildly sweet with a wonderful texture. There’s also a shop next door selling some of their tofu products, but it was hard for us to buy given our travelling itinerary, I think the tofu would become smashed tofu by the time Y and I got to Singapore.

The sleek counter of Kawashima Tofu restaurant and the famous “Mozzarella” looking fresh tofu.

BEST DINNERS TO HAVE

Amegen 1058-2 Hamatamamachi Gotanda, Karatsu-shi, Saga-ken 849-5102, Japan, Tel: +81 955-56-6926

This 1 Michelin star restaurant goes back to 1838, and helming the kitchen presently is the fifth-generation owner-chef, managed by a lady and her mum presently. Located in a traditional Japanese house, we were first served drinks in a waiting room, before being ushered into a large dining room with tatami mat to enjoy our dinner. Rather than going with a full kaiseki dinner, we requested for certain things like fish of the season, their signature steamed whole crab and left the rest to them. We were pretty lucky to be able to taste ayu fish, also known as sweet fish, a river fish in Japan known for its sweet tasting flesh and is typically available in summer season. Our dishes included:

  • Turtle soup
  • Ayu stomach with yam, which wow had a pretty strong fermented taste
  • Vinegared Ayu
  • Shio Ayu and charcoal Ayu – the spine was skilfully removed by the owner’s daughter
  • Grilled unagi – which was so so good! One of the best I’ve had in Japan.
  • Sweet Hairy crab – male and female – oh the flesh was sweet and the roe so creamy!
  • Crab rice with crab soup – which was so fragrant

The hospitality of the mother and her daughter was lovely and they really made us feel at home and made up for the rather black faced junior staff who was frowning when we arrived 15 minutes late for our dinner.

Owner’s daughter happily posing.

Skilfully removing the Ayu Fish spine.

Indulging in the amazing hairy crab, with delicious roe. 

Caravan 1845 Nakamachi, Karatsu-shi, Saga-ken 847-0051, Japan, Tel: +81 955-74-2326. Reservations a must, best seats are in front of chef.

This Saga steakhouse is the best in Karatsu according to my indepth research and further verified when we spoke to some locals during our trip here. We were quite looking forward to the gorgeous succulent steak that awaited us at this 1 Michelin star restaurant. Helmed by a young chef of 39 years old – Kawakami Akhirahan. He took over the restaurant from his father after his death. He was super nice and friendly and we could tell he’s super passionate about steak, with an equally energetic sous chef and mummy who also works at the restaurant. He suggested we order an 8-ounce chautebriand and sirloin to share, which he told me he sources from a Saga farm – called Nakayama.

The interior of Caravan, and our delicious Chautebriand and Sirloin steak 

Chef Kawakami serving the seared beef slice

Chef Kawakami cooking our beef

We started with the salad with Caravan’s creamy salad dressing, and then we had this amazing thinly sliced raw beef, presented to us almost like a rose, and just simply melted in our mouth. The ultimate is when he takes the last piece and quickly sears it, and serves it to our mouth, it’s really simple the best! Both the steaks were as expected – super amazing! It’s an important thing to have the right produce but just as important to have superb cooking skills to bring out the flavours of the meat, and Chef Kawakami really showcased his ability here. He explained to us extremely technical things regarding the process of cooking the meat to perfection and the temperature of the cooking for the outside versus the inside of meat is key. You gotta check out the youtube video link below, which chef candidly taught me to take in iPhone – Slo-mo mode, and what you have is super slick stylo video of how a steak is cooked, flambe on the teppan grill!

Rose like display of beautiful raw beef slices 

Perfect half and half of delicious Chautebriand and Sirloin steak 

We were also rather greedy and asked for a hamburg steak, which was cooked just slightly charred, perfect for my taste buds, and as it’s got no binding agent like flour, it crumbled easily, but was super tasty too. You can even buy some to takeaway, which is what we did. This is definitely a must go restaurant, also for the amazing hospitality and warmth of the chef and his team!

Crumbly, awesome Saga Hamburg Steak.

SHOPS

And now for the list of cool shops to check out in Karatsu. Comparing to the nearby towns of Takeo and Imari, Karatsu is known as the origin of pottery, and I particularly love their style of pottery best.

Yoyokaku Ryokan – Gallery Shop 2 Chome-4-40 Higashikaratsu, Karatsu-shi, Saga-ken 847-0017, Japan, Tel: +81 955-72-7181

This beautiful ryokan tucked away in a quiet street not too far away from Tea & Space would have been my first choice of stay, if not for the fact they only offer room with full board (breakfast and dinner), but it was still a great opportunity to come visit the ryokan and check out their gallery shop. This place was recommended by the lady boss of Tea & Space to buy some beautiful pottery, and they also represent local Karatsu pottery brand Mono Hanako by Ms Hanako Nakazato – and Y and I was keen to buy some of her beautiful cups for home.

Outside Yoyokaku Ryokan and their tranquil courtyard inside

Classic Karatsu style pottery seen in one of the galleries

Outside Mono Hanako gallery in the ryokan, and one of the plates on display

Karatsuyaki Yubinbango 847-0053, Saga Karatsu City Konya-cho, address 1689 (Gofukumachi mall entrance), Tel: 0955-73-5368
Located just a stone’s throw away from Kawashima Tofu, before you walk into the sheltered alley.

This is one of the best pottery shops in Karatsu, representing many local artists’ works. A lot of the pottery here is made from clay, which is typical of Karatsu’s pottery style. One of the most popular styles is called E-Karatsu with pictures of painted plants, and we saw that quite often in many shops and restaurants like Amegen and Kawashima Tofu serving their food in such classic Karatsu ware. From beautiful sake cups, to tea ware to dining ware, we were spoilt for choice in terms of choosing from the different styles of Karatsu pottery. Y and I bought some really unique looking beautiful cups to serve our favourite hot beverage – coffee in, plus also some really nice sake cups, what I really like about the Karatsu pottery style are they look really unique and artisanal.

Karatsuyaki shop

Amazing selection of pottery in Karatsuyaki

List of pottery artists’ works represented in the shop

More beautiful pottery upstairs

Some of the beautiful cups and saucers I bought 🙂

Don’t be deceived by this sleepy looking town where Karatsuyaki pottery is, if you meander through the different streets, there are more interesting pottery shops and also famous Karatsu local products shown. We even chanced upon a traditional Japanese medical hall located next to Kawashima Tofu, where many remedies are made from natural herbs. We decided to pick up some that the owner recommended as fantastic for hangover. It’s amazing what Google Translate can do, we managed to tell him what ailments we wanted medicine for, and he understood. There’s also a shop Tsuruyakashiho (ツルヤ菓子舗) located not far from Karatsuyaki, which sells their famous sponge cake made with lots of eggs, it’s definitely a must buy for takeaway if you like eggy cakes (1792-1 Gofukumachi Karatsu, Tel: 0955-72-4371) .

Nice owner from the medical hall, and my ‘hangover’ medicine recommended by him.

Spongy egg cakes from Tsuruyakashiho

All in all, it was a surprisingly rewarding trip to Karatsu, which I didn’t expect. I thought it will be a super boring and sleepy place, but I really enjoyed the food we had, and also of course all the beautiful pottery that Y bought for me to enjoy with her and our friends in our home. I think there are definitely eats I would go back for such as Caravan’s yummy steak for sure!

Views of Matsuura River near Karatsu castle

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