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.

Onomichi – Setoda day 10

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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Japan Travel Diary 2017: Kanazawa and Shirakawago

My knowledge of Kanazawa mostly stems from stories that my friends have told me of their exchange days in the city. As a result, my impressions of Kanazawa are surrounded by a soft, warm nostalgic glow even though I have never actually been before. Needless to say, I was keen to finally see the city that made so many of my friends fall totally in love with Japan.

Kanazawa Day 2

Ryan has long reminisced about the fresh seafood bowls from Omicho market in Kanazawa. Although he no longer remembers exactly which store it was that he used to go to many years ago, some internet browsing pulled up a list of tasty looking stores. Yamasan has the advantage of opening at the early time of 7 am. This fit in perfectly with a day of sight seeing.

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We got there a few minutes before opening, but even then there was already a small line. Yamasan is a favourite amongst locals and travellers for their kaisen don which true to the store’s name features a small mountain of seafood! Although it was still very early in the morning everyone at the counter ordered a serving.

Honestly, I’m not too sure about serving some of the items like the crab when they are not in season but it still made for a very satisfying breakfast!

This proved to be the perfect fuel for the start of a long day of walking. Kenrokuen is touted as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.  The large clear expanses of water and soft looking moss were particularly delightful. In late Spring there are some lovely blooms along the water. I’m also told that it is beautiful in winter when everything is pure white and frozen over.

Kanazawa Jou is another popular destination. Although there isn’t too much castle left, the vast spacious grounds and towering walls are still quite the sight. We didn’t stay for too long as it was getting a little warm, but I get the feeling that this would be a nice spot to stay and have a picnic.

Not too far away is the 21st-century museum. Japan has a lot of traditional art and museums, but this is much more fun and whimsical. On the outside of the museum are already an array of interactive exhibits to run amok in.

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Whether or not you actually want to go inside and view the exhibits will depend on your individual tastes and what’s on now. We managed to luck upon Ikeda Manabu’s first solo exhibition in Japan; Ikeda Manabu: The Pen – Condensed Universe. Photos of the exhibit weren’t allowed (so this photo is pulled from the interenet) but being able to see his work in actual scale up close was simply breathtaking. I’ve long since liked his artwork for the fantasy elements and fine details, but being able to see each pen stroke up close was another matter.

We couldn’t leave Kanazawa without eating Sekai de ni ban me Oishi yakitate melon pan aisu. Ryan last fell in love with this ice cream filled snack back on our last trip. Back then we were surprised to learn that this store got its start in Kanazawa. The original store in tatemachi was just as good as it had been last time. Even the strange sounding blueberry cheese somehow worked!

At this point in time Ryan started to get rather sick. We decided to have an early night and sit in our hotel eating oden and other convenience store foods. I have to admit that this is one of our favourite things to do while in Japan when we have nothing else planned.

Kanazawa – Shirakawago Day 3

Still in the habit of waking up early, I made my way over to Curio vintage and café while Ryan slept. This charming cafe is run by an American expat and makes a lovely cup of cinnamon cappuccino. The guys sitting opposite me were also tucking into delicious looking sandwiches.

UNESCO world heritage site Shirakawago is roughly 50 minutes away from Kanazawa and a much recommended day trip. The area is famed for its thatched roof houses. The steep roofs are meant to help the houses stay warm in winter and cool in Summer.

Building and maintaining these houses are incredibly labour intensive so not many of these structures remain in the actual town. In fact, many of the houses from surrounding areas have been moved to the open air museum next to the main town. There’s a small admission fee to get in but in my opinion it’s well worth it. There’s a variety of buildings and far fewer people around, so we were able to explore and climb up to the top of many of the buildings in peace.

Seeing as we were up in the mountains, I was very keen to try some of the local produce. Not only was Inoriya still open late in the afternoon but it was serving up some very fresh vegetables from the region. I’ve never appreciated pickles as much as I did for that meal!

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Houses aside, the Shirakawago region is wonderful for a casual stroll. Although there are a fair few tourists, the remoteness of the region makes walking around very refreshing. For the best view of the town, I highly recommend the short walk up to Shiroyama Viewpoint. During Winter months the trail up is closed due to snow fall, so make sure to head up this way if you have the chance! There’s also a bus that goes up to the view point, but it’s a fairly gentle slope up so we didn’t see the need.

The greenery in this area is amazing and apparently so is the scenery when it is blanketed in snow. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go back one day and stay overnight in one of the houses!

As it hit late afternoon we took the bus back to Kanazawa, napping the whole way. I realised that we had just enough time to check out Tsuntsun café, which I had seen the first night in Tatemachi. Little known fact: hedgehogs are illegal in Australia. This was the first time I had ever seen let alone touched a hedgehog in real life! Our hedgehog, name Tsunko was rather shy and reticent but very eager to eat all the snacks that we fed it!

I had been rather looking forward to seeing Higashi Chaya as I love traditional Japanese tea houses. However we only managed to visit at night, when it was already well and truly dark. The dimly lit lanterns and soft voices drifting out from some of the stores made the whole thing very atmospheric (maybe even a little creepy?) even though the majority of the stores weren’t open. I was placated by the thought that during the day, that it would be a bit too touristy and crowded, but even then I made a vow in my heart that one day I would be back during the day!

Just across from Higashi Chaya, Oriental Brewing caught my eye. This interesting looking building houses a bar and brewery. I figured that on this cold night, we could do a lot worse than cosy up with some bar food and local beer. The peppery jerk chicken and yuzu ale were definite highlights.

Kanazawa isn’t exactly at the top of most people’s Japan itineraries. However, with the new shinkansen route from Tokyo directly to Kanazawa, I predict that it will only get busier! And with good reason! My first taste of the West coast of Japan left me hungry for more. I would have loved to stay a little longer to better explore some of the more traditional and far flung parts of the town.

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Tips

In Kanazawa, we stayed in Hotel Resol Trinity Kanazawa(https://www.trinity-kanazawa.com/en/). It was about 10-15 minutes walk away from the station and right next to Omicho market. This is a new hotel and it shows. The amenities are new, clean and plentiful. The room itself is also rather spacious and well kept. We found it pretty, easy to walk almost everywhere in Kanazawa although it is well serviced by buses as well.

Getting to Shirakawago from Kanazawa is fairly simple. There is a direct bus from Kanazawa station. We booked online via https://japanbusonline.com/  but there a few JTB outlets near Omicho station and the station which will no doubt be more than happy to organise it for you. If you’re looking to leave Kanazawa early in the morning, it’s probably best to book well in advance as these tickets were all sold out when we tried to purchase them the day before. The bus departed from the platform in front of Forus shopping centre.

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Hidemi Sugino

Who is Hidemi Sugino? In Japan, he is revered as a master cake maker, famed for his mousse cakes and being the first in Asia to win many prestigious awards, but outside of the country, I’m not too sure how many people have heard of him. This may be because unlike other patissiers he has not expanded his cake empire overseas, choosing instead to have a small simple store down an unassuming street in Ginza. Furthermore, almost as an anathema to current social media trends, no photos are allowed of the cake display or dining room. Instead, the cakes are plated and eaten in a sort of sedate and hushed reverie.

In spite of this, it seems that people were in the know and ready for cakes at their opening time of 11. When we arrived 10 minutes before opening there was already a small line outside. We were each ushered into the store to pick cakes for dine in, take away or both. I highly recommend dining in because there is a selection of cakes which can only be had in the café. According to the staff, they are too delicate to be transported. Of the cakes that can actually be taken away, even then, it is recommended that most of them only travel for an hour or so, to preserve their integrity.

The cakes are well and truly tiny. Even the super slim Japanese girls sitting on either side of me ordered at least 2 cakes each. If I was feeling a little bit more ambitious I probably could have ordered up to 3 or 4 cakes for myself but for now, we stuck with 4 to share.

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The Ambroise (Left) is arguably the cake that made Hidemi Sugino famous. A dark chocolate glaze and tempered chocolate rounds cover a delicate multi-layered cake. The slick chocolate makes this cake look incredibly rich. In a way it is, the cherry taste of dark chocolate seems a little overwhelming at first. However, it gives way to a much gentler berry and pistachio flavours and layers, well suited to a Japanese palette that doesn’t enjoy things that are too sweet.

The Sous Bois (Right) was Ryan’s favourite. Embedded into this cake are more berries! The sourness of the berries offset the sweetness of the mousse, making each mouthful a surprise. It also goes without saying but each of the fruits on all of the cakes tasted exceptional. In particular, the raspberries weren’t tart, and instead the flowery, almost perfume like taste of raspberry exploded in my mouth.

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The Everest (Right) was more to my tastes. It’s easy to see where this cake gets its name from. The peak of white cream at the top was sweet and soft. In fact, I would hazard to say that eating this was akin to eating a cloud. Every bite, soft and airy, with a little bit of juicy berry flavour from the hidden juice inside. Ryan commented that it tasted like a very soft and subtle cheesecake.

I thought that it would be impossible to top but the Sicily (Left) was even softer than the Everest! A strong pistachio flavour permeated the outer layer of green mousse. This is tempered by the peach and raspberry mouse inside. The texture was halfway between cream and panna cotta. I think I detected a light alcohol taste in the sponge at the bottom that made me smile a little. The taste of pistachio and alcohol definitely reminded me of southern Italy.

The beverages come at rather eye-watering prices. My single cup of apple tea was 780 Yen and Ryan’s tiny cup of espresso set us back 540 Yen. Thankfully, they were both well brewed. After dining at a number of Tokyo cafes, this beverage pricing, although shocking for an Australian is very much in line with most other premium cafes. I suppose these prices are part of the air of exclusivity and luxury that is inherent in dining in the hushed back room of the café.

Although I was ready to make the pilgrimage to Hidemi Sugino, I was also ready to be disappointed because I find that I simply don’t like mousse cake all that much. However, the delicate balance of flavours and soft set mousse at Hidemi Sugino has well and truly made me a convert. I only wish that there were more places which had such stringent standards for their own mousse cakes.

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Padre Coffee East Brunswick

Padre Coffee is a big name in the Melbourne coffee scene. After a little bit of research, I also learnt that Padre means father in many languages. It seemed appropriate to be visiting their East Brunswick store where it all began with my very own father (and mother). As soon as I entered the store the heady smell of coffee beans filled the air. It all makes sense as soon as you see the coffee roaster on premise.

padre latte

The large latte arrived in a bowl! This is my mum’s favourite cup of coffee, smooth and strong without a trace of acidity. On the other hand, a regular cappuccino comes in a normal cup. The froth on top is just as beautiful as that of the latte!

padre tea

I had a Yunnan green tea instead of coffee because I was still feeling a bit unwell. I appreciated how they took the time and care to brew a proper pot of green tea, instead of just filling a pot with boiling water like some cafes are wont to do. It was a touch too cold, on the lower end of 70 degrees perhaps due to not sufficiently warming the pot or cup.

For such a large venue there’s not much in the way of food, but that’s just fine because the real focus is on the coffee. That’s not to say that the small selection of pastries isn’t delicious. We shared a flaky ham scroll that went perfectly with the coffees.

Adjoined to the cafe, there’s also a veritable cornucopia of coffee making supplies. If you’re in the market for anything coffee related or even just a cup (or bowl!) of coffee this is the place to go.

padre coffee

https://shop.padrecoffee.com.au/
Padre Coffee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

By Josephine

I’ve never been to Paris before. However, if it is anything like By Josephine I can see why so many others are enamoured with it. It somehow manages to be effortlessly classy and whimsical all at once. The interior would look perfectly at home in a shabby chic Pinterest inspiration board. The pastry display is offset with a beautiful glow of light. I daresay it would be impossible to walk in and leave empty handed. In fact, I also bought a canele and pistachio and raspberry croissant for later!

By Josephine high tea

On this occasion, I was partaking in a leisurely high tea with friends. The high tea offers a wide selection of drinks, from tea (hot or cold), coffees and even juice. It’s hard to go past a traditional pot of hot tea when sweets are involved. The Detox Tea was pleasantly somewhere between green and herbal tea.

By Josephine tea

A selection of macarons accompanied the tea. The flavours were pistachio, chocolate and salted caramal. In terms of flavour the pistachio was my favourite, but it certainly doesn’t beat the black sesame that By Josephine also puts out. Impressively, all the macarons at By Josephine are made by hand rather than machine!

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As always savouries were on the bottom tier of the stand. The chicken & tarragon pain au lait looked incredibly inviting, with a glistening sheen to the pain au lait bun. I liked the bursts of tarragon but found myself wishing that the bread was a little bit warmer and softer. Palmiers remind me of my childhood. I loved going to the bakery with my parents and picking out the largest and flakiest palmier covered with sugar crystals to snack on. Biting into the tapenade & sundried tomato palmier was just like revisiting that joy but as an adult. The cheese gougère is definitely one for cheese lovers. The rich goat’s cheese sat neatly in the light choux pastry. I don’t entirely remember what the square pastry was, but I will say that it reminded me of a pizza in the best way.It wouldn’t be a French high tea without a buttery quiche to help round off the savoury plate.

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The top most tier contained a small pot of lavender infused crème brûlée and cubes of grapefruit marshmallow. I am a bit of a sucker for home made marshmallows and lavender so it was a nor brainer that I would love both of these. Thankfully the crème brûlée was flavoured with a light hand so it didn’t taste soapy.

By Josephine sweets

That just leaves the middle tier of even more sweet treats! Pistachio bread and butter pudding with raspberry coulis and custard on top was a wonderful twist on an old classic. I imagine this would be even better served warm straight from the baking tray. Spiced biscuits were a surprise hit! Crispy and full of warm cinnamon flavour, I could have easily eaten a handful. The raspberry and chocolate tartelette was probably the richest part of the whole tea. I struggled to finish everything else after eating this. So much so that I ended up taking the rose & raspberry tea cake home to give to my mum.

The 3 tiered stand was so full that our madeleines didn’t fit on! Sadly this means that I forgot to take a photo of them. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that they were small, cute and perfect dipped in tea.

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By Josephine also offers a vegetarian and gluten free high tea menu. The gluten free set that my friends shared looked likewise plentiful and delicious.

At $42 this high tea a real bargain for the incredible selection of food! In eschewing the usual scones and sandwiches By Josephine makes every item in the high tea seem exciting and different. My only real gripe is that it only includes one drink. In typical French style, there is plenty of butter and some of the foods are very rich so it’s a bit difficult to finish them without a drink to offset the heaviness. I found myself ordering another pot of peppermint tea halfway through tea service.

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P.S. On the website it states that high tea is only for the duration of 1.5 hours, but this doesn’t seem to be strictly enforced if the store isn’t busy.

http://macaronsbyjosephine.com.au/
By Josephine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tina’s Noodle Kitchen

Although it’s still Autumn in Melbourne it feels like we’ve suddenly been plunged into Winter. It’s such a shock to the system to go from an unbearably warm March to the biting cold in April. I must confess it has got me a little down in the dumps and also a little bit sick.

When it’s sick and cold there’s nothing better than a warming bowl of soup. Even better if there are noodles in the soup as well. It seemed like a few other people had the exact same idea as me, as there was a small line outside Tina’s Noodle Kitchen when I arrived. Not one to wait out in the cold I went window shopping in Myer for a while before coming back and being seated instantly.

Ordering and payment are done the same time at the counter. If you look Asian the staff will probably also speak Chinese to you.

Tinas noodles fish and mustard

Fish Slices with Pickles was exactly what I needed. Tender slippery pieces of fish and mustard greens were a great bite. Hidden in the soup were crunchy pieces of black fungus and soft beancurd. The rice noodles are very soft and consequently easy to slurp up.

Tinas noodle kitchen

Spicy Beef Noodles with added mushrooms are really very spicy. The layer of oil helps seal in the heat and makes for a flaming hot mouthful, heat and spice wise.

After a few mouthfuls of soup noodle, you will notice that both of the broths are very salty. They serve more as noodle flavouring than as a soup that you should drink up. I think this reflects the fact that heavy seasoning a la salt, pepper, pickles and probably a bit of MSG are used as opposed to the laborious process of stewing bones and vegetables for a particularly complex broth. Despite this, Tina’s Noodle Kitchen fills a gap in the city for Chinese style soup noodles. If you’re craving something warming on a cold night, it will probably hit the spot.

Tina's Noodle Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Operator 25

How do you keep in touch with people who you no longer see regularly? A sad part of adult life seems to be losing touch with friends. Sure, you can see what they’re up to on facebook, instagram or other social media but there’s nothing quite like catching up in person.

In a similar vein, how often should you touch base with a good cafe or restaurant? I’ve admitted time and time again that when it comes to food I’m not one for commitment. I can’t bring myself to visit the same places again when there are so many new ones to try. Even so, sometimes I feel that from time to time I should check up on places that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps it serves me right when after a year, they’ve totally changed the menu and replaced all the old favourites.

I didn’t have any of this in mind when I re-visited Operator 25 after a long absence. However, upon reflection, it seems appropriate that I would finally go back here with a good friend who I had also not seen for too long.

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Not only was it unseasonably warm, but I had also power walked over to the train station in order to get to brunch on time. As a result, I chose to eschew my usual warm tea with an iced elderberry tea with chia seeds and orange slice. The tea had a pleasant citrus taste and wasn’t too sweet. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the chia seeds was, but they added an interesting if somewhat unnecessary textural element to the drink.

Orange Juice was ordered by both my dining companions. It was freshly squeezed, so if you let it sit for too long it would seperate a bit, but a quick stir and the taste isn’t really affected at all.

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I dithered between the chia pudding and the Japanese open omelette, before eventually settling on the omelette. What arrived was more of a thin pancake of egg with a generous dash of many of my favourite Japanese ingredients. I found that the octopus was a bit too tough and toothsome and the sauce a touch overpowering, but that aside the flavours were on point.

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As for the teriyaki benedict, the mizuna leaves weren’t a sell but the soft brioche and yuzu hollandaise definitely won hearts.

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My friend polished off the Balinese pork burger first. After the last bite, he paused and commented that it was ‘good, real good actually’. In my books that’s high praise. Although Operator 25 no longer serves this burger with a side of sweet potato fries, I’m not sure if you need them considering how indulgent this already looks.

Even though I hadn’t been to Operator 25 in years it’s funny how I trusted that it wouldn’t let me down. This visit was everything that I had hoped it would be; somehow striking a balance between the new and familiar. I’m inclined to hope that my friendships will be the same, even if time and distance keeps us apart.

http://www.operator25.com.au/
Operator25 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato