Monday 13th July, Kyoto & Osaka Part II

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Osaka Station going home time for some…this was one of those fortuitous pictures as he came past in his black and yellow uniform.

I headed back into Osaka city centre and took the subway to Namba station before walking some more to the Dotonbori (click for link) area. The Japan National Tourism page gives a good description of the area.

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It is an area downtown with a canal and plenty of neon signs which have becoming iconic and emblematic of Osaka, no segement on Osaka is complete without the Glico man.

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The area is a promenade of restaurants and shopping and popular with both tourists and locals. It is a cacophony of sound and light and quite overwhelming, this was my second visit there, the first time was a few years before during the afternoon. Night time brings the neon signs out and there is a different buzz.

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Just one of the building fronts, this one advertising takoyaki, another one of those Osaka staples that Japanese people always seem to ask if you ate if you tell them you’ve been to Osaka! Even though it is not just found in Osaka, takoyaki seems to synonymous with the city.

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Takoyaki are a ball shaped snack of wheat flour based batter that contains pieces of octopus and are cooked in a specially shaped pan. It is smothered in Japanese brown sauce, mayonaise, sprinkled with green flecks of seaweed and dried bonito flakes.

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There are vendors selling different size portions from 6 to 8 to even more.

Greed and the knowledge that I would no doubt be asked if I had eaten any led me to eat a 6 takoyaki portion while not exactly a proper meal it was a start.

I had no real idea of what to eat that evening and despite all the choice available was overwhelmed by it all and how busy many of the restaurants were with some of the more popular ones having queues forming.

There is a small storefront there where you can tell the staff what you’d like to eat and then they will take to a restaurant that serves the food you like. The staff lead you to the restaurant and they get paid or rather the company they work for does by the restaurant for the custom and a wage is given accordingly. The reason that I know this, is because I ended up asking for a recommendation and spoke to an outgoing girl who led me well away from Dotonbori to a okonomiyaki  restaurant. I actually just wanted to eat around Dotonbori! At one point on this meandering walk, slight paranoia and feeling fed up made me start to worry that I was being led away to get beaten up and have my wallet stolen.

Needless to say this was not the case and I finally arrived and my elfin restaurant guide duly vanished. I ate at a restaurant called Bonkuraya, I probably couldn’t direct you to it or find it again to be honest despite it being close to a station that did get me back to Osaka station.

I had the Ebi Modern Okonomiyaki, prawn with yakisoba noodles cooked in with the okonomiyaki.

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I’m not even sure what time I finally got back to Kyoto that evening.

I don’t seem to have made a note of the final steps tally either.

Monday 13th July, Kyoto & Osaka

I decided to head into Osaka, in retrospect I should have just left early and I may well have accomplished more than I did that particular day. My mother would be heading back to Tokyo, so I met her for breakfast at her hotel first.

Despite it only being a few steps away I took the subway in part die to the heat, I think this may have been the opposite platform.

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I’m not sure which is worse in a hot summer in Japan, getting on a crowded subway carriage or walking outside in the heat.

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At the station I spotted this wonder of spelling on the sign, I’m not even sure what language it is! Oh dear and this in a major city in the world! A city full of world heritage sights no less, spelling obviously not their list of priorities. 😉

From my photographs I can trace my movement approximately and while breakfast wasn’t anything worth photographing, it does look like I made my way back on foot since I have pictures in the covered food shopping market called Nishiki. This is Kyoto’s traditional food market and you can find all sorts of pickles, Japanese sweets, vegetables, fish and tea. I probably was trying to escape the heat of the sun as well as enjoying seeing what was on offer. Everytime I visit Nishiki, I find myself wishing that I had some catering facilities wherever that it is I am staying so that I can buy and try many of the foods on sale.

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Lots of pickles…

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 Little octopii(?) marinated in mirin and soy sauce with a quail’s egg inside. These came in all different sizes as well, it was really, really delicious.

Osaka is not that far from Kyoto and easily reached by train. From Kyoto station I took a train that must have taken 40 minutes or thereabouts. It is a markedly bigger city than Kyoto and one that I do not know at all. This was only my second visit to it, the previous time had been with a friend from Kyoto and we saw an exhibition before a quick visit to Dōtonbori (more of which later) and then a quick meal in Koreatown which I probably couldn’t find on my own.

I had a quick meal in a shopping centre opposite the station, I don’t remember the price but it was cheap and passable.

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On the left is Katsudon (Pork in breadcrumbs with egg on rice) and a bowl of Udon with if I remember correctly a deep fried prawn in batter. I remember though that even in the shopping centre over the tannoy jazz was playing, what is it with jazz in Japan?!

I had decided to come to Osaka a lot in part to discovering from my Wallpaper Guide to Osaka that a sculpture by the Japanese artist Taro Okamoto although reconstructed was still standing and also in the grounds of the Expo Park was now The National Museum of Ethnology.

Now a word about Wallpaper travel guides, some of you might be familiar with or even be avid readers of the magazine or even fans, I am neither of those. Their line of city guides are very collectable little objects in themselves, pocket sized with colourful covers. The pictures inside are often great but as guides they are terrible in fact I’d go as far as say useless. There are no maps, there is no advice on how to get to some of the super-stylish places they suggest or how long it might take. So I’m not sure I would recommend them…basically you could buy one but then discover you need to buy a real guide book and or visit the tourist office. So if you do buy a Wallpaper Guide and then get annoyed after reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Taro Okamoto, (click on the name to be linked to Wikipedia page) is a Japanese artist 1911-1996 that I don’t know a lot about since he’s not a household name in Europe. He however is well known in Japan for his work and prolific writing, part of his mythos as well I think stems from his having studied and lived in Paris during the time of the Surrealists and for being seen as a peer with artists such as Picasso whilst there. Back in Japan, he was a public figure and one of his most iconic pieces for Japanese people and artists was made for the Expo ’70 titled Tower of the Sun.

It was that sculpture that I wanted to see and had been alerted to by the Wallpaper Guide but what the guide does not tell you about, is the little mission to get there which involves changing trains. From Osaka station I needed to walk Umeda station to catch a Hankyu Kyoto Line train, which is a local train that was going to stop everywhere. I asked a station guard which train was heading out the way I wanted and duly got on it. It was already around 3p.m and kids were filtering out of school or heading onto their after school clubs as tennis rackets, baseball gear accompanied the book bags and satchels.

The train map in the train was bilingual with the names written in Japanese and English alas the driver was not as he announced each station. I noticed that the train would fork at one point but wasn’t too concerned since the guard at the station had assured me that this train would be “ok”.

Naturally, it was not “ok”…I just had a feeling that the train was not going the side of the fork that I wanted and waited for the next station. As I had suspected it had in fact gone the other route, thankfully it was only 2 stops back to where the train would split but it also meant I was losing time. There would be no time for The National Museum of Ethnology what with the 5p.m closing time of museums. I figured I’d still try and get to the Expo Park after all I could at least have an early evening walk around the park before heading back into the bustle of the city.

I still had to change trains and then walk to the monorail station to get to the Expo Park. None of this made clear to you in the Wallpaper Guide (just saying).

I did eventually get on the Osaka monorail and I will admit that seeing The Tower of the Sun from the carriage was worth it and did give a thrill to see a Japanese art icon.

19637856496_85106b6ce3_oTaro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun.

I got out and headed around and down towards the Expo Park.

As I came down the ramp from the station and round the bend I was greeted by numerous souvenir shops, the ubiquitous bank of vending machines of refreshments and people leaving the park. Yes, it was 5 p.m closing time! Just because something has ‘Park’ in its name doesn’t mean that it is a park in the sense that we might understand it in the West!

The security guard let me at least take some photos of the sculpture from under the awnings by the turnstiles.

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I settled down on a bench and by way of consolation and refreshment got an ice crema out of a vending machine.

I knew full well that what awaited me was the reverse trek back taking the monorail then the local line to get back to Osaka with the slightly deflated and disappointed feeling that I hadn’t quite managed to see what I had wanted to. However, I also believe that at some point I will find myself back in Japan for something or other in the future.

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Here comes the monorail…

I headed back into Osaka, worn out but of the attitude that I was here so I must try and make the most of it despite the afternoon setback. It seems according to the note in my pocket sketchbook that I’d already walked 20,118 steps by 1819h and was still going!!!!

Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara

Such is the proximity of Nara to Kyoto by train (44 minutes over a distance of approx. 40km) that I was able to leave late morning, my notebook has an entry at 1125, I’m not sure if that was written on the train or just before.

The rest of the page reads as follows:

“I am hitting all the tourist hits since I am just as much the tourist. I am treading the well worn path and following directions and the path of others, I do not know if this makes me very conventional or just a diligent tourist.”

There are reasons that these places are tourist hits and while I might not be blazing new trails, it is still a new trail for me.

Once I arrived in Nara, the first thing to do was to get in the tourist office for a couple of maps and to ask a few questions about buses and the like. Although I wanted to have lunch first and despite the heat had a little wander across the way to a shopping street. Even though I’d had fish for dinner, I still felt like eating more fish and following the bright posters on the sandwich board outside one building headed up some stairs to a seafood restaurant.

Like most cities there are also restaurants in Japan which I’d guess you’d call theme restaurants probably part of a chain and this one had all sorts of paraphernalia you’d associate with fishing and the sea. It was also still one of the restaurants in Japan where you can smoke as I noted from the smell emanating from two tables away. I used to smoke but stopped more than 13 years ago now and have really come to dislike it.

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My choices out of the menu, great looking pictures but what about the reality?

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I’d say that’s pretty close to accurate in comparison with the menu, the donburi was 952 Yen which is £5.28, yes you read that correctly.

Fortified by my lunch I made my way to the bus stop to head for the main attraction of Nara which is the Tōdai-ji (eastern Great Temple) which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) and is a National Treasure.

As you walk towards the park that surrounds the temple grounds first thing you see are the Sika Deer, I’m not sure what the percentage of tourists that come for the deer or the temple complex is but nevertheless it is quite a sight to see both tourist and deep wandering freely around the complex. The deer were considered to be divine and sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status and were instead designated as national treasures.

It is possible to feed the deer and deer crackers (Shika Senbei) can be purchased from vendors around the park.

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It seems I wasn’t the only one to be feeling the heat that day!

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The deer are generally pretty docile until you give them the possibility of something to eat then they become not exactly aggressive but they will butt you and nip at you. It is quite a sight to see how different people react to being swarmed by deer. There are quite often shrieks from teenagers and people in their twenties for whom this might be the closest they get to wild animals ever. Some people would throw the crackers away from them as soon the deer approached.

There are also some deer that will bow for their food or just bow if you bow to them.

I did feed the deer and I thought I’d found a quiet spot with only three deer, the next thing you know I was surrounded 360º by deer and getting prodded, butted and nipped at. Somewhere out there there is photographic proof of my deer feeding in Australia or Taiwan since that seemed to where the tourists taking pictures of me were from. There was no shrieking or throwing of crackers from me since I figured the deer wouldn’t actually eat me!

In my quest to take pictures different from everybody else I now realize that I missed out on telling the whole story in some respects. A wide shot showing the grounds and just how many deer are around would have good to have. I actually realized this sitting on the bus back to the station and was tempted to go back but didn’t maybe next time if there is a next time. Despite the large number of people visiting, it never really felt crowded as there is plenty to see in the ample park land.

Leading up to to the Daibutsu-den, one of the first structures is the Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) built in the 12th Century, which houses two temple guardian statues carved from wood that stand at 28 feet tall.

IMG_1680Nandaimon Gate.

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The Nio, the muscular guardians of the Buddha are according to Wikipedia a pair known as Ungyo who has a closed mouth and Angyo who is shown with an open mouthed expression. The pair were carved by Unkei and Kaikei and their workshop members. They are an impressive and imposing sight, arresting in their features as well as the technical achievement in carving them.

Once through the gate, the path leads towards the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) which was once the largest wooden structure in the world.

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Its difficult to convey how big the building is but the people dotted around in the pictures should do something to illustrate this.

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The Buddha is 14.98 m (49.1 ft) in height and 28 m across and weighs in at 500 tonnes.

That is one big Buddha!

Also within the structure are other exhibits which show the skill involved in carving the wooden sculptures.

 

I’m not even sure which way I wandered off but for a while I enjoyed the shaded wooded areas of the park as headed towards the hillside.

It is only now after looking properly at a map that it seems I did meander a fair bit.

Breaking cover from the trees I found myself at the bottom of some stairs which led up to another hall called Nigatsu-do. I do remember mentally asking myself if I really wanted to try to walk up the east entrance stairs in the heat.

Details on the steps.

At the top the view was like this:

Nigatsu-do (The Hall of the Second Month) itself is  decorated with lanterns hanging outside.

From there I wandered off in the general direction of south east, with no real fixed itinerary for my day which is either great or mindless depending on your perspective, I found myself by a set of shops selling calligraphy items to souvenir food. By souvenir food, I mean carefully packaged boxes of local specialties which can range from rice crackers to sweets, think fudge from Cornwall but packaged much better. I did pop into the calligraphy shop if anything just to cool down from their air conditioner.

I’m not one for selfies and have largely kept pictures of myself away from here so far but I did take one by the closed shutter of the shop with somebody else resting.

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Oh deer, obligatory selfie with Nara resident with interesting head gear.

Even now looking at the map all these months later, I’m not even sure how I managed to go around the park in a seemingly strange route!

I took the path towards the Kasuga Taisha Shrine but with the  5 p.m closing time upon me was not able to think about going inside, still I caught a glimpse of some of the vermillion coloured buildings.

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The paths leading to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns of various shapes and sizes.

As well as the occasional lion:

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 Tiring now, I found a bus stop that had hardly anybody waiting for a bus and checked and rechecked that I was at the right stop to get back to the station. Actually, it was a different bus than the one that I took to get there but it nevertheless got me to the station. For the most part I discovered that most buses will hit the city station at some point in most cities in Japan.

For those of you who might be wondering but I don’t speak or read Japanese, there is English signage in the places that you need it.

I present the side of the train carriage:

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You now also know how Kyoto is written in Japanese!

Later that evening in Kyoto, I met up with my mother who was in town on business and ate at the station that evening. Eating at the station is not the grim affair that you might imagine, in Japan, stations especially the larger ones are joined to department stores or have areas dedicated to restaurants. I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned that so apologize now if  I’ve started to repeat myself.

What did you eat? I hear you ask.

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It looks like I had a slightly strange combination but as I’ve mentioned before sometimes that’s what great about eating out is that you can a bit of everything. So on the left is Oshizushihako, pressed sushi which is as it sounds. First the rice is put in a box then the topping and the top part literally presses down. Above that is tempura and zaru soba.

Continue reading “Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara”

Friday 10th July 2015, Kyoto (Part 2)

That evening I felt like eating Kaisen Don which is basically sashimi (sliced raw fish) on sushi rice maybe it was the heat but I felt like eating something that wasn’t going to be hot and heavy. Kyoto probably because it’s inland is not well known for sushi of course that’s not to say there aren’t great sushi restaurants in the city, it’s just not famous for seafood.

After trying to find out if there was anywhere close by with reception which proved to be more tricky than anticipated simply because of my choice of food, I have the feeling that had I said a good restaurant though, I probably would have been directed to an Italian or French restaurant since that seems to be what Kyoto likes. Eventually I got directed to a suitable restaurant and given a map with an ‘x’ marked on it.

The thing is in the dark in a strange city, I think I may or may not have found the right street a close distance to the hotel but I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to the restaurant suggested or that I decided not to if I did find it. Behind the main street and little way down I turned into a smaller street seemingly where only pedestrians were allowed and both sides had restaurants.

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I wandered up and down that street looking at steak restaurants and then round the corner there was a fish restaurant but it was empty to the point that you start to wonder if there’s a reason that it’s empty. I went back to the street and decided upon a restaurant called “Miki”, please see below:

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I had to wait outside for a little while for a space to sit and there was a rudimentary English menu, I can for the most part work out certain parts of a menu but in no way would I confidently claim to be able to read a menu in Japanese.

When I did get in, they sat me at the counter and gave me my menu, the place was busy and evidently very popular. The staff consisted of three people. Two chefs behind the counter and a junior who would assist behind the counter as well as coming around to work the restaurant floor. It was a sushi restaurant, that would most certainly do for my fish requirements! I chose to have omakase which means “I’ll leave it up to you.”, I have a funny feeling that there may have been a set number of omakase that you could choose although I might be wrong.

What followed was an absolute treat as I was served sushi  that I was told not to put shoyu (soy sauce) on unless directed to. Sitting at the counter lets you see the sushi being made and I couldn’t keep taking pictures each time as I merely wanted to enjoy what came to me.

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I don’t even remember everything that I ate that evening except that it was very good and I would recommend the place, the only caveat being that I did find a note in my book telling me to budget my meals! It had been one of the more expensive meals that I had had, worth it?

Yes.

Friday 10th July, Kyoto

I have been to Kyoto before and despite the seemingly small nature of it there is a surprising amount of things to see with many on must see/do lists for the visitor to Japan. There are still many attractions there that I always say to myself that I will go and see each time I visit but somehow don’t manage to.

Due to downloading all my pictures in one batch on the same day from the memory card, I discover pictures that I don’t recall taking or couldn’t find previously. So here’s a picture that I wanted to accompany the previous post of my rather cramped room with too much furniture.

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Nice and clean with new furniture just pretty tight on space!

As mentioned previously, my research into when to go and so on and so forth was somewhat erratic due to a sudden burst of work before leaving and being overwhelmed by the amount of information that my little brain was trying to process in terms of where to go in Japan. I had heard of the Gion Matsuri in passing from friends who lived there who more often than not would complain about there being too many people. I knew there were floats and traditional costumes but not much more, I was about to get a first hand look up close.

The webpage at Kyoto Visitor’s Guide does a great job of succinctly explaining the background of the festival and then outlining the activities that lead up to the final parade.

Outside on the street, the construction of the floats was already well under progress, no nails are used.

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The rain that I’d been experiencing the last few days had made way now to temperatures that were rapidly rising with a high of 34° predicted, the temperature is one thing then the humidity is often in the 90% region. It was bright and sunny at least I’d had the foresight to buy my hat the evening before!

One of the places that I had meant to see on previous visits to Kyoto was Kiyomizu-dera, which is an independent Buddhist temple in East Kyoto. The temple is the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, although in all honesty I am only learning this as I research things to write here. It was also registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.

When you first arrive at the site after making your way up the hill through a street lined with shops and restaurants offering food and souvenirs.

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At the top you reach the Deva (Gate) and Three Storied Pagoda and the bell that then lead into the temple complex.

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As you make your way round passing the different buildings, you do start to appreciate with some awe and wonder at the work that was undertaken to construct and then to maintain the buildings.

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At almost every large temple in Japan you will find a place where they sell Ema Votive plaques where people write their wishes and hang them up. Typically they might be for the zodiac animal of that year, the zodiac in Japan uses the Chinese animal types. Sometimes the designs might be something that the particular temple or shrine is known for, a good example is foxes at Fushimi Inari. The money for the plaques is used by the temple for upkeep and so on, you don’t have to write your wish and leave it there sometimes people buy then and keep them as a souvenir.

I took the picture from this angle because I found it somewhat amusing that the street artists had been diligent tourists as well and made the effort of visit the temple but still felt the need to slap their stickers. Before you start tutting though, there is actually a Japanese precedent for sticking things on buildings, called Senjafuda. Originally left by shrine worshipers, they became frowned upon by temples as less people would follow tradition and not pray nor buy a stamp from the shrine before applying their senjafuda. I’m sure there must be an article somewhere linking street art slapping/sticker art and sejafuda somewhere.

However, I digress, the main hall of the temple has a large veranda supported by pillars that gives an impressive view of the city and makes for the hall itself being an iconic image in its own right.

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I had a good wander around the site and must admit the heat was starting to get to me as well as the number of tourists, dotted around the temple are numerous smallish refreshment cafes although I use the word cafe with uncertainty since they don’t look anything like their European counterparts. In need of cooling down and some sort of refreshment, I chose a Japanese summer staple called  Kakigōri which is shaved ice flavoured with syrup.

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My lemon flavoured Kakigōri.

And yes, I did manage to eat all of it!

I still hadn’t had lunch…already feeling the heat and starting to hire I headed out and down the hill, I’d passed a promising looking restaurant earlier and had decided I’d go there. However, it seemed to have disappeared and I was starting to consider other options, sometimes the smaller streets in Japan have this way of looking the same adding to the confusion of not always being able to read the street signs. I also got sufficiently distracted and taken off course by some of the shops along the way.

It was 1337h by the time I found the restaurant, the reason that the time is so ptrecisely noted is that it says as much in my notebook. The restaurant’s name was Yoshimura Kiyomizuan, (the website is in Japanese).

There are also Tripadvisor reviews of the restaurant, I had picked it probably because I felt like eating soba and that the menu appealed to me.

I chose their Higashiyama Zen set which consisted of Zaru Soba, Sansai Soba, Mini Tempura and pickles.

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Zaru soba is buckwheat noodles served cold and dipped in sauce and eaten by slurping, one of my favourite summer foods.

The Sansai Soba, bottom left in the picture was served in hot soup and again used the same soba noodles except this time topped with mountain vegetables.

Above that is the small bowl of Tempura on rice, a larger portion can be a meal in itself and is called Tendon  which comes from combining the words Tempura and Donburi (bowl), it has nothing to do with the English meaning of the word!

I really enjoy the lunch sets in Japan since it allows the glutton in me and the indecisive part of me to try several of the foods that take my fancy on a menu at the same time.

I was particularly impressed with the Sansai Soba at the time from my three dishes.

I made my way down the hill after lunch, the walk down was easier and perhaps with some renewed vigour from eating

, I made my way to the bus stop.  The fact that I ended up walking from the bus stop to the top part of the main shopping street probably came about from just a natural curiosity of what was around me. As much as I might complain and moan about the temperature, there is still part of me that will wander off with eyes wide open.

I got as far as the street that turns into Gion, called Hanamikoji, I started to head down it but my energy level had waned again and I decided not to explore that time. However, that is not to say that you shouldn’t go and see for yourself in fact I would recommend that you do go. It has many preserved traditional buildings as well as being one of the most well known and exclusive geisha districts in Japan.

Which is where I spotted this Maiko, (the make up and the hairstyle is the give away) apprentice geisha or geiko,  she slid out so quickly that I’m not even sure which building she came out of. I got my picture before the other tourists suddenly cottoned on then it was a kind of mayhem with tourists behaving like paparrazo, chasing her down the street and taking her picture. I wonder if secretly they love the attention or just find it incredibly cringe worthy. She had to stop at the crossing for the lights to change and then she was off again, bear in mind that she’s wearing kimono and sandals so a full on run is out of the question but I have never seen anybody move so fast in that footwear.

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It’s not common to see them but it is possible and so there is an palpable sense of excitement when one does appear either on the street on sometimes at the station.

I think I must have wandered back towards to my hotel stopping in various shops along the way as a way to cool down in the air conditioned spaces as well as just to see the strange and wonderful things you can or could buy.

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Thursday 9th July, Kanazawa to Kyoto

I awoke to a day with no rain and since for whatever reason I hadn’t selected a breakfast option and didn’t fancy the hotel buffet so headed out. My breakfast in the end was a couple of bread rolls from a chain of bakeries called Donq, it seems they’ve been around in Japan for quite a while since my Japanese friends all knew it whenever I mentioned it. I found it amusing that in Japan that I should end up with a plastic carrier bag adorned with a map of Paris on it. I suppose I take it for granted but the Japanese do do very good artisan bread.

My plan was to take the 1519h train from Kanazawa to Kyoto. This would give me time to explore Kanazawa a little more. After asking for opinions on where to go with a limited time to the tourist office, the consensus seemed to be to head for the Higashi Chaya District.

The buildings there are an opportunity to see authentic buildings from the Edo period and something which many people expect to be found  all over Japan having seen those style buildings in films but in fact are not so frequent anymore. Kanazawa has three, well preserved chaya (lit. teahouse) districts, Higashi Chayagai (Eastern Chaya District), Nishi Chayagai (Western Chaya District) and Kazuemachi. A chaya was where guests were entertained by geisha, I will not be going into detail about geisha, since I cannot afford to be entertained by or have never been invited to any function where one or more have been present. For what a geisha is and does, please click on the blue link for the wikipedia page, thank you.

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One of the tea houses there has been preserved and is now a museum, another is open to the public, for the most part the other buildings now house shops and cafes. There are also many shops selling the crafts of which Kanazawa is famous for and some have what are either called “traditional” or “cultural” experiences that let you get a very quick and easy feel for a craft or art. For the most part the difficult parts are done by the master craftsmen but nonetheless it can be a worthwhile experience and you get the satisfaction of having made something. One of which as well as selling gold leafed items has a tearoom entirely covered with gold leaf interior and exterior.

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It seemed I was a little enthusiastic with my sightseeing as I arrived in the district with many places still closed, on the plus side that meant it hadn’t been swarmed upon yet and so I could wander back and forth a couple of times. There was plenty to see and it was strange stepping off a busy road and ending up on a street lined with wooden buildings.

Under the eaves of the buildings was also quite a treat…

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Packed into the nests sometimes up to six chicks at a time were swallow chicks, their parents flitting back and forth but never dangerously close enough to the abundant people walking by. The adult swallows make their presence known enough to let you know that they are there. I didn’t see anybody behaving irresponsibly towards the birds and I think much like myself for the most part, people were just astonished to be able to see the chicks up close.

In retrospect it seems I haven’t actually taken a picture looking down the street with the preserved tea houses for which I apologize and find very strange that I didn’t take a picture of!

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These girls are wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimonos.

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Not the main street but one of the smaller streets off from the main one but gives a good feel of the architecture there.

I decided to try one of the traditional experiences and chose the Sakuda Gold Leaf Shop, from the street it’s dominated by their showroom/shop which has plenty of examples of gold leafed objects for sale. The experience is advertised as a do-it-yourself gold leaf application and takes around an hour to an hour and a half.

You are shown various items that can have gold leaf applied to them from boxes to plates, the price is different according to the size. I chose a small lidded box, then you’re taken into a small space with tables to work on, since I was an early bird I was able to walk in and have a go without a reservation but it might be better to reserve ahead depending on when you go and if you want to do it.

The first thing to do was to choose a design, in the top right of the picture you can see the corners of various metal stencil sheets, I chose this rabbit and moon design which you then draw onto a masking tape square. Then you cut the design out, so far easy enough. Then you need to apply the tape to the lid of the box, all of this is done under the watchful eye of an old gentleman who is leafing items to sold in the shop. Once you’ve completed the stencil cutting, he takes your item from you and applies the gold leaf, I had wondered how that would actually work since it needs some dexterity and I could imagine the delicate sheets going all over the place in the hands of clumsy tourists like myself. With leaf applied, you’re then asked to wait half an hour, I wonder if this is a ploy to make you go back in the shop. 😉

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Here’s the finished box with the rabbit and moon design I selected, they pack it up for you and instruct you to leave it for 2 weeks before applying nail varnish topcoat. (It took me a bit of time finding top coat in the supermarket, I now have a small bottle of topcoat that I don’t use!) Not bad and a nice memento to have of my brief visit…

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That said I did actually buy a couple of items while waiting though fully aware that due to trying to very limited luggage space for the next 3 weeks that I would have to limit my purchases to small items only. This was actually a good thing in the end because it meant I had to be very selective in what I did buy.

This small Daruma that I bought, came in various sizes, this being the smallest. While I waited for my daruma to be boxed and up and until my box was ready, I was served some cold summer tea which also contained tiny bits of gold leaf!

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This is the small daruma that I bought.

(The following text is from Wikipedia: The Daruma doll (達磨 daruma?), also known as a Dharma doll, is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. Though considered an omocha, meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement) came in various sizes, this being the smallest.

I made my way from Higashi Chaya with the intention of having a leisurely lunch but for some reason due to impatience on my part for a bus that wouldn’t arrive, I decided to try to get one more attraction in even if it was briefly. Rolling up my shirt sleeves I walked on, hen the sights are new, I find myself able to walk relatively grumble free because natural curiosity will distract me from the heat or the strain.

A few people and not just those at the tourist office in Kanazawa had recommended or at least told me to try to see Kenrokuen Garden. The garden originated more than 300 years ago and is one of the most famous gardens in Japan, originally the garden of the secondary residence of the feudal lord, it attracts visitors year round. I have a feeling that my speedy tour of the most photographed section did not do it justice. The rain also started to fall again calling time on my visit as well as my stomach starting to grumble at not having had any lunch.

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Detail of the moss found in the grounds of the garden, the star like pattern is something I found to be pleasing when seen in multiplied repetition.

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The Kotoji Toro, a two-legged stone lantern than is emblematic of not only the garden but of the city itself. (You can see the rain was back if you look at the surface of the water!)

I made my way back to the station and the hotel and had a late lunch in the shopping centre next door to the station. I chose a restaurant called Keisuke Ramen which was located in the Forus Shopping mall. My choice was a Shio (Salt Broth) Ramen set which came with fried rice and 3 gyoza,  which cost 1180 Yen which is just under $10 or £6.50! Puts the eating ramen in London for £11 a bowl into perspective!

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Satisfied with my lunch and since I was next door to the station, I collected my luggage and set about finding my train, platform and carriage with time to spare. I would be taking the:

Kanazawa to Kyoto Limited Express Thunderbird 32 (Yes, really, Thunderbird!)

Departure: 1519h

Duration: 140 minutes

Distance: 224.8 km

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image257 (2)Please click on the map to see it in detail, Kyoto is central section of the map below the bold type that reads Kansai.

No need for a bullet train this time but even this time the train the still huge compared to what I was used to in England, again I wish I could tell you about the scenery but it happened again and I slept for almost an hour and a half!

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I have a feeling that is Lake Biwa which is some 30 minutes outside of Kyoto and somewhere perhaps I might explore and visit sometime in the future.

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I arrived at Kyoto Station and despite a little recognition at being there before still felt somewhat surprised at the level of activity there. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and today retains a strong identity for its temples, shrines, wooden houses and gardens as well as other traditional arts and crafts.

There are so many things to see and do in Kyoto that despite several visits there remain many places that I intended to to see but was not able to on this visit or on previous visits. Some of the more iconic images of Kyoto that you might know or might have seen will not be seen here since I had been to them previously in 2012. These would include places like Fushimi Inari, with their seemingly endless red torii gates which I would recommend going to and did consider going to again but didn’t this time round.

I booked into the Hotel Unizo Kyoto Shijo Karasuma which was a short subway ride from Kyoto Station, thankfully Kyoto’s subway system is nothing like Tokyo’s spaghetti consisting of only two lines! The hotel is from what I gather a new build so everything was very clean, I didn’t specify where I would like my room though and the frosted window opened partially to reveal an apartment block next door, the room was quite cramped and if anything had too much furniture in it. There was no wardrobe to speak of just some hangers extending out from a couple of poles, I used a small round table for my suitcase and headed out. The location of the hotel is minutes away from the main shopping streets where there plenty of restaurants and branching off more streets with restaurants and shops, it was all somewhat familiar and I even found the branch of Loft that I had mistaken to be in Tokyo, in anticipation of the hot weather to come and with the added bonus of a sale I bought myself a cap.

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What I hadn’t realized when making my itinerary was that the Gion Matsuri was coming up in Kyoto, of which I will go into in further detail in upcoming posts. It was both strange and familiar being back in Kyoto, the air was humid, the voices a mixture of American English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and Spanish in and around the streets.

I chose to eat Okonomiyaki that evening, which is a savoury type of pancake which is made with various ingredients and cooked on a hot plate, in some places it’s cooked for you, in others you cook it yourself. The batter is made mainly from water, flour, eggs and cabbage. To this then different ingredients like pork, squid, spring onions can be added in any combination, yakisoba (fried noodles) can also be incorporated.

I went to a restaurant called Hana Tanuki.

I ordered the Special Tanuki Okonomiyaki although first things first I did have this… 😉 🙂

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I can’t remember which mix I had with my okonomiyaki and I suspect I might have eaten something else as well…

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With my belly full and buoyed with a nice cold beer or was it two, I ambled back to my hotel and picked up a couple of bread rolls from the nearby convenience store for breakfast and slept well.

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Wednesday July 8th Tokyo to Kanazawa

So this was to be the first day of my train pass becoming active, I woke at 800 and to my relief it wasn’t actually raining that morning.

I would be heading to Kanazawa, which is 450.5km from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Kagayaki 509 with a journey time of 148 minutes. Departure time 1032 and Arrival at 1300h.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of Japan, the section in the top left corner, Hokkaido, is in reality at the top right of Japan.

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My Car(-riage) number 8 and my seat 16E, if possible it’s always best to reserve your seat at no extra cost prior to traveling, there are unreserved carriages but I never found myself in that position, for me stressing over a possible seat seems like an unnecessary aggravation and not one that would make  a trip more of an adventure. Armed with my carriage number it was a matter of finding the right platform then looking for the corresponding number on the platform and wait for the train.

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Since Tokyo station is the major teminus, the trains are brought in from either direction and so ill prepared I failed miserably to get a shot of the train pulling in since I hadn’t figured out which direction it was coming. I can’t remember if these then uncoupled or not but I took the shot anyway…I think I made up my mind then to not worry about trying to shoot pictures of the trains arriving though in retrospect perhaps I could have made more effort, my only defence was that it was enough just worrying about luggage, myself and getting on the right train ant the right times.

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It had been a few years since I’d been on a Shinkansen and I’d actually forgotten how roomy and comfortable it was, more airliner than train in my mind, in fact the seats were roomier than those on the plane over to be honest.

Out beyond Tokyo, past Omiya towards Nagano, the view changed as forest covered mountains could be seen from the window. It seems I made intermittent notes in my notebook during the journey and some read as follows:

1221 I wish I could tell you about scenic Japan but truth be told, I dozed, I slept…so far at least it hasn’t rained.

1235 F*** me! That hurt, hit my head trying to sit back down.

(This I remember, I had a neighbour who didn’t move his legs as I came back from the toliet, so I probably swore loudly in English.)

1243 Arriving at Toyama, I have found the rain, the view of the streets from the train reveal wet streets…

The rain was back with a vengeance on arrival at Kanazawa, first things first after trying to get my bearings was to head straight into the tourist office for a map or two and advice on getting around.

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Also in the other window was a large version of Hyakuman-San, the mascot for Ishikawa Prefecture. There is a character for everything in Japan and cities and prefectures are no different. Here it seems the designers have put Ishikawa traditional crafts on the body, there is “Kagayuzen ( Kimono pattern )”, the gold colour from the gold leafing in the area  and “Wajimanuri (Lacquer ware ).

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A relative newcomer to the scene as a mascot, it seems he debuted in 2013, more here.

I booked my hotel through Booking.com and I am not affiliated or employed by them in any way, shape or form but will say that it proved to be an easy way to look up potential accommodation and reserve it without committing financially straight away.

I stayed at the Kanazawa Manten Hotel Ekimae, which is in fact very close to the station except if you get confused by the heavy rain and take a strange turn that ends up with you somehow getting wet and annoyed as you negotiate wet streets in a strange land. I remember the lobby as being dark marble however I have absolutely no recollection of my room or which floor I was on. Although having said that, I did discover a picture of my room…not much to remember there!

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Free of my luggage and despite the rain, I headed back to the station, taking the correct turn and yes, the station was incredibly near to the hotel. The clue is in the word Ekimae, which literally translates as “In front of the station” so that’s a little travel tip for making your stays convenient but that doesn’t always mean the city centre is that close so bear in mind what you’ll want to be doing.

The best way around is by bus which I somehow negotiated although in a tourist heavy city like Kanazawa, it’s actually not too difficult though I don’t like to get complacent and stay as alert as possible for my stops.

My first port of call was to be the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art.

The walk from the bus stop to the museum was wet…

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I want to say I was impressed by the concept of the museum and the building and on a sunny dry day, I might have been but to be honest, I was close to slipping and just wanted to go inside despite there being some outdoor work.

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Perhaps in retrospect I should have gone and had a closer look but I can’t turn the clock back, inside the museum was at least dry and the building is circular in shape and the majority of the work was a mixture of Japanese contemporary artists none of whom I was familiar with and a few permanent pieces by western artists like James Turrell and Anish Kapoor. Although the weather was not one for viewing a James Turrell piece, basically a hole cut into the ceiling of a space which changes the perception of the space as the light changes alas when it rains like the pictures attest, you get a very wet floor. Still I’m glad that I did go and there were some interesting works and approaches to art there.

Of course there was tea and cake since I’d somehow only managed to eat a sandwich on the train in…

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Of course it would have been nice to have had some company to have my tea and cake with maybe another time…

Despite the weather I decided that I would try and explore a little bit since it was my first time in a new city after a half English, half bad Japanese conversation with the cashier I headed out, nearly slipping again on the slick pavement!

I remember wandering around looking for somewhere to eat and trying to ask people where there was an area with lots of restaurants but seemed to struggle that day to get anybody to really help me. I’m not sure if the streets were less crowded because of the weather or if it was just a typical quiet Tuesday night. At one point I found myself in an “English Pub” where the bartender spoke no English and couldn’t help me locate a street with restaurants.

Actually, I was starting to get a bit fed up by this point…I stumbled across a half dead shopping street with a couple of shops that I recognized from Tokyo and browsed if only to try to dry off a little. I figured in one of the shops the young cashier might be able to clue me in on somewhere good to eat, however this proved to be a bust since my simple question then became a conference between her and her colleague and the suggestion was a gourmet burger restaurant.

Trudging on I got to a crossroad and ultimately tired, wet and hungry I pretty much chose the first thing that looked easy enough. I chose a yakitori restaurant somewhere high up, I had to take a lift to get there. Ordering was meant to be on a touchscreen but after explaining that my reading wasn’t great to the waiter I somehow got round to ordering by pointing to the menu.

When in doubt, find a restaurant with a giant menu full of pictures! 😉

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First things first…

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Then I had all sorts…chicken on skewers, rice ball, noodles…more beer.

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It wasn’t until I was up there and looking out the window that I could see what looked like the more lively street with bars and restaurants on, oh well, I’d eaten too much and didn’t want to stay out late.

I took the bus back to the station, now I’m not sure which is the front of the station since my hotel technically called itself Ekimae when the more spectacular side is considered really to be the front where you find this:

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While it now seems a little fuzzy, I think I may have used the onsen since I found this in my papers…which I’m pretty sure I got when I checked in. More to come on onsen in later posts…instructions are written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. If you have any tattoos you will need to cover them up otherwise you won’t be experiencing onsen or even swimming. Why? You can read more here in this Japan Times article.

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