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Japan 2016 : Part 13 – Tenjinbashi Shotengai and Harukoma Sushi in Osaka

Published by on December 31, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

After 5 packed and enjoyable days in Kyoto and Nara, it was time to move on to Osaka. Osaka is a much bigger and more modern city compared to Kyoto, it is in fact Japan’s largest city after Tokyo. Though bigger, it has an excellent subway system comparable to other world class cities, so we used them solely to move around. No more buses, then.

From our Airbnb, we packed up and left for Kyoto Station to board the JR special rapid train (JPY 560 per person, 30 minutes). I had wanted to try the shinkansen bullet train at least once in Japan, but the price of JPY 1420 was just too steep (it takes only 15 minutes). The special rapid train was quite packed with travelers lugging baggage.


(goodbye, Kyoto!)

Upon reaching Shin-Osaka, we walked across the massive train station to the subway station. Shin-Osaka is huge, but different from Kyoto Station. Here it more of a urban mall concept, but it is just as crowded with people. Walking along the wide subterranean malls, you can smell the enticing cheesecakes and pastries from the shops.


(Osaka subway stations remind me of the Paris Metro)

From Shin-Osaka its a short subway ride to Hommachi Station (sometimes spelt Honmachi). The station exit is right in front of my hotel. But we exited on a different side, so we had to walk around a few blocks. But what a sight of the autumn colours!

We stayed in Lohas Superhotel, a very, very new hotel that has a health and wellness theme. We were really wonderfully surprised by the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff and the rooms were really very nice (although as with most Osaka hotels, they’re quite small).


(our hotel for the next few days)

Another plus point for our hotel – there is a Family Mart downstairs! Woo-hoo! But we didn’t buy much stuff here except for ongiri and coffee in a can, since our hotel served good breakfast every morning.

We couldn’t check in so early in the day, but the hotel allowed us to deposit our bags while we went out.

First order of the day – early lunch. Mark Wiens, one of my favourite travel bloggers, highly recommended Harukoma Sushi, located in Tenjinbashi Shotengai (shotengai means Shopping Street). We took one subway and easily found the place.

Now something about Tenjinbashi. If you think the shopping streets in Kyoto are impressive, wait til you see this one. Tenjinbashi is almost 3 KILOMETERS long, and separated into 7 chomes, or sections. It stretches across 3 subway stations and it feels like it just goes on forever. And thank goodness for the covered roof, as it was drizzling that whole day we were in Osaka.


(this is the northern end of the street)


(one of the few McDonald’s we came across)

Walking down the street, it is hard to avoid the aroma of the delicious food around you. We tried this chocolate crepe made by an old Japanese couple.

Harukoma is easy to find, located at the start of 2-chome. There are actually 2 branches within walking distance of each other, so do check which has a shorter queue.

This is the one Google Maps brought me to.

Check out the queue… well, in Japan, very much like in Ipoh, if you want good food, you have to wait…

We didn’t have to wait long, maybe 20 minutes as most customers eat and run quickly (the service is very prompt). You can order while waiting in line. The menu comes in Japanese, English and Korean (there was a Korean couple in front of us), and overall the vibe of the place is very friendly and helpful.

Inside, you can see how small it is. In addition to the L shaped counter seating, there are only 3 booth tables that can fit 4 people each.

when you enter the restaurant, pass your order to the waiter (the orders are conveniently number coded with pictures) and in a few minutes, your food will arrive.


(HEAVENLY SASHIMI…)


(all extremely delicious dead sea creatures)


(the unagi deserves a second order)

Yes, we did order a second round of unagi as it was so good. Each platter ranges from JPY 200 to JPY 400. So what was the verdict? It was fantastic. I thought it was the best sushi I had during my trip, and also quite affordable. The branch further down the street is bigger, but both have long queues during peak periods.

After lunch we walked on the street, almost to the end. It was raining outside, so we decided to make a caffeine pitstop.

Didn’t take a picture of the shop name, but they served UCC coffee.

Next – Osaka Aquarium

Japan 2016 : Part 12 – Ginkakuji, Philosopher’s Path & Eikando Night Illumination

Published by on December 30, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

After lunch, it was just after 12pm, so it was right about time to set off for Ginkakuji. The plan was to start at Ginkakuji, walk along the Philosopher’s Path, and end up in Eikando for the night illumination.

The temple opens their doors at 6pm, and tickets start selling at about 5.30pm. Reports say that the queue for tickets are extremely long, as Eikando is one of the more popular temples to have this night event.

So we boarded the bus for another long ride across the city. Ginkakuji and the other nearby attractions are located in an area called Higashiyama in the east of Kyoto. If you are doing a whistle-stop tour to see Kyoto in 2 days, usually Higashiyama is visited together with Kiyomizudera just to the south.

Anyway, the bus stop is quite a distance to Ginkakuji, so there’s a stretch of walking, with shops along the way as with most major temples. As usual my daughter bought her favourite green tea (matcha) ice-cream for JPY 200 (she had one almost every day for 8 days straight).

The entrance to Ginkakuji is very impressive, with the 3-storey high hedge wall, like you are in a maze.

Ginkakuji is also known as the Silver Pavilion, modeled after the earlier and more impressive Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (both have rather similar names, they are easily confused together). Although both buildings look alike, that where the similarity ends. The other one is on a beautiful lake and is painted gold, this one looks like a pale imitation.

But just like the other more famous counterpart, there’s a lake and zen garden. Follow the designated walking path and you see the whole works.


(that mound is made with loose gravel, if you can believe it)


(they try hard to keep cats from turning this into a giant litter box)

So, well, not really much to see here. So on we move to the next place.

From Ginkakuji there’s a walkway beside a river called the Philosopher’s Path leading to Eikando. From most websites it looks straight and short. But in reality it is almost 3 km long and meanders a lot. On the upside, you can enjoy the fall foliage along the way. There are many lesser-known temples, cafes and even an art gallery to interest you beside the path.

We were still quite early so we stopped by this English café to have some coffee and cake.

This place is run by an elderly Japanese couple and the décor is very nice, but is rather pricey.

By the time we reached Eikando just before 5pm, this was the queue. That’s the ticketing booth in a distance, with the white sign noting the opening times. By the time the booth opened an hour later, the queue was more than 3 times longer than this.

Eikando is a large temple complex with many buildings, and like most temples, they have a zen garden and lake in the middle. During autumm, they light up the trees and building façade, making it quite beautiful.

Night tickets cost JPY 600 and is sold separately from day time tickets. Is Eikando worth a visit? Well, you should catch one temple night illumination, either here or another one. Other than taking some good photos, there isn’t much else to do or see, unless you want to enter the temple to pray.

Time for dinner. From Eikando, it’s a long walk to the nearest train or bus stop, so we boarded a cab (lots of cabs drop off passengers here). Our destination was back to Nishiki / Teramachi, to try Ichiran Ramen. The cab dropped us off at the nearest entrance as the place is for pedestrian only. We still had problems finding the place, as it was tucked way in small side street. But when we finally found it, the queue was very long. The staff told us it was at least an hour’s wait. In the cold weather and wind…

We were quite tired and hungry, so we gave up the idea of trying the famous restaurant. Fortunately, there’s another (less famous) ramen shop across the road.

It turned out to be a good deal, each ramen set comes with a separate bowl of meat and rice.

And so ended another very, very long day in Kyoto, which also happened to be our last. And tomorrow, its onward to Osaka…

Next – Tenjinbashi in Osaka.

Japan 2016 : Part 11 – Ryoanji Temple

Published by on December 29, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

Day 5 and final day in Kyoto! Early morning was our breakfast of ham and instant noodles bought from the nearby convenience store the previous night (we actually also brought our own cup noodles from Malaysia…). The itinerary for today was to visit Ryoanji Temple, Nijo Castle, Ginkakuji, Philosopher’s Path, see the night illumination at Eikando temple, and finally dinner at the famous Ichiran Ramen. We were supposed to visit Ryoanji the previous day together with the Golden Pavilion, but since it was late we moved it to today.

Another ambitiously planned itinerary, so no time to lose.

First thing was to take a bus to Ryoanji. It was convenient since there was a bus straight from my Airbnb. But another complication – our ICOCA cards were running out of credit. We checked the last time we used it, there was credit enough for 1 more bus trip (bus trips cost JPY 230 per ride). The best place to top them up are subway and train stations, but we weren’t passing by them en route to Ryoanji. Hmmm. So we decided to use cash for the bus.

On the bus, there is a coin change machine conveniently located next to the driver, where you can change JPY 1000 notes and JPY 500 coins into the smaller JPY 100 denomination. Buses don’t give change for rides, so you should have the exact amount. So during the train ride there, I inched my way to the front to change my JPY 1000 note. I saw the lady in front of me buy a bus pass from the driver. Then I thought, “eh, I should use it, too, since we’re using buses a lot today!” Bus passes cost JPY 500, so if you use it more than twice, it will pay for itself. I had researched about it, but it hadn’t occurred to me to use them today.

The first time you use the pass, slot it into the machine next to the coin entry, and the date will be imprinted on it. For subsequent uses during the day, just show the date to the driver.

So bus problem solved. On to Ryoanji.

Ryoanji is the most famous zen garden in Japan. It is located within a large garden that has the most beautiful autumn colours that we’ve seen during our stay in Japan.

You can walk around the large garden first, or follow the crowds and see the zen garden.

The zen garden has a long and complicated history, with lots of views explaining the significance of the rock layout. Actually, nobody knows what it represents and why it is laid out like this, but the interesting thing is that no matter where you stand, you cannot see all 15 rocks at one time.


(the zen garden)


(trust me, even this water spring also got long story one)

Outside the garden near the entrance there’s a souvenir shop and some vending machines. Talking about vending machines – I’ve heard so much about them in Japan, but most of the ones we’ve seen in Kyoto and Osaka were from the same company, selling coffee and soft drinks in cans.

This one that we saw is different, although not uncommon. It serves hot drinks like coffee and chocolate. Actually, someone warned me that these vending machine coffees don’t taste great, but my daughter was really keen to try. So try we did.


(vending machine!)

I guess it was alright, a little weak for my taste.

Then we took a bus back to Nijo Castle near my Airbnb, where I could top up our ICOCA cards at the nearby subway station. We decided not to go into Nijo Castle (even though we were at the bus stop right in front of the entrance), I guess after 5 days in Kyoto, we’ve seen enough castles and temples.

But with the bus pass, though, that was really useful! We took a bus just one station down the road to try this curry house. In the past few days we’ve walked past this place, and the smell of the curry was so enticing.


(our vegetables for the day)


(and pork chop with curry!)

Next – Ginkakuji, Philosopher’s Path and Eikando

Japan 2016 : Part 10 – Togetsukyo Bridge and Kinkakuji Temple

Published by on December 29, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

After our lunch in Unagiya Horikawa, we took some time to walk down the main street of Arashiyama. This is a really busy tourist district – you can see the people packing the sidewalk. There are many, many restaurants and souvenir shops along the way.


(Arashiyama is really crowded)

Right at the bottom of Arashiyama, there is Togetsukyo Bridge. This famous bridge is popular for couples to do selfies, but we didn’t cross the bridge. Across there you can see part of Iwatayama Monkey Park.


(Togetsukyo Bridge)

Anyway earlier in the restaurant during lunch we saw some people holding %Arabica coffee cups, so we asked around for directions. Turns out its very near the bridge – facing the river with a fantastic view of the sunset. This is the second branch we patronized in Kyoto, but this being a more popular one. The queue to get our coffee fix probably took 20 minutes.


(there’s always time for good coffee)

After getting our coffee, we made a beeline for the Keifuku-Arashiyama tram station. This is the only tram line in Kyoto, it functions just like a normal train but it moves slower and looks quite different.


(keifuku tram)

Our destination is to Kinkakuji in the north of Kyoto, and getting there is a little tricky. We are supposed to board the tram, get off, switch to bus, and then walk a bit. But seeing that it was getting late and closing time for the temple was fast approaching, we boarded a taxi after getting off the tram.

It turned out to be a good move, as we made it to the temple just 5 minutes before the last entry. Phew!


(entrance to Kinkakuji)

Anyway, what is Kinkakuji? Well, it is one of the most iconic views Kyoto. It is a small golden coloured temple beside a zen garden and pond. It is best to catch it in the late evening, like we did, when golden paint catches the setting sun rays.

You will see the famous view of the temple immediately after you enter the grounds.


(the famous view)

This place should not be confused with Ginkakuji, another famous temple (called Silver Pavilion), in another part of Kyoto.

Besides the golden temple, there isn’t much else to see in this place, but you can walk one loop around the garden.


(up close)

Anyway, the original plan for today was to see Ryoanji together with Kinkakuji, since they are both located near each other. However, since it was already late, we decided to put off Ryoanji for another day. So for dinner, we boarded a long bus ride back to the city to Daimaru.

Daimaru is the second biggest department store in Kyoto (the biggest being Takashiyama on the same street). All these high end stores are located in Shijo-Dori, something like Fifth Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, where is the biggest and most expensive fashion shops are located. At this time, the busiest stretch of Shijo-Dori was all lighted up for Christmas.


(Shijo-Dori all lighted up for Christmas)

The reason we were going to Daimaru is to have dinner at the basement food hall. This phenomenon of basement food hall, known as ‘depachika’ is very popular in Japan. Good ones like Daimaru have huge selection of fresh and delicious snacks and pre-packed meals to choose from. Another impressive one that we found was Hanshin in Namba Parks, Osaka (we’ll get to that later).


(the awesome basement food hall)

We bought lots of stuff and took it to the seats outside and we had a good and cheap dinner.


(gyoza)


(takoyaki and some kind of fish cakes)

Next – Ryoanji

Japan 2016 : Part 9 – Arashiyama

Published by on December 27, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

Day 5 in Kyoto and Japan!! Today we are going to Arashiyama, then after lunch we planned to visit Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) and then end our day with dinner at Daimaru. The original plan was to visit Arashiyama on my 2nd day here, giving it priority due to its popularity. But when I wanted to buy the Sagano Romantic Train tickets in Kansai Airport (when I first touched down), all the morning tickets were sold out for the next few days. The only available ticket for morning was for today.

So I had to juggle my itinerary around in my mind (in the few seconds I was standing at the JR counter) as there are a lot of factors to consider, like Izuju being closed on Wednesdays, etc. Anyways, so today, Friday, we’re setting off on a train to Arashiyama.

Arashiyama is a district in the west of Kyoto, packed with attractions and very popular with tourists. According to Wikitravel, though:

Many Japanese couples go to Arashiyama to break up. If you are thinking of visiting the region with your significant other, be sure to plan ahead and check the status of your relationship before heading out.

Hmm, okay, at least the article says ‘Japanese couples’…

Anyway, our main reasons to visit Arashiyama was to ride the Sagano Romantic train, see the fabled bamboo grove, eat unagi, see the Togetsukyo bridge, and maybe walk around a bit. Forget about the monkey park or most of the temples, we won’t have time so we have concentrate on the important places.

First thing in the morning is to take a but down to Nijo Castle nearby our Airbnb. We walked past this historic landmark many times during our stay here, but never had the time to go in. From Nijo Castle we took 2 trains to Umahori at the extreme western end of Arashiyama. If you are boarding the Sagano train, make sure you note which station you should embark on, there are two.

At Uzumasa station where we were suppose to change trains, we actually boarded the wrong train. The express train took us one station further than Umahori (it was a limited express) so we took a regular train back 1 station in the opposite direction. Anyway, we were very early so we had some time.


(JR Umahori station)

Umahori is located in a quieter part of Arashiyama which gives a feel of the countryside. I think the other station, Saga-Arashiyama has a more urban, commercialized feel. Anyway from Umahori we stopped by Lawson (a local chain of convenience store) to use their free wifi and toilets. From there it is a short walk to Kameoka Torokko, while walking past paddy fields and houses and old folk out for a morning jog.


(this scene doesn’t really feel like we’re in Kyoto anymore)

While waiting for our 10:30 am train, we took pictures in the paddy fields and there are food stalls serving free tea. Not green tea, some weird tasting tea made of some dubious grains.

Anyway, like any other train in Japan, the Sagano came right on time. Sagano is a retro train ride that lasts about 25 minutes, cutting through a very scenic mountainside and river. The best time to visit is either cherry blossom season in spring our autumn. If possible, get the tickets at the JR office in Kansai Airport, if you wait to buy here in Arashiyama, there is a possibility the tickets will be sold out. And if possible, get the seats on left if you are going east, or right if you are going west to get the best views.


(guy with a mask providing some on board entertainment with the stoic conductor)

It was tough to take nice pics when the train is moving, but trust me, the view is spectacular.

We got off at Arashiyama station, which the next to last station, as it is the nearest one to the bamboo forest.

The bamboo forest, one of the highlights of Arashiyama, is really something everyone must experience.
Truly beautiful and serene through all seasons, it really feels like you are in an alien planet. Apparently, there is a certain sound to be appreciated, but with the throng of tourists, its quite tough to appreciate the quietness.

The bamboo forest is actually quite small, you can walk through in less than 10 minutes. At the end of the grove, you will find Okochi-Sanso and the popular Tenryu-ji temple. We skipped both and walked on straight to the shops. Upon exiting the grove, there is a cluster of food stalls, so we tried a few of them.


(Yakitori – baby octopus on a stick. Yummy)


(beef croquet and curry chicken bun)

The food here was so-so only, but at least something to fill our tummies.

Next on the itinerary – lunch. We planned to try Unagiya Hirokawa, a very famous unagi restaurant here. But the place is notorious for the extremely long queue, so we just tried to go and see the place. They normally open at 11.30am, but people starting queuing as early as 10am.

By the time we got there, it was just past 12pm and the queue was pretty long. Okay, we thought. Can’t be that bad, right? Well, all in all, our wait took almost two and a half hours, believe it or not 🙂


(the queue is much longer as some people are waiting in place of a bigger group)

The queue, while not very long, moves really slow. After getting IN to the restaurant, there is still another queue while you sit in the waiting area.

Anyway we didn’t spend the whole time waiting in line, we took turns to wait while the others walk around Arashiyama, eating ice cream and appreciating the city. At 1.30 pm, they cut off the queue for the last order.

Anyway, we FINALLY got a table, we ordered the Yanagawa (boiled loaches soup) and of course, a set of unagi and rice each.


(Yanagawa)


(unagi… mmm…)

So the verdict? It is DELICIOUS. The eel is freshly prepared and sliced every morning, hence they have limited servings. It literally melts in your mouth, it is that good. Was it worth the wait? Definitely, although I would suggest calling and booking beforehand if you can. Would I go back again if I had a chance? Hmmmm… wait, let me plan my next trip back to Kyoto first…

Next – Togetsukyo Bridge and %Arabica coffee AGAIN.

Japan 2016 : Part 8 – Gion and Fushimi Inari Taisha

Published by on December 26, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

From Izuju, it is just a short walk around the corner to Gion. Along the way, there are lots of stuff to see (and buy).


(lots of stuff to see and buy)


(headless kimono people)

Along the way, my daughter was asking me about Japanese writing, and was explaining to her Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana systems. Then we walk past this place. Talk about coincidences.


(speak of the devil – kanji museum)

Turn left on the first major traffic light junction and you will be in Gion. this geisha district is also a well-preserved heritage area famed for traditional teahouses and restaurants serving kaiseki cuisine, quite similar to Pontocho Alley. Actually, to be honest, it may all be fascinating to the Western tourist, but for me there wasn’t much to see. Some folks like to rent the kimono for the day and take lots of photos along this street, but really, how many photos can you take of yourself? Anyway, if you are in a rush (and unless you are hellbent on seeing a real geisha) I would suggest you give this place a miss.


(Gion)

Next stop on our itinerary is Fushimi Inari Taisha, located about 5 km south of Gion. The fastest way there is to take the Keihan railway line there.

The area around Fushimi temple is also very lively and crowded with tourists. If you are looking for a meal, you will have no shortage of choices to pick from.


(shops along the way to the temple)

Just like most other major temples here, the entrance walkway is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and stalls selling snacks.


(very crowded)

Saw this guy selling slabs of pork grilling on a fire. Who can say no to that??


(guy wearing Metallica tee selling pork on a stick. It’s a sign I must buy!!!)

Fushimi Inari is a must visit in Kyoto. Recently it was voted the no.1 destination, plus it was featured in the move ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (have not watched this movie, though).


(the main temple hall)

The temple is famous for home to more than 10,000 vermilion torii gates (some Japanese school girls were actually counting them in front of us) and the shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice. Foxes are believed to be Inari’s messengers. I suspect that unlike the deer of Nara, foxes here have long gone extinct from the mountain, but there are many statues of them all over the grounds.


(the point where the path splits into two)

The shrine is actually build on the foot of a hill, with two separate paths leading up and down. It will take you more than 2 hours to trek up to the peak (apparently the view is breathtaking) but we didn’t go. You can go as far as you can, after awhile the torii gates start looking the same.

It goes without saying you can find lots of souvenirs to buy. Most popular are the miniature vermilion torii gate, and the fox.


(you can buy red torii gates in varying sizes and prices. And fox key chains)

By the time we were about to leave, it was about 4pm, and saw this view of the temple at the golden hour.


(the temple at the golden hour)

Given time, I think I would have loved to fully explore the temple, and climb to the peak of the hill. There’s a lot more to the temple than the torii gates, so if I had the opportunity I would definitely come back here again.

After that, time to look for dinner. We tried this place we saw on the way going in to the temple.


(our dinner place. This was taken after we finished, when they were closing up)


(pork, egg and rice)


(sashimi and rice)

After we finished at about 5pm, most of the shops here were closing down for the day. I guess everything revolves around the tourists and the temple. From there, we took a train (not Kintetsu this time, we took JR) and a bus back to our Airbnb. We stopped one station earlier to buy some breakfast from this large supermarket near our Airbnb.


(izumiya)

So ended our 3rd day in Kyoto. Very tiring, but immensely enjoyable and fulfilling. We managed to cover two of the most famous temples in Japan, Kiyomizudera and Fushimi Inari, try authentic Kyoto sushi, amongst many other things.

Next – Arashiyama.

Japan 2016 : Part 7 – Traditional Kyoto Sushi at Izuju

Published by on December 26, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

After Kiyomizudera, we planned to walk all the way to Gion for lunch, which is more than 3 km away, but with lots of stuff to see along the way.

But before leaving Kiyomizudera, we spent some time shopping in shops in front of the temple. One particular shop is quite popular, they serve complimentary green tea and allow you to sample all the different snacks they have on offer. One item that was recommended to try was a large wheel of matcha-flavoured swiss roll called Baumkuchen. However, since it has to be eaten within a few days, we planned to buy it at the airport in Osaka. We also bought some rice crackers and matcha chocolates from here.


(baumkuchen)

Turn right from the temple is Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, a district of well preserved traditional homes converted to shops and restaurants. It is a bit like Bukchon Hanok is Seoul, except a little more friendly and commercialized (and closed to traffic). Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka are actually two conjoined streets, but I’m not sure where one begins and the other starts, just follow the crowds and shops and you won’t veer off track.


(sannen-zaka)

Along the way we tried this popular snack – Kobe beef croquet for JPY 300. I wonder if they really use Kobe beef?


(kobe beef croquet)


(shiba inu!)

En route to Gion, we detoured off one of the side streets to find %Arabica, said to serve the best coffee in Kyoto. They’ve a few branches all over the world, but in Japan they only have 3 joints and they are all in Kyoto. In our time here, we managed to visit 2 different branches (the other one in Arashiyama).


(the coolest coffee bar in all of Kyoto!)

I really like their minimalist décor, and the verdict on the coffee? Yes, it really good, far superior to any I’ve tasted recently. If you are looking for this coffee bar, look for Hokan-ji temple and it is a few doors away.

Further on we saw some geishas taking a ride on a traditional rickshaw.


(Geisha)

Next we turned off yet another nondescript lane with no markings except of a small wooden sign in Japanese. This is Ishibei-koji, said to be the “most beautiful lane in all of Kyoto”. Well, I can’t attest to that claim, but its rather pretty. They took pains to maintain a 17th-century look and feel and it is worth a few snapshots (but keep it quiet, there are people staying here).


(ishibei koji)

At the end of the long walk you will reach Maruyama Park. In the summer months, the park and the temples within are rather lively. After struggling with the directions for awhile, we decided to skip Shoren-In (so far to walk!), and walk around the park instead. At the western end of the park, where our lunch destination was located, we found that there was festival going on in the smaller Yasaka Shrine.


(yasaka shrine)

As with most major temples at this time, there are food stalls abound here.


(looks like some kind of grilled fish)


(Er, salted baked fish…)

We bought this – crab meat on a stick. Somewhere in Japan there’s a giant crab walking around missing a left hand.


(crab meat on a stick. Awesome)

Right in front of Yasaka Shrine is a massive traffic junction, and on the other side of the road is Izuju. At first we lined up the wrong shop, there was this other shop with long line of people waiting. We assumed this was Izuju (since it was very popular) but when the menu was passed along the line for pre-order we realized it wasn’t serving sushi. Doing some post-trip research, I think that other shop is Hachidaime Gihey, serving specially cooked rice with sashimi and other sides.

But anyway, we were singleminded focused on trying Izuju. A nice guy in the bakery pointed me to the shop next door, there was no sign in English! There was also no actual queue, just some old Japanese folks sitting around. An old man pointed the reservation list where you are supposed to write your name with a brush.


(the elderly queue at Izuju)

Since we can’t write Japanese, and their kanji characters have different meanings from our Chinese, we wrote in English. You write from up to down, the number denotes your party size.

We waited for about half an hour with 5 groups ahead of us. Meanwhile we saw Pablo cheesecake across the road, so I went to buy some of their famous cheese tarts.


(Pablo cheesecake!)

They had some winter promotion going one, so I selected two of each flavours of cheese tarts for about JPY 1900. There are 3 flavours – original cheese, chocolate and matcha. Plus the promo also entitled me to a free cup of cookies. During our entire trip, I think we tried 4 different cheese tarts / cakes.


(their Christmas décor is so cute)

Anyway, back to lunch. Finally we got a seat in Izuju, the restaurant is extremely small! Only 5 tables, the rest of the place is taken by the kitchen. This restaurant is 100 years old and is the oldest and most traditional place serving Kyoto-style sushi. They use cured fish and vinegar so it tastes rather different from other sushi we’ve tried. Traditionally, this is because Kyoto is landlocked so the people here had to preserve their fish to last the winter months.


(best sushi we had)

The verdict – Definitely the best sushi we’ve ever tried, my wife said it was the best meal in Japan. Better than the unagi in Arashiyama? Hmmm tough call. But savour the tastes, you will not find it anywhere else.

Next – Fushimi Inari

Japan 2016 : Part 6 – Kiyomizudera Temple

Published by on December 25, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

Day 3 in Kyoto started earlier than usual, it turned out to be a cold day. Today, our plan was rather ambitious – we planned to see Kiyomizudera temple, have traditional Kyoto sushi at Izuju and visit Sannen-zaka, Ninen-zaka, Maruyama Park and Shoren-In en route there. After lunch, drop by Gion by way of Ishibei-koji. In the afternoon, while there is still daylight, we plan to visit Fushimi Inari. As I said, very ambitious plan, so that’s why we needed to start early.


(clear weather but cold today)

First thing was to take a bus from our Airbnb to Kiyomizudera (“Pure Water Temple”). The bus stop is quite far from the temple, so be prepared to walk a bit. On the way we encountered lots of school field trip groups.


(early December is the peak time for school trips)

About halfway uphill, you will see the temple far off in the distance, but still quite a long ways to go. But on both sides there are lots of shops selling souvenirs and snacks.


(see the temple up there in the distance? We’re only halfway there)

By the time you reach the temple, you can see how impressive it is.


(the entrance to the temple complex)

There’s an entrance fee of JPY 400 for adults (slight discount for children below 15) but I feel this is one of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto so it is definitely worth the admission ticket.

Inside the temple, you won’t see the grandeur of it until you step onto the viewing deck later.


(lots of souvenirs and paraphernalia for sale)


(this is popular with the china tourists)

Once on the viewing deck, you can see the splendor of the view. Best to visit during autumn colours or spring cherry blossom. That’s the Okunoin Hall on the left side of the main hall.


(view from the main platform)

Another view you must not miss is the view of the main viewing deck from Okunoin Hall.

You can see the timber supports holding up the temple for the last 1,236 years.

If you follow the crowds along the walkway, it will swirl down the hillside to the bottom of the temple where you can see Otowa Waterfall. There are 3 streams where you are supposed to collect with a cup attached to a long stick and drink from it. Very popular.


(see the queue of people to drink from the fountain?)

Further down the path you will see a traditional teahouse open for business, and a pool and rock garden.

(Why anyone wants to have tea outdoors in the freezing weather is beyond me)

Towards the end of the path, you will be led to the entrance of the temple again.

Kiyomizudera and Fushimi Inari are two most famous temples in Japan and very popular with tourists (the latter was voted no.1 among foreigners). If you have limited time, you should pick Kiyomizudera over the dozens of other temples as it is indeed beautiful and quite accessible from public transport (the long walk notwithstanding).

Next – traditional Kyoto sushi at Izuju.

Japan 2016 : Part 5 – Dinner at Kamameshi Shizuka

Published by on December 24, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

We had spent the whole day in Nara, it already past 5pm and getting dark. Our plan was to walk back to the station, take the train back to Kyoto and have dinner in Kyoto Station. There are a few floors of great restaurants there that had been recommended by friends.

However, on the walk back to the station, we passed by this restaurant. Earlier in the day, when we were passing in the other direction, we noted the queue was doubly long. Now in the evening, there were considerably less people waiting, but still a queue. We took a look at the menu on display, they served unagi and chicken and rice in a hot pot.

It seems interesting, we were more curious as to why the restaurant was insanely popular. Since the queue was not as long as earlier, we joined in.


(just look at the line!)

After less than 30 minutes, we were seated. Inside was a small dining area – maybe about 5 tables plus a few counter seats. No wonder the queue was long.

Turns out this place (called Shizuka) serves a cuisine called Kamameshi. It is basically chicken or unagi served with piping hot steamed rice. The rice is served in a small steep pot to retain the heat. The rice is steamed with soy sauce so its a bit like our claypot rice.

I ordered the unagi set, and the verdict? Wow, the meal was delicious. The unagi was soft and melts in your mouth. I didn’t think I’d taste a better unagi (until I went to Arashiyama 3 days later…) but the rice itself was also delicious. You’re supposed to cover the pot after you scoop the rice out, to keep the heat in.

After dinner we retraced our steps earlier in the morning back to train station. We saw a shop selling this speciality – sushi wrapped in leaves. This is one of the must-try items in Nara, but we didn’t get the opportunity. Maybe another time.


(its a bit pricey, though)

Right next to the train station is a shopping street, serves for your last minutes shopping in Nara. There’s a Daiso here where you can grab lots of great stuff for JPY 100.

So how did we find Nara? We thoroughly enjoyed it here. It was one of the highlights of our trip in Japan. Most people do a half day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, but I suggest taking your time for a full day trip.

Next – Kiyomizu dera!

Japan 2016 : Part 4 – Ramen Lunch and Kasuga Taisha

Published by on December 24, 2016

This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.

Since we started the day in Nara quite late in the morning, we were now pretty hungry. Within the huge Nara park, there aren’t many places to eat, since all the few buildings here are heritage buildings. So if you are planning to spend the whole day in Nara, make sure you eat before you enter the park. Or eat when you finally finish the entire park.


(beautiful autumn colours)

So walked down from Todaiji towards Kasuga Taisha, and there was a row of restaurants interspersed with shops selling knives and cutlery (apparently knives are a popular thing to buy here). The restaurant we entered was very welcoming, but upon sitting down, we found out they were out of ramen. So we tried the next shop.

So we had our first ramen in Japan. The thing is ramen in Japan is that every region has their own speciality. In Nara, the soup isn’t as thick as we’re used to, but it was great nonetheless.


(my first ramen in Japan)


(tempura rice)

The shop had no English name, except for the Chinese characters I can recognize (白銀屋). The front of the restaurant is taken up by a large souvenir shop.

After a hearty lunch we walked further down the street, and we saw this cute café. There’s never a bad time for coffee, as I always say.


(the highly recommended Deer Park Inn)

Deer Park Inn serves great coffee, manned by very friendly staff. The wifi is great, and more importantly, they provide a respite from the cold outside.


(coffee!)


(the café also sells some unique souvenirs)

By the time we finished our coffee and recuperated, it was already mid afternoon and starting to get really cold in Nara. The deer were starting to disappear into the forest. Our last itinerary was to visit Kasuga Taisha shrine. In Japan, when a shrine is called Taisha (‘Grand Shrine’), it means that it is the main shrine in the area and would therefore be big and popular (e.g. Fushimi Inari Taisha).


(the beautiful and serene Kasuga Taisha)

Kasuga is reknowned for home to 3,000 stone lanterns that when lit up during night time, looks ethereal.


(stone lanterns)

At one of the open courtyards, there was a small festival of some sorts happening.

There were lots of counters open, manned by the temple staff. Here you can have your fortune told, or have your name written by a master calligrapher.


(calligrapher at work)

The fortune system is rather simple. You pick a scroll or number from a display, pass it to the lady, she will give you a porcelain or wooden deer (for a fee, of course). The mouth of the deer will be holding your rolled up fortune. Not sure if you get an exchange or refund if you receive a lousy fortune, though.


(find out your fortune. Both in Japanese AND English)

Anyway it was now nearing 5pm, and getting dark and cold in Nara. Time to leave the park. Time for one last photo. I like this pic, it summarized my memory of Nara – a deer framed by a giant torii gate, and autumn colours in the background.


(despite what it looks like, the guy in white is NOT riding the deer)

Next – surprise dinner in Nara

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