Japan Travel Diary 2017 2 weeks in Tokyo

Tokyo

Sometimes I find it difficult to describe Tokyo. What is the real Tokyo? Is it the crowds scrambling across the road in Shibuya? The carefully tended gardens of the Imperial gardens? The frantic energy of shop girls as sales season descends upon Harajuku? The moments of reverie found in the temples and shrines dotted everywhere? Or the uniform steps of salary men and women making their way to and from work?

Although Tokyo is commonly known as a city that never sleeps, to me it is also a city of dreams. I think that I am so enraptured by this metropolis because it is all of these things that I love, all at once. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences and I will be among the first to tell people that Japan has its fair share of seedy and downright disturbing. Even then, Tokyo has an almost electrifying magnetic pull. I know that it won’t be too long before I return again.

It took me a few visits to Japan before I eventually got to my favourite places in Tokyo. Even then I am still constantly discovering new suburbs, restaurants, and shops that I can’t help but effusively gush over.

I won’t be writing a day by day run down of my two weeks in Tokyo. Instead, this post is just the start of a long list of places that I visited and enjoyed. It’s a little haphazard, but do check back as I hope to update often.

To do 
One Piece Tokyo Tower
Imperial Gardens and Palace
Asakusa
Tsukiji markets
Ghibli Musuem
Temari no ouchi cat cafe
Koenji
Jiyugaoka
Shimokitazawa

To eat

Sweets 
Hidemi Sugino
Echire
Berry Parlour (cafe comme ca)
Patisserie Paris S’evile
Kao san
Patisserie Dominique Ansel
Salon Bake and Tea
Takano Fruits parlour
Pierre Herme
Patisserie Bien-etre
Parfait run down

Fine Dining 
Jimbocho Den
Le Sputnik
L’effervescence
La Table de Joël Robuchon
Beige by Alan Ducasse

Cafes
All C’s cafe
Potato Cream cafe
Aoyama flower market tea house (Aoyama / Akasaka)
Tolo Bakery and Cafe
Salon Ginza Sabou
Cafe du Lievre

Casual Eateries 
Sushi Midori
Sushi Zanmai
Sushi Dai
Yutaka
French Curry Spoon
Soup Curry
Seirinkan
Fuunji
Ginza Kagari
Ramen Afuri

Drinks 
Sakurai tea house

If you have any recommendations please let me know! I can’t wait to discover your version of Tokyo as well.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017: Nagoya

When I told my friends about my Japan itinerary half were puzzled by the seemingly random zig-zag I was making around the country. Whereas the other half commented that I was visiting all the places with good food. I think that throwing Nagoya into the mix definitely made people think that this was just one big foodie trip! With that in mind, I made it my goal to eat as many regional dishes otherwise known as, meibutsu as I possibly could.

Nagoya Day 19

After a few weeks of travel, we decided to sleep in and have a late start. It was already roughly a 35-minute journey from our apartment to Tokyo station. By the time we finally arrived at Nagoya station it was already lunchtime!

On the train ride, I spent my energies describing the foods that my friend Steph had taken me to eat whilst we were both on exchange. Visions of Miso katsu, tebasaki wings, noodles and hitsumabushi flashing through my mind, I looked up where to eat and consulted with Steph via line.

Misokatsu yabaton was an obvious choice. It was conveniently located in Nagoya station but there are branches all over the city. There are a couple of nonpork-based dishes, but I think almost everyone was there for the signature miso katsudon. A thick sweet and salty miso sauce is liberally poured over freshly fried pork cutlets. Ryan decided to compare the miso sauce with a simpler Worcester. The consensus was that the miso sauce was much better. The red miso was jam-packed with umami flavour and made it so easy to finish my rather generous bowl of rice.

As we’ve previously established, Ryan loves trains. Especially Japanese trains. It seemed like a given that we would visit SCMAGLEV and railway park while in Nagoya. The closest station: Kinjofuto is fittingly, a bit of a train ride out of the city centre.

The actual station is in a newly developed area right on the port. The bright blue sea and even brighter sky prompted me to rummage around in my bag for the camera. It was at this moment that I realised I had left it behind in the restaurant! You’ll have to excuse the lack of photos because of this.

At this point, I decided to head right back to Nagoya station to see if I could find the camera! I urged Ryan to head on into the museum without me. I figured that I would find the camera and celebrate with some shopping. Alternatively, I wouldn’t find the camera and instead, spend some time talking to station attendants and the restaurant staff and then try to lift my spirits with some retail therapy.

With considerable relief, the restaurant had found and kept the camera for sake keeping. After shooting a quick message to Ryan I went off on my merry way to do a spot of shopping. Violet Blue was surprisingly fruitful. I picked up several accessories before walking over to Osu Street.

Osu Street is a pretty typical Japanese shoutengai. In many ways, that means that it is less glitzy than the shopping malls and almost all about street-level shops. There were a few rather charming furniture and nic-nac stores and generally more of a bohemian fashion vibe. The biggest point of difference for this shoutengai is just how many food options there were! Contrary to usual Japanese etiquette people weren’t hesitating to eat whilst walking. At the end of the shops, there’s a rather impressive temple as well.

With a spring in my step, I made my way over to Sakae. Whereas Osu street is more traditional, Sakae is the true downtown of Nagoya. The wide boulevards and streets are blocked off from cars on weekends. Strolling across the wide streets and into an array of department stores may not be for everyone, but there’s a little bit of everything here, from shopping, restaurants and even a small amusement park. Sakae Nova was my favourite building if only for the Jane Marple and Innocent World stores. I arranged to meet Ryan here while I window shopped my heart out.

By Ryan’s account, SCMAGLEV and railway park was amazing. He was particularly taken with the large-scale dioramas that showed a full days worth of train networks in Tokyo and Nagoya. He also highly recommends trying to get a ticket to run a train simulator. Even the simplest of the trains was a cacophony of buttons and levers that would confuse almost everyone.

After spending our whole commute to Nagoya telling Ryan about all the tasty foods in Nagoya I managed to convince him to give Histumabushi a try. Hitsumabushi Bincho Lachic branch just happened to be nearby.

To describe hitsumabushi as unagi-don (eel on rice) would be a complete understatement. The process for eating Hitsumabushi is almost ritualistic. The rice and eel are portioned into quarters. The first portion goes into a small bowl to be tried on its own. To the second portion, one adds garnishes such as wasabi, nori and green onions. The third portion is had ocha-zuke style. That is, a mild dashi and green tea broth are poured on top of everything. I like to add a bit of wasabi at this point too. The fourth and final portion is left for you to have whatever way you liked best.

Before we left Nagoya station I quickly nipped into the souvenir store and picked up another Nagoya specialty: kishimen. Apparently many travelers and salarymen pop off the train at Nagoya station just to slurp down a quick bowl of kishimen before continuing their journey.

We weren’t able to try the real deal whilst in Nagoya so we settled for the next best thing: a comforting bowl of kishimen cooked up in our Tokyo apartment. I think Ryan described this best as flattened udon noodles. The slightly sweet broth that was included in the packet had just enough flavour to stand on its own, but mild enough to go with all the ingredients we chucked in.

Tips
With a JR pass, it is very easy to take a day trip from Tokyo to Nagoya. From Tokyo station by shinkansen, it only takes around 2 hours. However, once you get to Nagoya, JR lines are hardly used. Instead, it is well serviced by the metro. Depending on how much you plan to travel it may be more economical to buy a one day pass. I found that the walk between stations in downtown Nagoya was very manageable with plenty to see along the way. Getting downtown from the station might be more of a trek.

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Please look forward to my next post. I’ll be changing things up a little when it comes to documenting my time in Tokyo and also going back to regularly scheduled food blogging!

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Kyushu to Tokyo overnight

I was a bit hesitant to write this post up. There’s so many posts up about overnight trains in Japan and I’m not sure what else I can add to them. However, for the sake of completeness I thought that it would be a good idea to add this in.

Fukuoka – Tokyo day 17

Remember the castella from Nagasaki? Turns out 4000 yen goes a long way in castella buying. In the name of science, I thought that it would be a good idea to taste test these two different castellas. The one on the left is the standard castella from Bunmeido, whereas the one on the right is the premium castella from Fukusaya. The standard castellas was roughly 1000 yen whereas the premium was 3000 yen.

Honestly, I was already a little bit in love with the standard castella when I first tore into it in Nagasaki. Therefore, I was pretty dubious as to how much better the more expensive castella could be. My first bites left me unconvinced. Successful tastings would later tell me that the premium castella was a little less sweet but with a stronger honey flavour, a touch eggier and with no artificial taste in the slightest. Just writing about these cakes is making me salivate right now.

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While we were in Japan it was the midst of basketball season. Being the NBA fanatic that he is Ryan set up at Wired cafe for the morning to stream the games live. I choose to fill out my dairy and go shopping in JR Hakata city instead. After getting lost a few times, buying enough sunscreen and makeup to last for the rest of the trip and some meandering around we met up again, only to plan to eat even more food.

We had eaten ramen every day we were in Fukuoka and we weren’t going to stop now. Luckily Ramen issou was almost right next to the station. This store is known for its slightly frothy looking tonkotsu soup broth. Though less oily and salty than Hakata Daruma, the broth had a deep pork flavour. Instead of overloading the senses with richness, this broth had a few layers to it. There was a slight sourness to it, which had me going back to the bowl for taste after taste.

Unfortunately, after this ramen, Ryan and I took turns in feeling unwell. Perhaps it was the combination of hot sweaty weather and blasting air conditioning or all the fatty ramen we had eaten in the past few days but the next few hours were spent in a slightly painful stupor. Somehow, we managed to gather all of our belongings and make our way over to Okayama in anticipation of a very exciting trip.

A little-known fact about Ryan is that he loves trains. Perhaps he has spent too much time reading ‘Night on the galactic railway’ as it’s always been one of his dreams to take a sleeper train in Japan. On our previous trip, we had researched the possibility of taking the Cassiopeia sleeper train all the way to Hokkaido. It turned out that taking a plane was simply more cost and time efficient so we gave the whole thing a miss. Naturally, he was devasting when the Cassiopeia was discontinued before we got a chance to ride it. This time he couldn’t afford to miss taking the Seto sunrise from Okayama to Tokyo.

It’s clear from the outset that the seto sunrise is worlds away from the smooth and sleek shinkansen. The train rocked a hell of a lot. You’ll have to excuse the somewhat blurry photos! Our tickets were for the cheapest seats. I would describe these as an open capsule hotel type arrangement.  There’s nowhere to store luggage, so you’ll have to sleep with your bags. I can sleep almost anywhere and in any situation so this wasn’t really a problem for me.

In spite of the rocking we explored almost every nook and cranny. The actual cabins are fairly small. There’s not much room to move, but it appeared that there were slippers and bed sheets. Thoroughly exhausted from the heat of the day I nodded off quickly. I woke up a few times throughout the night because I found the air conditioning a bit too cold. However, for the most part I slept pretty well! My scarf doubled up as a pillow and warm blanket!

Tokyo: Day 18 morning

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Bleary-eyed we pulled up into Tokyo station. The seto sunrise seemed to be a bit of a treat for Tokyoites as well. Locals on the platforms outside were snapping pictures of the train as we started getting ready to disembark.

Riding the seto sunrise was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. It’s definitely not the most comfortable form of transport or accommodation. However, as sleeper trains become a form of luxury travel it felt a little surreal to be taking the last of what was once a dense network of night trains. Perhaps one day soon this train will also be discontinued and replaced with another luxury train. Until then, this is as close to a night on the galactic railroad I can afford.

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Tips
If you’re not in Japan for a long time it might be hard to catch the seto sunrise. Tickets can only be bought at JR stations in Japan and they only go on sale a month in advance. Although we booked two weeks and a bit in advance we weren’t able to get tickets next to each other and the station attendant told us that they were, in fact, the last tickets left!

The train provides some simple bedding but not much else. There’s a vending machine to buy rather expensive drinks but no food. It’s a good idea to stock up at the convenience store beforehand. There’s also a shower station, but if you want to freshen up you’re going to have pay. Tickets are purchasable from a vending machine in the train cabins. A ticket will give you 6 minutes of water but unlimited time to towel off and get dry.

This link provides a pretty good explanation of the different seating arrangements for each cabin and what the interior of the train looks like.

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Kyushu

Years back when I was in Japan on exchange, I became good friends with a girl whose hometown was Fukuoka. Whenever I was lost with tea ceremony club her smiles and encouragement were always there for me. A long way from home, she would sometimes show me photos of the sites and tell me about the foods that she missed. The brief tid bits she shared with me about her home instantly piqued my curiosity and with each anecdote, Kyushu rose higher and higher on my list of places to visit.

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My friend had recommended Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine as a bit of a day trip from the centre of the city. The whole strip of stores up to the temple and the temple itself was a lot more touristy than I expected. For visitors from Korea and China, this seemed to be the first (or only) temple they would see on their Japan trip. This makes sense considering the close proximity of Kyushu to these countries, but also took me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting this to be such a crowded area.

Somewhat unhelpfully there was very little English signage. We were a little lost at what it was that we were meant to be appreciating. However, a quick google search revealed that this temple is dedicated to a very famous Japanese scholar. Consequently, throngs of Japanese students head to it, hoping that they will be granted luck on their entrance exams. While we were there it felt like there was a whole platoon of students streaming through the whole time.

A little put off by the crowds, we made our own fun by mucking around in the amusement park nearby and observing everyone around us. I briefly pondered going for a hike in the area, as apparently the trails are very beautiful but the humidity and inappropriate foot wear choice meant that instead, we headed back to Fukuoka city.

Usually, I’m not one for themed cafes. However, the Tower records cafe x Sumikko gurashi was too cute to resist. It also helps that I have a weakness for the cute little corner dwelling mascot characters. I admit that I hugged almost every plushie that was in sight. The food was surprisingly tasty and filling for a themed cafe. The drinks, cute as they were, were definitely on the over priced side.

Ryan ordered the avocado and beef from the regular menu. He had an emotional moment as he ate chunks of meat again for the first time in days. I had to have something from the themed menu. Penguin’s locomoco was cute and delicious when doused in the delicious brown sauce on the side of the plate. The drinks, cute as they were, were definitely on the over priced side.

A little bit stuck on what to do we ended up taking the train to Ohori Park. All the online descriptions state that this is a Chinese style garden, with a pagoda and lake in the centre, but that really doesn’t do the park justice. Our little jaunt around the park ended up with a swan boat ride in the middle of the pond. While paddling and wandering we saw a multitude of wildlife and joggers making their way around.

The next stop was Momochihama Beach. As someone from Darwin Ryan loves the beach. He was pretty excited at the prospect of the finally being able to go to a beach. However, when we got to this man made beach he couldn’t hide his dissapointment. What greeted us was a sliver of sand with half set up volley ball nets and food stalls. Most of the Japanese people were sitting around on the beach and mucking around as opposed to actually swimming.

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Since it was in the area we quickly dropped into Robosquare. Admission to this little exhibit is free. Almost all of the robots are Japanese language operated, so a basic grasp of Japanese certainly helped in enjoying the interactive displays.

We made it back to Canal City just in time for a special interactive light and water show. I know almost nothing about One Peice, but Ryan is a massive fan of the series. He watched on enraptured by the special effects and story line.

Fukuoka may be famous for Hakata ramen, but there’s actually a lot more variety. Kurume ramen is the predecessor of the more well known Hakata style ramen. Instead of making new stock and adding fat to it, Kurume ramen builds from older remaining stock for their ramen broth. Located in Ramen Stadium (or the rather comically misspelled raumen stadium) Honda Shoten is one of the most convenient places to try this style of ramen.

The normal ramen was definitely very porky, but not nearly as fatty as the ramen we tried the day before. This was actually a touch on the lukewarm and overly salty side. If I was in Melbourne I would be ecstatic to find ramen of this quality anywhere, but in Japan this was an average but satisfying bowl.

The special chilli ramen was a little bit more unique. On the spoon was  a little ball of fat, for extra richness and flavour. When it was all melted the broth was definitely oilier and stuck on the lips a little bit more. It was also surprsingly spicy!

Fukuoka – Kumamoto Day 16

Perhaps it was the humid Kyushu weather but we had a few late starts while in Fukuoka. Our first stop of the day was a pasta restaurant in Hakata central. I was on the search for anything with mentaiko and this pasta was sadly the closest that I got.

As soon as we got to Kumamoto station we saw Kumamon left, right and centre. It’s safe to say that this ever popular bear mascot can be found almost everywhere in the city. I’m very fond of the derpy looking Kumamon and I will readily admit that it’s only thanks to him that I know what and where Kumamoto is.

It seems that in the South of Japan trams feature much more heavily. In Kumamoto the trams have a lot of rustic charm, and actually vaguely reminded me of the city loop trams in Melbourne.

Our first stop was Kumamon square. This was actually one of the most crowded areas we went to. Tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and an array of other Asian countries were all cooing over the cute goods available. Kumamon even found a new fan in Ryan, as he appreciated all the collaboration items and variety show specials in the area.

We somehow lucked upon advertising for local school’s cultural festival. For those that don’t know, Japanese high schools and middle schools hold cultural festivals every year. These are almost like big festivals that are open to the general public. the classes and clubs put on various stalls, stores and performances for those visiting. As part of the advertising we managed to see these talented kids performing all over the shopping district.

We couldn’t go to Kyushu and not try the local delicacies. Yokobachi is a bit of an upscale izakaya where there’s a bit of everything Kyushu. Of particular note was my first taste of basashi and  motsunabe. I pleasantly surprised by the clear mostunabe soup which reminded me of traditional Chinese broths.

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We actually didn’t visit any of the historical attractions in Kumamoto. The closest we got was seeing Kumamoto castle in the distance. Even if we had wanted to I’m not sure if we would have been able to see all of them, as they are still repairing after devastating earthquakes. That said, I dare say we stumbled upon something even better and more memorable.

If you’re even in Fukuoka at night, you have to go to a Yatai. Although Japan is an eater’s dream I find that there’s not much in the way of street food. That’s where Yatai come in. Originally found Japan wide to feed the hungry working classes at all times of the night, Yatai are now almost exclusive to Fukuoka.

Vendors set up their tiny stalls as evening falls, and a mix of locals and tourists all cram in together to enjoy the food. By daylight, everything is all cleaned up, and it’s as if no one was ever there. We had already eaten earlier that day in Kumamoto but Ryan couldn’t resist ordering a ramen. I settled in with a high ball, apparently the drink of choice at a Yatai and dug into some mentaiko and grilled skewers.

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When I told locals that I was going to Fukuoka they would always mention that the ramen was top notch and so were the girls! I’m sure that’s a winning combination for almost everyone.

Tips

If you’re interested in seeing Kumamon in Kumamon square he is in his office on certain days. Check the website for the times and dates to see him! There is a warning on the side of the website saying that it might be really crowded and visitors restricted.

When taking the tram in Kumamoto it is possible to switch trams and just pay for the one fare. Make sure you talk to the tram conductor and they will issue you a ticket, which allows you to make a transfer within 15 minutes without paying extra.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017 Nagasaki

Before this trip, Kyushu was a completely unknown land for me. I vaguely had it in my mind that I had to visit the South of Japan on my travels. As for Nagasaki, my knowledge only extended to the atomic bombing, castella and Nagasaki champon. Keen to get some Kyushu culture into my mind and my stomach we headed off.

Nagasaki Day 13

From one Peace museum to another. The Nagasaki peace museum is a lot smaller and condensed than the Hiroshima one. There are significant similarities between the two, such as calls against nuclear testing and harrowing testimonies. However, there is also plenty that is unique and poignant. In particular, seeing the remnants of distinctly European styled churches illustrated how devastating nuclear warfare could occur anywhere.  I also found the final few walls detailing the number of nuclear tests conducted world-wide through out the years singularly fascinating and frightening.

From the steps of the museum, it’s a bit of a journey down the steps into the peace park. It was a little hard to figure out where the park started and where to walk along but we managed to make our way over to the epicentre of the atomic bombing. Walking down the stairs to ground zero is incredible. Just thinking that this entombed debris is the last place in the world where a nuclear bomb was used in warfare is dumbfounding.

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Just then I had a brief moment of panic where I thought that I had lost Ryan! Soon reunited I made sure that we headed towards Mt Inasa early. As with almost all scenic spots in Japan, there was a rope way up. Interestingly, this one was manned by an elevator lady/guide. Her introduction to Nagasaki was punctuated by asides to the stylish interior of the rope way car itself!

Half an hour before sunset a number of photographers had already set up their tripods, ready to capture the best views. Sadly you’ll have to make do with my unsteady hands in the photos I’ve taken. That said there’s no substitute for seeing the real thing. The view from the summit is supposedly touted as one of the most beautiful night views in the world. Although it was getting chilly we persisted standing on the windy observation deck. Watching the sun slowly set over the horizon and the lights come on all at once as dusk gave way to night was stunning.

Not as amazing was the long line for the ropeway back down to the park entrance. We kept watching very active highschoolers climbing the stairs to the top as we shuffled closer and closer to the rope way down. At this point, I was starving. I think I complained at least once every few minutes while we were standing in line. No longer able to deal with me, Ryan made sure we headed towards the nearest Ringer Hut which was conveniently open until 4 am.

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Mine was a normal serve with extra vegetables, whereas Ryan tackled a giant bowl of noodles and soup. Much like Nagasaki itself, this dish was an interesting mash of cultures. It tasted familiar, like Chinese noodle soups but also different thanks to the yuzu dressing and choice of vegetables.

With my stomach sufficiently full, I was ready to make it back to our hostel. Our night time walk was leisurely and almost romantic as we strolled by the water. A complete change from the arduous trek we had taken earlier on in the day underneath the glare of the sun.

Nagasaki – Fukuoka day 14

On this day I was on a mission. A mission to find the tastiest castella in all the land. I had a destination in mind, but quickly got distracted by a myriad of stores. After a visit to Bunmedio and Fukusaya, I was 4000 yen poorer but had rich buttery castella in my hot little hands. I couldn’t resist tearing into one of the cakes almost straight away. We sat in a park near Fukusaya and enjoyed our first bites of Nagasaki castella. I also attempted to share my castella with a stray cat, but he was less than interested.

Nagasaki sea side park is not the highest rated attraction by a long shot. None the less I found it all sorts of charming. We spent an incredibly long time sitting on the green lawns, enjoying the breeze and looking at the passing boats and playing children.

Still feeling weighed down by last night’s dinner we opted for something a bit lighter for lunch. Castella filled with ice cream from New York Do was the order of the day. There were a variety of castella flavours, but also ice monaca and ice creams. My personal favourite was the loquat filled with ice cream. If you’re visiting in Summer I highly recommend trying it!

It turned out that all of the places we had visited were stocked in the train station! Our walk around to find the supposedly best castella stores was completely unnecessary. Ryan was beside himself, having suffered so much underneath the sun. I couldn’t help but laugh. After all, Nagasaki is still Japan and Japanese train stations have almost everything.

With castella in hand, we took the train right back to Hakata station. We had some confusion with directions from the station to our airbnb. However, we soon found our way to our lodgings and also the very famous Canal City shopping centre. Ryan was a bit too ecstatic at the Jump Store whilst I looked up places to have ramen.

Hakata Ramen Daruma doesn’t look like much from the outside but step in and you’ll see each wall adorned with signatures from famous Japanese celebrities.

Our first Hakata style ramen turned out to be Ryan’s favourite and one of the best. The special grilled chashu was incredible. It was tender and had a perfect char grilled flavour to it. The broth was full of deep savoury pork flavour. I almost felt guilty eating it. It was rich, oily and salty in the best way. I couldn’t finish the broth once the noodles were gone but Ryan cleaned the bowl.

I finished off the night with a round of shopping and wandering around in the bright city lights.

Needless to say, I also had my fill of both castella and champon by the time I was done in Nagasaki. In retrospect, it was a bit of a shame that we didn’t get to explore everything but the combination of heat and hills got the best of both of us. It’s easy to say that Nagasaki is just another industrial port side town, of which there are many in Japan. It’s not just recent historical tragedy but also the long tradition of trade with China and Europe that gives Nagasaki such a fascinating vibe.

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Tips
We stayed in hostel Casa Noda. It was a short walk away from the station but the reception was up a few flights of stairs which was hard work with so much luggage!

Nagasaki is not serviced by shinkansen. We transferred at Hakata station to a limited express train. The train compartments look like a little something from the old world. However, unlike the shinkansen these trains rock – a lot. Walking to the bathroom often involved grabbing onto the chair handles so I didn’t fall over. We both also had a bit of a headache from the rocking. If you’re prone to travel sickness taking medication might be required. As for the actual town of Nagasaki, most of the landmarks are accessible by street car. There is also a bus up to Mt Inasa.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017 Hiroshima

Japan Diary 2017 Hiroshima

Onomichi – Hiroshima day 11

At this point, Ryan and I split. He took the camera to the peace park and peace museum whilst I decided to head into town and go shopping. Although I decided to give the museum a miss this time, I urge you to visit it if you haven’t already. It is a very sobering and sombre experience. The peace park and A-bomb dome take on so much more meaning after visiting the museum. Even just walking through the park gives you a moments pause.

The park itself is very serene and easy to stroll through. You’ll see Japanese people and foreigners alike paying their respects at various monuments. The children’s memorial dedicated to Sadako is always very popular. I remember learning about her story in library classes. The hope and futility inherent in her actions as she prayed to get well always stuck with me. Numerous cranes from around Japan and the world are sent to this very spot, so to see them all gives a real sense of our shared humanity and the solidarity that should be taken in opposing atomic warfare.

On to less serious things, shopping in downtown Hiroshima (Hondori) was surprisingly fruitful! I don’t have many photos but shopping in Hiroshima was very fruitful. The wide streets and street level shops of the shoutengai made it easy to browse even for unfamiliar.

I picked up some really cute Tokimeki Gabriel necklaces from the chouchou ange shop in Sunmall. If you’re into anime merch or alternative fashion Sunmall is probably the best place to shop. The 3rd floor onward was dominated by Lolita, anime, doll and second-hand goods.

On the other hand, PARCO is a mix of more mainstream brands and a lot of the most well-known gyaru brands as well. I managed to snag some bargains here as well! Ryan found something that he liked as well: a Gundam model exhibition that happened to be on while we were there.

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Dinner wasn’t too far away from the Okonomiyaki mura is less of a village and more of a building. From the second to the fourth floor, there are numerous okonomiyaki stores, all specialising in Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. It is fairly touristy and I can’t vouch for it being the best okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, but I doubt that you can really go wrong with any of the stalls inside. As a bonus, it seemed like most of the stalls were pretty English friendly.

On this visit, we tried Momotaro okonomiyaki located on the third floor. According to the guide outside, this store has been run by the same people for over 50 years and the taste hasn’t changed since! I’m a big fan of Hiroshima okonomiyaki. Seeing all the layers gradually being built up and then cooking down is a fun process is also incredibly appetising.

Ryan’s okonomiyaki had extra pork, cheese, and mochi, which is my recommendation if you’re hungry and after something a little bit different. The cheese and mocha both melt to create a chewy and stringy mouthful.

I had a regular okonomiyaki with extra squid. We both chose soba noodles, as it is more traditionally Hiroshima style, but udon noodles are also an option at many places. The addition of noodles in Hiroshima style okonomiyaki means that just one of these is a very filling meal in and of itself. I usually ask for less noodles, which most stores are happy to oblige with.

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After the hearty meal, and a quick game of Taiko drumming we wandered back to our apartment. Hiroshima at night is very relaxed. Wandering away from the city centre, most everyone was making their way home and locals were perched in bars, enjoying their weekend.

Hiroshima – Miyajima day12

If you look up things to do in Hiroshima, most everyone will tout a trip to Miyajima. The scenic views mean that it is a popular spot with both Japanese people and international tourist alike.

We had a bit of a sleep in and a late start, so we didn’t arrive in Miyajima until almost 1 pm Even on the ferry over to the island it is easy to catch sight of the giant red tori gate for which Miyajima is famous. From the port, we were greeted by many hungry and sleepy deer. Unlike the deer in Nara, the deer in Miyajima are fairly gentle and docile. Although they approach people for food, they don’t tend to head butt or chase people for more and they are very comfortable with being touched gently. That said, my selfie attempts with them weren’t all that successful!

The typical tourist path in Miyajima is fairly linear. Numerous stands and shops lead the way to the shrines and mountain walks. We couldn’t resist making a few stops to try the local specialties. Above are an oyster curry pan, (that I accidentally dropped some of onto my white shirt!), a plate of oysters, yaki momiji manju (my favourite flavour is cheese and Ryan’s is custard), normal chocolate manju and sakura ice cream monaka.

We arrived a little past high tide, meaning that the water didn’t come all the way up to Itsukushima shrine. Although we may not have seen the shrine at its most picturesque, we happened to stumble upon a Shinto wedding ceremony taking place. I love just how different traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies are, especially the bride’s white gown and some of the guests decked out in their kimono.

A visit to Miyajima just doesn’t seem complete without seeing the views from Mount Misen. The ropeway up to the peak seems to be a bit of an attraction unto itself! The very steep ascent had me and some of the other people riding the rope way a bit freaked out. No time to rest though! From the final cable car station stop, there’s still a bit of a hike up to the very highest observatory tower. I won’t say that it was the easiest thing to do under the heat but the view was well worth it. It helps that at the observation deck there are places to lie down and just admire the view.

I reasoned that since we were both wearing runners it made sense to walk back down to the town. All things considered, I think we had a pretty good time with all the nature, water and stairs.

As soon as we got back into town, in Ryan’s words, I got suckered into buying something. Caskera tea latte from Miyajima Itsuki Coffee ended up being one of my more delicious impulse buys. As a bonus, the takeaway cup ended up being a great prop for photos with the Itsukushima shrine at low tide.

Last time I went to Miyajima, we just missed low tide. It was still a bit marshy and I couldn’t go straight up to the gate. However, this time we had timed our descent perfectly and managed to walk through the gate and straight to the sea!

After all that walking we couldn’t resist treating ourselves when going back through the town. Yaki moiji manju ice cream, anago manju and fried chikuwan were the order of the day before heading back to the mainland.

In a bid to get to the Jump store before it closed so that Ryan could show me some shirts he wanted her rushed over to downtown Hondori. This ended up being a bit of a fruitless exercise as it was already shuttered by the time we arrived. Nevermind, not too far away is one of my favourite cafes in all of Japan!

From the outside, Chano-ma looks like it could be any other decent Japanese style café. The inside is a completely different story. For the most part, the open dining space is made up of pillows. The walls are likewise lined with even more pillows! Dinners are invited to sit down on the futon like floor any enjoy their meal surrounded by soft fluffy pillows. You could even lie down as you tuck into something delicious and no one would tell you off.

I enjoyed the variety on offer with the deli set. In particular, I enjoyed the pork miso soup which had a nice depth of flavour and spiciness from shichimi. The hayashi rice had a strong tomato flavour and was likewise excellent. The mango, mint and rosemary parfait was definitely one of the stranger combinations that I tried while in Japan but somehow it worked out to be pleasantly refreshing and easy to eat.

To be honest I wasn’t really looking forward to Hiroshima. In my previous visit, I had already been to all of the main attractions that interested me and I wasn’t really all that sure what else the city could offer. In spite of this, I had an amazing time. Precisely because I didn’t feel the need to fit in all the typical tourist sites it felt like I had time to enjoy the general vibe.

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Tips

The peace museum is currently undergoing renovations and won’t be fully open again until 2018. When I visited in 2014 the whole museum was open and there was so much in the compact space that it was simply overwhelming. According to Ryan even with most of the wings closed, you can spend a long time in the museum going through the exhibits and watching the testimonies of victims.

There are a few different ways to get to Miyajima. See Japan Guide. If you have a Japan rail pass I highly recommend taking the rapid train from Hiroshima station to miyajimaguchi and then riding the JR ferry over to Miyajima.

Although we took the ropeway up to Mount Misen, walking up and down is definitely doable if you factor in enough time for it. I recommend going up the Omoto or Daishoin path as the incline is more gentle and there are fewer steps. Going down I recommend the Momoji Dani path. It has more stairs and is considerably steeper but only takes about 50-60 minutes to go all the way back down to the town. As a side note, I’m of good health but not very fit at all, so don’t worry if you’re not fit either.

The final ropeway down ends rather early, so make sure you can catch that if you’re not keen on a walk back. In fact, most of the shops in Miyajima close fairly early. When we got back to the pier at around 6 pm and almost all the shops were either closed or closing up for the day already!

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Japan Travel Diary 2017: Onomichi

Continuing on from my list of obscure places in Japan to visit is Onomichi. According to the internet, this industrial port town is known as the home town of Japan. I’m not all too sure what that means but I came to know Onomichi thanks to one of my friends. As part of the JET program, she was based in this town. Before I started exchange back in 2014 my first port of call was her house in Onomichi. It was freezing cold, and far away from the big city, but the stray cats, the sparkling blue waters and the very first cherry blossoms of the season captured my heart.

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In some ways, Onomichi station reminds me of some Melbourne stations. To get to the other platform it can be necessary to cross the tracks. However, I don’t think that there were any boom gates going down!

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We couldn’t check into the accommodation just yet, so we dropped off our bags and decided to while away some time before our ferry ride. As we wandered along I remembered the famous Karasawa ice cream store that I had been taken to last time. The ice monaka was just as good as I remembered. Crispy wafer surrounded a nostalgic vanilla ice cream.

Near the port is a relatively new hotel cum restaurant, bakery and store. U2 onomichi was still being built the last time I visited. It’s popular amongst cyclists for the handy bicycle storage but also seems to be a bit of a hot spot with Japanese Instagram foodies.

The reason for being at the port was a short trip over to Ikuchijima on this day. The ferry ride actually features a few stops on industrial looking islands. Even though the islands are now joined by a bridge, we saw an older man getting off and being met by presumably his wife, which was very sweet.

Setoda port is a bit strange because there’s not a lot of signage around. We sort of muddled our way around to a temple and a nature walk, before realising that we were headed in the wrong direction. We made our way back down the hill and onto a main road leading to the temples and museums.

Kosanji temple was interesting as an almost direct contrast to Koyasan. The temple was built relatively recently by a Japanese businessman. The temple was erected as a show of filial piety and dedicated to the man’s mother. There are numerous replicas of other famous temples in Japan.

More unique is Miraishin no Oka otherwise known as Heights of Eternal Hope for the Future- which is a mouthful. Even though it is connected to the temple this landmark has no religious significance. It features an interesting geometric landscape of white marble all the way from Italy.  It is a somewhat bizarrely placed art display but we had a lot of fun climbing all over the marble.

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On maps, there’s more to Ikuchijima, such as a sunset beach and citrus orchards. In the interests of making it on the boat back to Onomichi, we gave these things a skip. I’m sure that with a bicycle these areas would be much more readily accessible. On the way back to the port we ran into children who called out to us and were generally bemused by our presence.

If you’re a ramen aficionado perhaps you have heard of Onomichi style ramen. Interestingly, this small town has its unique ramen. Almost everywhere in town, it goes by the name chuuka soba, but make no mistake this is ramen. The broth is mostly clear but has pieces of pork fat floating in it. Ryan was keen to try this specialty but at dinner time most of the well-rated stores seemed to closed. Luckily, right when we were at the end of the road Ramen matatabi was open!

This humble looking store comprises of only one counter where you can watch the master at work. When I dithered about wondering what to order, he said that everything on the menu was a recommendation. I ended up with wonton men and Ryan ordered the chashu ramen. This wasn’t the traditional Onomichi style that we were anticipating, but the clear broth had a lot of depth and the slippery wonton skins went down a treat that chilly night. As a bonus, it was easy to make conversation with the owner, who happened to have a friend in Melbourne. He said that he was thinking of doing a pop-up ramen shop in Melbourne in the future so I’m keeping my eyes peeled for him!

There didn’t seem to be a lot of night life going on in Onomichi so we went back to the hostel early. The communal area was perfect to sit, take advantage of the free tea and organise our finances and future itinerary.

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I’m a pretty big fan of the Japanese panya. The freshly fried curry bread and interesting combinations like mentaiko baguette always entice me in. Koro Bakery is a cut above the rest. Early in the morning, the smell of fresh bread was incredibly intoxicating. They appear to specialise in a range of bagels with baked in fillings but everything was delicious. We picked up a few things to go on our morning walk.

On one side of Onomichi is the sea, ports and main roads, but the other side of the town goes upwards towards the mountains. If you don’t explore this windy and sometimes rather vertical paths you wouldn’t realise that there are a number of temples dotted throughout. There is a popular temple walk that plots through most of them, but we took the short cut with a direct walk up to Senkoji Park. Like many other scenic spots in Japan, there’s also a ropeway up and down, but it’s also a very relaxed walk. There weren’t many people about so I was free to try and make friends with the stray cats I found and run around to my heart’s content.

The park is a well known cherry blossom viewing spot amongst locals. In fact it was here, that I saw a blossoming cherry blossom tree for the very first time! Alas we were a little too late for the blooms, but the view will always be good.

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I think I was in a souvenir buying mood after Tottori. Through the shoutengai, there was a whole range of stores selling goods from Onomichi and surrounds. Seeing as citrus fruits are some of my favourites I wanted to buy almost everything. This traditional bath house turned coffee store and shop was particularly charming.

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We were determined to try true Onomichi style ramen before we left. Ramen Shuukaen is the most famous store in town. Before the opening, time there was already a sizeable line. The store is surprisingly large, so even with the considerable crowd, almost everyone was seated straight away.

This was Onomichi ramen in the truest sense. Swimming on the steaming hot clear broth were large pieces of pork fat. The thin noodles have a fair bit of bite to them which contrast with the soft melting fat. This is definitely something unique and I would recommend trying it if you’re in the area!

On the weekends there are often couples from neighbouring cities going on dates and getting a bit of a sea change in their system. However, we decided to go the other way. Having completed our ramen quest, it was time to leave this sleepy town for somewhere a little bit busier.

Ryan expressed that he was a bit bored in Onomichi. In a way, I feel like I might have let him down a little because when I went I was happy to be guided along by a local and naturally had a very good time. I wasn’t nearly as good a guide. That said, Ryan is probably right when he states that he felt the town had a lot of untapped potential. Perhaps if we go back it will be by car or bike.

Amongst Japanese and International cyclists Onomichi is famous for being the first stop on the Shimanami Kaido. This 60km route goes along the seto inland sea, connecting islands and offering spectacular views and a healthy dose of exercise. If you’re a keen cyclist Onomichi and the surrounding islands are definitely something that you should consider.

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Tips

We stayed at Guest house Anago No Nodeko. This is roughly 10 minutes walk from the station through the shoutengai. The staff are fairly friendly if not all completely fluent in English. The guest rooms themselves are really cute and interesting with an abundance of manga and cute little cubby like beds.

Yamaneko cafe (if you try to google this it will take you to Wildcat cafe) is a cafe that I visited last time I went to Onomichi. If you’re looking for a vegetarian meal or something a little less traditional this is the place to do. Not to worry for those who aren’t vegetarian there’s also a meat dishes on offer. The produce was phenomenally fresh and the staff incredibly friendly. We even got a guide map from one of them!

Not to be mistaken for Yamaneko mill which sells delicious Japanese purin by the glass jar. Instead of the usual bitter caramel, the purin has a cute little fish shaped container that contains a lemon sauce to squirt on top!

 

 

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Tottori

Ryan and I often joke that our trips to Japan are pilgrimages, but not in the traditional sense. We have intentionally and unintentionally made our way over to some of the key destinations in the manga Honey and Clover. Both of us unabashedly love this slice of life manga and the depiction of Japan within. It’s thanks to Honey and Clover that I know what and where Tottori is. Since then the image of snow flakes falling on sand dunes overlooking the sea of Japan has rather enchanted me.

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The information desk at Tottori station is very helpful. We managed to buy discounted tickets for the sand museum and picked up a few guides as to bus times and locations. Although the township of Tottori is on the smaller side, the prefecture is rather large and sprawling, so it’s important to get on the right bus!

One of the last stops for our bus route was at a large gift store and look out. Usually, Ryan is not one to be swayed by the colourful boxes of beautiful omiyage at almost every transit location in Japan. However, here there were samples of almost every single snack. This marketing tactic evidently worked, as we walked away laden with pear jelly, cake, tea juice and more! Even if you’re not interested in picking up omiyage I recommend climbing up to the top of the lookout to get a panoramic view.

Tottori sand Museum is not far from the lookout or the dunes. There’s a range of large scale sand sculptures houses indoors. This year’s exhibit was somewhat bizarrely American themed. I found it a touch odd to be celebrating all things American culture in the middle of Japan. Especially in this current political climate where I’m not all too sure if that many Americans are actually all that proud of America. None the less the sand sculptures were all fairly impressive in both scale and detail and not all that expensive to see.

The real drawcard of Tottori is the sand dunes. We took the rather short (both in height and distance) rope way down to the dunes. The sand dunes are something that really has to be seen to be believed. The greenery of the mountains gives way to these immense hills of sand before meeting the sea. From the rope way station, there’s a towering expanse of incredibly soft sand. It was liberating to take off my shoes and feel the warm sand between my toes.

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There’s also plenty to do apart from admiring the scenery. When we arrived there were people conducting short camel rides and others paragliding amongst the dunes. I’m sure that this would be a magical sight as the sun sets across the dunes, but the lack of reliable transport meant that this wasn’t really an option for us.

Ray Garden seems like a bit of an anomaly out on the winding road. The cafe and restaurant is also a function space. The photo book in the door made it seem like a popular spot for weddings. It also happened to be the perfect spot for a bit of afternoon tea in the form of cake and tea. A light chiffon cake staved off the lunch time hunger that was creeping on.

With the breeze picking up we caught the bus back into town. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring. I use the world exploring in the loosest sense. We ended up following a bunch of high school kids to a supermarket and Mcdonalds. I guess it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, students will always gravitate towards the nearest Mcdonalds.

In some ways, this was strangely nostalgic. When I was on exchange in Japan, the town I stayed in was definitely far away from the bright lights and big happenings. This little sojourn took me back to those days where I spent most of my time thinking about what to have for dinner, and which supermarket was better to shop at.

There are a few guides at the station that point out where to eat in Tottori. Most of them pointed to Tottori Daizen. Even though it wasn’t the season for crab Ryan still insisted on trying a crab set, since Tottori is supposedly famous for it! It definitely wasn’t the finest or most delicate food but the portions were exceedingly generous, especially for the price. I usually pride myself on being able to finish everything but here most of the rice was left in my bowl.

Tottori is one of the more obscure places that you can visit while in Japan. Even in peak tourist season, there was hardly anyone about. In fact, most of the visitors seemed a little confused and disorientated, wondering what they were doing. Tottori presents itself almost as a liminal space. It is quaint yet somehow arresting in its small town ways and cacophony of nature. I wouldn’t say that Tottori is for everyone, or even a must visit, but it’s definitely something I’m glad I experienced even if it wasn’t the season for snow.

Tips 
Trips to Tottori are not fully covered by the JR pass. There is an 1820 yen supplement fee as the train takes non JR tracks for a portion of the journey.  The transport within Tottori is also not covered by JR. On the weekends it is possible to take a Kirin Jishi Loop Bus. A daily pass will only cost 600 yen. Otherwise, an ordinary bus to the sand dunes from the station is 370 yen one way. Make sure you check the bus timetable from the dunes because they don’t leave all that frequently.

We stayed in APA Tottori ekimae. It is roughly 5 minutes away from the station and located away from the main thoroughfare. Tottori is very much a small town and without a car, it’s difficult to leave the central area and explore further afield.

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Japan Travel Diary 2017 Kansai

The first time I went to Japan I actually only visited the Kansai region. The vibrant lights, the street food, the seemingly randomly placed Ferris wheels and the ports all left a deep impression on me. On subsequent visits, Kansai has been almost inescapable. It was one of the first places I went to with friends on exchange and also the first place I headed to via Shinkansen on our 2015 trip. Every time I go it’s like visiting an old friend.

Osaka – Kyoto day 6

There’s a reason why Kyoto is a tourist hot spot. The range of traditional buildings and culture makes it a must visit for first timers. I’ll be one of the first to admit that strolling around the wide streets of Kyoto in kimono has a lot of charm, but it is a bit hard to get around. The only way to get to a lot of the big tourist sites is by bus. They can get pretty cramped and some of the routes and stops are a little confusing.

 

Despite having been to Kyoto a number of times I had never seen the number one tourist destination: Kinkakuji. I thought that it was high time to rectify this situation and made it our first stop of the day.

Sure, the floating temple is very picturesque but in all honesty, I wasn’t all that impressed. The gold painted temple shone a little bit too bright, to the point where it almost looked fake. It doesn’t help that the throngs of people in the small space made it more difficult to see.

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Arashiyama is also another famous Koyoto destination that I have never been to. It’s actually outside of the Kyoto township. If you have a JR Pass, the closest station is Saga Arashiyama. The actual town is about 10 minutes walk away. Along the way, there are a few stores renting out kimonos and selling souvenirs.

 

Yojiya is famous for its oil blotting paper, but it is has since expanded into a variety of other things. The Yojiya café in Arashiyama had strong air conditioning and wasn’t full, which was the perfect combination. An ice cold yuzu lemonade slushie was a particularly welcome respite from the heat. Surprisingly, Ryan had a hot drink. He commented that the matcha latte was strong but also sweet. It also left his tongue a rather shocking bright green shade!

The curry rice with pork belly was surprisingly tasty. The vegetables were fresh and the fatty pork added a point of difference to the iconic dish. The Japanese style omurice rice was also rather different. Instead of tomato sauce, an almost soupy clear sauce.

 

Having eaten our fill and enjoyed the air-conditioning it was finally time to see the bamboo forest for which this area is famous. As with almost everywhere in Kyoto, the crowds stop it from being the serene contemplative spot that it could be. Instead, we enjoyed running amok the path and taking silly photos. The forest is fairly small and can be walked through very fast, but the cool breeze and occasional music players make it a nice place to linger.

 

As we made out way towards the river we passed by % Arabica. I had seen the cute cups on social media. As a sucker for marketing, I couldn’t help but line up for an iced coffee. Interestingly the ice coffee was just espresso with ice and milk, instead of a cold drip or filter brew. Despite the popularity of this place I honestly wouldn’t rate it that highly.

Even after the iced coffee I still hadn’t completely cooled down. Instead of walking up to the Monkey park, we slowly made our back to Saga Arashiyama. We took our time browsing through the stores and seeking out shade to make up for walking back, instead of taking the much closer Hankyu lines.

 

I will shamelessly admit that one of the reasons we were staying so close to the Umeda area was for Le Palet d’or. This chocolate store got its start in Osaka but is now also found in Tokyo. I was entranced by the images of decadent chocolate parfait that I had seen on Instagram. Our first parfait of the trip was one of the best. A sophisticated combination of well tempered dark milk and white chocolate with the house made red wine ice cream. The sugar flake topped everything off, adding a bit of crisp contrast and even more sugar!

Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, the wait staff forgot to give us the chocolate tasting plate that I had ordered. This meant that we got some extra freebies of their signature chocolate. All of the chocolate was smooth, rich and complex. My favourite was probably the signature dark chocolate and gold.

On the way back to the airbnb we picked up some takoyaki and joined in with the last of people going home from work.

Osaka day 7

 

After Ryan saw my photos of a sumptuous seafood breakfast at Kuromon market, he insisted that we do the same. I’m not sure if it was because it was later on in the day, and it was tourist season but the market was incredibly crowded. Although the sashimi breakfast was decent, the crowds and need to shove people to get through the shoutengai was definitely a massive detractor.

 

Disappointed with the market, Ryan decided to have something that would definitely make him happy. That being Pablo. Pablo baked cheese tarts has to be one of my favourite Japanese chains. Although it’s now expanded all over Japan, to me Osaka is Pablo. We made it a point to visit the new(ish) Pablo cafe and try the cafe exclusive mini tarts.

I remain unconvinced about the takoyaki choux cream mini tart and the warm strawberry tart. In spite of this I still rather enjoyed the ambiance and ability to eat pablo without first needing to take it home.

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Afterward I had plans to meet with Danielle, an American lolita living in Osaka. We met at Cafe Mingus. Google maps failed me and I was got terribly lost, but that worked out great for both of us in the end! I had a great time chatting and then shopping with her. I’m eternally grateful for her showing me where the Innocent World head store is and also telling me that there was a sample sale!

 

For dinner, I rejoined Ryan for a few rounds of famous Osaka street food. I’m not sure how we fit it in but we had takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushi katsu!

Himeji day 8

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We set out fairly early to avoid the rain that was forecast for later that day. On our walk to Tenma station, I picked up some donuts from this cute store. I insisted that we go to shin-Osaka station so that we could ride the shinkansen again, such is my love of those trains!

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From Himeji station, there is a bit of a walk to the castle. Buses and taxis also run the route between the station and castle, but we didn’t really see any point in catching one. As we walked along the wide boulevard the castle came closer and closer in sight.

 

Before getting to the castle proper we decided to explore the outer gardens and buildings. The West Bailey is most famous for the long corridor, but what I found more interesting were the various displays detailing the history and architecture of the castle.

Going up Himeji castle is a linear path of many steep flights of stairs. I had a bit of a knee injury from jogging, so it was a touch painful constantly going up and down stairs, but I still had a good time.

 

Just as we got to the top of the castle, we could hear thunder incoming. Our view of Himeji city fast became rather foggy. I’m sure it added to the atmosphere but it made me want to get out quickly and avoid getting rained on.

 

On our walk over to the castle, I had seen a sign advertising oden. At the time it was a bit muggy, but I soon became fixated on the idea of eating oden, even in the heat. Miraculously, the rain had brought the temperature down significantly and I could have a late oden lunch.

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We returned to Shinsaibashi to do my last bit of shopping in Osaka. Although I continued wandering around America mura nothing really caught my eye.

 

As hoards of tourists descended down upon Shinsaibashi we found refuge in Dalloyau. This French brand is one of the first purveyors of cake and tea in Japan. The Osaka location is special because it offers an all you can eat cake deal at certain times of the day. Alas, we had arrived a little bit too late, so instead, I got my sugar intake with the cake set. The half macaron was most curious. I wonder what they do with the other half. Whereas Ryan had his second parfait of the trip.

No matter how crowded and touristy it gets I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Osaka and Kyoto. On this trip, Ryan said that he doesn’t see himself going back to Osaka on subsequent trips to Japan, but I can’t help but disagree. Visiting Kansai is practically tradition and I’m not sure if my Japan trips will feel complete without it!

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Tips

We stayed in an Airbnb in the Tenma area. It is one stop away from Osaka station on JR lines. We found this really convenient considering how many day trips we took. It is also a bustling area in its own right. The shoutengai is considerably dated but has a lot of vintage charm.

In Kyoto, we bought the one-day bus pass just outside of Kyoto station. For a bus only pass it is only 500 yen for unlimited trips. Considering that the bus to kinkakuji is already 230 yen by itself this is a great deal. It also saves the need to fumble around for correct change.

Since 2015 Himeji is completely open to the public! It had been under refurbishment for the last several years. I highly recommend seeing it while everything is open. With a building as old and historic as Himeji, it’s probably only a few years until there is more construction.

Japan Travel Diary 2017: Koyasan

I first heard of Koyasan when I quizzed a vegetarian friend about her own Japan trip. When I asked her what her highlight was, she paused and said, probably Koyasan. I was immediately intrigued and bookmarked it for a future visit.

Koyasan is well known for a number of things, but of most interest to most foreign visitors is probably the chance to stay in a temple lodgings known as shokubo. Although I’m not religious in any way this was something new and different for both of us.

Kanazawa – Koyasan Day 4

 

We said goodbye to Kanazawa station, with a round of ice cream and bread. A series of long train rides and transfers later, we found ourselves slowly making our way up the mountain. The cable car up to the Summit is by far the steepest cable car I have ever taken in my life! I looked out at the scenery with a mix of fear and excitement.

At the top of the cable car station, there were station attendants who helped everyone get on the right bus to their lodgings. This is particularly important as pedestrian traffic is forbidden on the windy road between the cable car station and the actual town.

The temple we stayed at: Yochi-inn, was a little far from most of the other lodgings. However, it was by far the most reasonably priced temple lodgings we could find for our dates. As an added bonus, it was directly opposite from the main garan complex, which houses many of the most profilic temples in Koyasan.

 

One of the highlights of shokubo is shojin ryori, or traditional Buddhist cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised by just how flavourful the soup was. Despite being vegetarian it had a deep almost fishy flavour. I can’t say that I found the pickles that convincing, but the tempura and superb Japanese rice completed the meal.

 

Dinner finished rather early so we had time to do a brief bit of exploring. We wandered over to the Daimon and the start of a very long pilgrimage route. Seeing as the temple had a 9pm curfew, we weren’t too keen on starting a 4 day walking trail. Instead, we made our way back to the Garan temple complex and the rest of the town. Even by night the myriad of temples, small and large were incredibly impressive.

Koyasan – Osaka Day 5

At 6am it was already light but still very chilly. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed for morning service at 6:30am. 

If you’re expecting a completely authentic temple experience, this is not it. There are TVs in the rooms, the monks ask if you would like alcohol with dinner and there are even handy guide cards to help English speakers follow along with sutras. However, it is probably one of the only and best chances that foreigners have to interact with Japanese monks and experience life in a Japanese temple. At this morning prayer, the monk who oversaw it had excellent English and was more than happy to answer our questions on Buddhism and the path to becoming a monk in Japan.

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Breakfast was a very simple affair. Rice, tofu, pickles and miso soup. Interestingly, the monks that had breakfast with us, also chanted another sutra before and after eating. Their breakfast was considerable more spartan, with only soup and rice.

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Seeing as it was still early on in the day we decided to make the most of things and start our sight seeing early. We made our way back through the garan complex, towards the Tokugawa Mausoleum. Even though these two buildings commemorate the first two Tokugawa shogun they are surprisingly small and a little run down.

 

Kongo sanmai in was next on our list of places to check out. I was a little confused at first because it was marked as a rhododendron garden on one of the maps we received. Although the only rhododendrons I saw were starting to wilt, the temple has a lovely little garden and pagoda. I dare say it was one of the better tended gardens in all of Koyasan. I paid a rather modest sum to explore the grounds, but I’m fairly sure that you can also stay in the temple as well.

 

On the far east side of Koyasan is the Okunin temple walk. The grave stones leading up to the main temple feature memorials dedicated to a litany of famous figures, both ancient and recent. We were particularly caught up in the monuments dedicated to famous warriors and leaders in the Sengoku era. We also couldn’t help laughing at some of the more modern monuments, such as this one, which we supposed was commemorating the death of Panasonic.

Photos are not allowed at the main temples dedicated to Kobo Dashi. As a lay person without too much knowledge of esoteric Buddhism I wasn’t too sure what to expect. However, the sheer number of Japanese people, young and old alike making trips out to this area makes it pretty clear just how important this area is.

 

On our way back to collect our luggage we made a brief wagashi pit stop at Kasakuni.
This modest looking store only has a few simple varieties of wagashi, but everything we tried was pretty good. In fact the kurumi mochi was so good I good have easily eaten 5 of them. If it weren’t for all the extra travelling we would have to do I would have bought a box to eat later.

 

Our actual lunch was all the way on the other end of town at KadoGoma tofu. Although the variety lunch was exceedingly pretty it was the udon noodles that really made an impression. The soy milk dashi dipping sauce was far superior to any normal tsuyu I have ever tried.

With the afternoon heat setting in we made our back to Koyasan station. On the way to Osaka, we both slept so well that an elderly Japanese lady woke us up for the transfer! Getting to Osaka station was a sensory overload. The crush of people and maze like streets were almost too much! It was worlds away from the contemplative temples and flora of Koyasan.

 

Luckily, before too long, I tapped into my city girl roots and was ready for a round of exploring and dinner! Enya yakitori was just what I was craving. The highlights were definitely the cheese tsukune, shitake mushrooms and negi yakitori. As an added bonus it was also one of the first opportunities I had to practice my Japanese extensively. Somehow we managed to muddle our way through ordering and made a pretty good night out of things.

Koyasan is not the easiest place to get to, but by and large it is worth the hassle. It would be somewhat misleading to just label it as a place to experience temple lodgings. The austere aspects of monkhood are somewhat glossed over, giving way to a much more tourist friendly experience. Even with the tourist and car traffic this windy mountain town felt unique and just a little bit magical.

 

Tips
A trip to Koyasan is not fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass. We bought the Koyasan World Heritage ticket at Shin-Imamiya station. The regular ticket cost 2,860 yen and covers the round trip from Shin-Imamiya to Koyasan. It also entitles you unlimited bus rides in Koyasan and discounts to some of the attractions.

We were advised to leave behind bulky luggage in Osaka before proceeding to Koyasan. I can not recommend this enough. There are a fair few stairs on the trip to Koyasan. Not to mention the cable car up to the mountain can get very cramped and so can the buses in the town. We left out luggage in the Osaka station coin lockers, but there are also plenty of lockers in Namba station where you can easily stash things.

A nighttime tour of the okunin grave walk was much recommended. We were unable to do it because Yochi-in has a 9pm curfew. However, if you’re keen I suggest either staying somewhere much closer to okunin as many temple lodgings will shut their doors after a certain time at night. An alternate itinerary is to stay in a temple lodgings for one night to experience shokubo and to follow that up with a night in a guest house with no curfew.

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