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Japan 2016 : Part 17 – Umeda & Osaka Station

Published by on January 4, 2017

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

From Umeda Sky Building, it is quite a distance to walk to Osaka Station. There is a long underpass where you go beneath the train tracks. Once you exit the underpass, you are in the midst of the many skyscrapers in Umeda. It is really nice to walk along the open plaza area and take in the atmosphere. The area between Intercontinental Hotel and Osaka Station is especially nice.


(that’s Grand Front Osaka on your left and Osaka Station up ahead)


(there’s even an outdoor skating rink)


(this strange building is shaped like a ship)

We planned to look for this cheesecake shop called Uncle Rikuro’s that is really famous and is highly recommended by bloggers. It is located inside Daimaru in Osaka Station. But the problem is that Osaka Station is a massive, sprawling complex with many buildings and sections. And they actually have two Daimaru inside…

So to avoid walking around aimlessly looking for the directory, I went straight for the tourist info centre.

Even with clear directions and a map, it wasn’t so easy to find the basement food hall in Daimaru. After some wrong turns, we finally saw it near one of the exits.

The shop only sells one item, which is the cheesecake, and there was a pretty long queue. When it came to our turn, we had to wait an extra 5 minutes while the latest batch of cakes were baked. As soon as they come out of the oven, they are branded with the logo.


(you can see the joy in the face of the girl on the left, looking at the cheesecake)

We bought two cakes, one to eat now, one to eat later in the hotel.

But we couldn’t find a place to sit and eat, so we went upstairs to Starbucks. Most coffee places here and Kyoto have a ‘one-person-one-order’ policy, except Starbucks. So we ordered two lattes and opened our cheesecake.

All I can say is that it tastes really good. It is soft and fluffy, the texture is a bit like cotton candy, but with more body to it. There isn’t anything here in Malaysia that tastes close to it. The four of us finished the whole cake almost immediately…

From Osaka Station we went back to hotel, we passed by the Hanshin department store basement food hall, it was really packed with locals.

We also saw this long line of people queuing to buy from a particular store, guess what were they selling?

Next – Dotonbori & Ichiran Ramen

Japan 2016 : Part 16 – Umeda Sky Building

Published by on January 2, 2017

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

From Osaka Castle, we took the north western exit out to the city. The subway station was pretty far off, and we didn’t feel like walking so far and taking a long ride across the city to Umekita, so we flagged a taxi. In Osaka, the rate is almost the same as Kyoto.

So the cab took us all the way to Umeda building. Had we taken the subway, we had to walk quite a distance from Osaka station to the building.


(lots of skyscrapers here)

Umeda Sky Building is located in a business district called Umeda or Kita (‘North’) near Osaka station, which is one of the biggest transportation hubs in the city. Besides the Sky Building, this place is also home to shopping malls like Hankyu, Hanshin, Daimaru and Isetan Mitsukoshi, an entertainment park (Hankyu Entertainment Park) and commercial buildings that have their own shopping malls like Grand Front Osaka and Osaka Station.

But our main objective is to visit the Floating Garden Observatory, located atop the Sky Building. It is an unmistakable structure.


(that’s the observatory shaped like a doughnut up there)

In the plaza area, there is a German Christmas food fair going on, lots of food and beer for sale.

To get to the observatory, just follow signs. First you need to take the escalator to Level 4 (I think), then take the speed escalator to the ticketing office at level 39th. From there you will take a very long and scenic escalator to the top of the building.

The observatory is a ring around the top of the building, affording a 360 degree panorama view of the whole city. If the weather is windy, it can get pretty cold and uncomfortable, but fortunately the weather was excellent today.

From there you can see how large and sprawling Osaka is.

Other than the observatory, there is a restaurant here, and the usual gift store.


(ooo, One Piece!)

After the observatory, we proceeded to Takimi Koji Underground Eat Street, the basement foodcourt below the Umeda Sky Building. It is modeled to look like an Osaka village from the Taisho period in the 1910’s and 20’s.

There aren’t many restaurants here, so we chose this one with an attractive set lunch deal. For once, there isn’t an English menu, but we could tell from their pictures.

Next – Walking around Umeda and Osaka Station

Japan 2016 : Part 15 – Osaka Castle

Published by on January 2, 2017

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

Day 7 in Japan, day 2 in Osaka!

Today, our itinerary (as with most of our days here) was pretty ambitious. We planned to visit Osaka Castle, then go to Umeda Floating Garden Observatory (postponed from the day before), have lunch at the basement of Umeda Building, walk around Umekita / Osaka Station, Dotonbori and dinner at Ichiran Ramen (since we did not get to try it in Kyoto).

We had initially planned for a day trip to Himeji & Kobe during one of the days in Osaka, but after much deliberation I decided to forgo the day trip and spend the extra day in Osaka. Partly in anticipation that we’d be quite tired after a week or walking and traveling, and partly because of the cost factor.

But I had wanted to visit Himeji Castle, the most beautiful surviving feudal castle in Japan, and featured in Tom Cruise’s movie The Last Samurai. But, well, maybe another time. But as a consolation, I get to visit Osaka Castle! While not as famous, it is just as beautiful and far more accessible.

But back to our day in Osaka. One of the benefits of staying in a hotel compared to an Airbnb – full breakfast! The food spread is pretty good, but of course you can’t compare with larger hotels or the ones you find here in Malaysia. But for the first breakfast, we came down almost at the end of the serving time (breakfast ends at 9.30am), so the choices were limited.

We took a subway to the Castle. Osaka Castle is very large, it is located on a hillock surrounded by several moats and a park. You can reach it from at least 7 train and subway stations, so make sure you know which one you want to enter from.

Ideally, enter from the south eastern entrance, through the Osaka Castle Park. The north western entrance joins straight into the city and is not as impressive.


(the impressive fountain of hewn rocks)

The first level of moat of a very big river with lots of ducks and fish.


(too bad the cherry blossoms are not in season)

The park is very popular with senior citizens exercising and school trips.


(very playful and friendly Shiba Inu)

After the first level of gates and moat, there is still a lot of walking through the park.


(old man playing a traditional instrument with a throbbing bass line)

Once you enter the 2nd gate, you can see the castle clearer.

Inside the 2nd ring of walls, there are a lot of food trucks and stalls, but the prices are quite expensive here, probably the priciest we’ve seen in the whole city.

And up close, the Castle is really impressive.

We didn’t go into the castle and museum inside, it would take at least another 2 more hours to fully explore it (it is JPY 600 to enter). Although this current castle is reconstructed from 1931 (the original castle was built in 1583 but was destroyed by war), it is still a sight to behold especially in weather like today. The Castle is Osaka’s top attraction and is definitely a must-visit if you come to the city (even if you are cheapskates like us that only admire it from the outside).

Next – Umeda Sky Building

Japan 2016 : Part 14 – Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

Published by on January 1, 2017

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

From Tenjinbashi, the plan was to take the subway to Umeda and take in the evening view from the Umeda Floating Garden Observatory. However, it was drizzling, and with the weather like that, it was obviously that there wasn’t going to be much view. So a quick change of plans. The problem here is that most places close at 5pm, except for malls and supermarkets that close around 8.30pm (convenience stores stay open until 10pm even in winter).

But the one exception is Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, they open to 8pm through all seasons. This place is one of Osaka’s top tourist destinations alongside Universal Studios, but though it was highly recommended by my friend, we had put it on the ‘go if we have time’ list for tomorrow.

But since the weather wasn’t appropriate for Umeda, we decided to go to the aquarium. The aquarium, called Kaiyukan, is one of Japan’s best and is located in Osaka Bay, an area where you can also find Universal Studios, LEGOLAND, a mall, and the gigantic Tempozan Ferris Wheel.

To get there, get off Osakako subway station and follow the signs. Since we got there after dark in December, the whole area was lighted up.

That’s the Tempozan ferris wheel. Believe me, it is really big, I think bigger than the London Eye. There are actually two popular ferris wheels in Osaka, the other is called Hep in Umeda (although much smaller).

So in we went to the Aquarium. My family actually loves aquariums, every city we visit we’ve been to their aquarium if they have one (with the exception of Kyoto since we were planning to visit this one). When I worked as a consultant I was actually involved in the design a small aquarium here in Malaysia (sadly the project did not take off due to the 1997 economic crisis). The concept here is quite different, there are 15 tanks, and you walk from the top and circle the tanks and see the different levels of the tanks as move downwards.


(giant crabs)


(this is called fried egg jelly fish. No, seriously)

We spent about 2 and a half hours here, until closing time (they were starting to herd us out) and it was really enjoyable experience.

And after that it was time to look for food. Conveniently, next to the aquarium is medium-sized mall called Tempozan Marketplace. There’s foodcourt and restaurants at the ground floor. However, at 8.30pm most of the restaurants were closing up for the day, but we found this joint that was still open.

They served rice and udon noodles, this was probably the only time during the trip I had udon noodles.


(the most important factor when selecting a restaurant in Japan – “ENGLISH MENU”)


(beef udon)


(my udon with deep fried chicken)


(chicken cutlet)


(and if you are still hungry after that, they also sell potato tornado)

After dinner we took the subway back to our hotel to finally check in and get some sleep after a long and tiring day that started in Kyoto and ended in Osaka.

Next – Osaka Castle

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.

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