Oh Osaka: our hotel horror, day trip to Mount Koya and discoveries about Dotonbori

Osaka was our final stop in Japan; to get to the place that some have labelled as a “must see” for food lovers, we got the train from the main Kyoto station to Osaka station, which only took half an hour (fifteen minutes if you get an express train, but we preferred to save a few hundred yen). On the first impressions, Osaka seemed promising- the sun was shining as we approached the region, and the rural surroundings, interspersed with some buildings, appeared much more akin to what I initially expected from Kyoto than the more commercialised Osaka.

OUR HOTEL

All was well and good until we reached our hotel. We’d stayed in a variety of places thus far- some poor (our Ikebukuro place had a hole in the floor and windows that wouldn’t shut properly), some good (the place we moved to when we figured our room wouldn’t withstand a typhoon that was due to hit that night in Tokyo) and some perfectly satisfactory (where we stayed in Kyoto, which was a clean place to rest your head, and did provide Wi-Fi in the lobby area). However, the Livemax Namba (the English name that our Japanese hotel is far less commonly known by) was a tad nightmarish. The reception was cold, barren and (in an attempt to seem upmarket) marble, with two outdated sofas, Japanese T.V playing in the background and a ludicrous set of rules (for example, a 9000 Yen penalty if you lose your room key- they therefore recommend you hand it in at reception every time you leave the hotel). We took the elevator to our room on the 8th floor of an outdoor, stone courtyard which brandished an array of repugnant smells. One day we inhaled L’eau de Manure, another day the scent was more like cat urine and well… you get the drift. The room itself was unbelievably stuffy, but the air conditioning emitted cigarette smoke scented air (in an apparently non-smoking room) so we had a little bit of a catch 22 situation regarding whether to put aircom on or not. They do say that you get what you pay for though (or less in this case, but we were travelling on a budget after all). And with reference to redeeming features of the hotel, there were some: the location was not awful, since we were in walking distance to Sakuragowa station (part of a pretty decent metro network around Osaka) and the furnishing of our rooms was fine too. And remarkably, this was not the worst place we stayed (just you wait until the Guilin blog entries). Hotel aside- food was still a big issue for me in Osaka. What had got 10 x better in Kyoto (though still not easy per se) became 100 x worse in Osaka. We weren’t near many restaurants, and the nearby ones offered no vegetarian options. But we did have a supermarket near us, so I dined on fruit and Kitkats that night (to be fair, there are worse dinners) whilst my friend had a microwaveable meat fried rice and some similar noodles with an egg on top (kudos to the room, we had a microwave since the hotel had no dining facilities). Kirin beer provided us with a mini treat after a long day.

THE HUNT FOR WIFI

The next morning we headed out to find a Starbucks (as nowhere in our hotel had Wi-Fi, which was causing big issues regarding planning and blogging). We got the train from Sakuragowa and changed onto the Midosuji line at Namba station to get to Umeda and Osaka. We found a Starbucks… but this one had no Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, a mushroom and mozzarella tartine and coffee provided me with my veggie-safe lunch and the hunt for wi-fi began. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but eventually we headed into a large electrical shop with my travel companion locating a free International Travellers’ Hotspot Wi-Fi sign. We headed to the basement floor whereby it transpired that simply showing your passport could give you a username and password that would allow your to access internet publicly in places like train stations and McDonalds (it didn’t always work in train stations, but worked at other times). This was something that Osaka offered which really impressed me, so should you find yourself without Wi-Fi whilst there, take advantage of the scheme.

THE POKEMON CENTRE, OSAKA

Like Tokyo, Osaka has a Pokemon Centre. Though I watched it a bit when I was younger, I am by no means a Pokemon expert. However, my travel companion was keen to go and sure enough, I was really impressed by the store. Whilst I’m sure some of the memorabilia and souvenirs were lost on me, the shop impressed by selling everything from traditional (and rarer) trading cards, to Pokemon Macaroni and IPhone cases. The shop itself was a riot of primary coloured souvenirs amongst a cream backdrop and consisted of some excited adults who were clearly lifelong fans. And being here gave me the chance to pick up two birthday presents for my travel companion, who celebrated his birthday on the 5th November in China (blog on that day coming soon).

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The entrance to the Pokémon Centre

MOUNT KOYA

During day 2 we took a trip to Mount Koya; there is one big reason why I won’t go into this too much- Mount Koya, compared to somewhere like Arashiyama, did less for me in terms of attractions and was somewhere I found to be less fufilling. However, parts of the Mount Koya area were interesting, so below I’ve compiled a visual album and brief description regarding what we got up to while we were there:

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Pictures from Shojoshin-in temple, on the way to Koyasan Okunoin Osaka previous day 037

A pathway going through the Okunoin Cemetery/Koyasan Okunoin

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The temple which consisted of the Hall of Lanterns

THE FINAL DAY- DONTONBORI

Today was a day for shopping (and to be fair to Osaka, quite a few good purchases were made) and the opportunity to visit Dontonbori, the area of Osaka renowned for its street food; this included Takoyaki (dashi flavored batter filled with octopus, tempura, green onions, and pickled red ginger, usually served with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo), something my friend was keen to try. After doing some shopping in the Osaka station region, Anthony and I went somewhere to try okonomiyaki, a pan fried dish consisting of batter and cabbage (the other ingredients vary depending on what you order it with). My friend ordered pork, spring onion and mayonnaise and I went for tofu, cheese and egg. We watched the food being cooked on a griddle in the centre of the table. A note for vegetarians- although the okonomiyaki I ordered was completely veggie safe, the girl cooking the dishes sometimes went to use the same utensils for both the pork and tofu oknomiyaki if we didn’t remind her in time, so keep tabs on the cooking of the dish just in case 🙂

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The restaurant we ate at

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Our okonomiyaki being cooked

It was okay taste-wise for me- my friend chose to top his with BBQ sauce and mayonnaise, which would undeniably add a stronger hit of flavour but I refused the additional sauces on the basis of “better safe than sorry.” Nonetheless, the experience itself was really cool- I enjoyed watching the okonomiyaki being made right in front of us, hearing the sizzle of it cooking and inhaling the scent of the spring onion in both variations of the dish.

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Dontonbori at night

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My friend’s Takoyaka

Next we went on to Dontonbori, the place famous for all its street food and a key reason as to why my travel companion wanted to visit Osaka. Lit up like a Christmas tree, and full of street food vendours, my friend soon found himself in front of a Takoyaka stall (ocotopus and egg pancake balls described earlier). Despite the promising smell, he said it tasted disappointing (he binned it) and so we walked down the stretch looking for other things we might want. We were let down by a lack of variety (despite many vendors selling similar types of food) and in hindsight, what lowers my opinion of Dontonbori a little bit more was that some of the food markets we saw in Xi’an, China, were less famous yet more impressive. We mucked around in a small arcade down the Dontonbori stretch for a bit before inadvertently stumbling into an area where many massages were being offered alongside lots of hotels. We doubled back on ourselves and tried to find the Ezaki Glico marathon runner, a picture which was meant to be popular with tourists, and is owned by the same company (Glico) which owns popular Japanese snack foods- Pocky and Pretz amongst other things. However, we were tired at this point, and subsequently unsuccessful. So for us, Osaka was a bit of a let down. Granted, we didn’t see everything the area has to offer, but we did what we could considering our location and the fact that our primary reason for going there was food. On that front, both of us were underwhelmed. I guess I wanted to write this blog entry to show that as much fun as we had when travelling, not everything runs smoothly and you won’t necessarily love everywhere you go (but if you do, I’m incredibly jealous). As a reader of other blogs, I know that positive cheerful blogs are normally the more fun read, and I do love writing those blogs personally, but I also want to record experiences as accurately as I can. Thanks for reading my Japan blogs- next I’m going to upload posts on the South Korea stretch of our trip, which was very different from Japan! We got the chance to see Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. As always- your continued support means a huge amount so thank you for reading!!!

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Veggie bites: a few of my favourite eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto

Hi guys,

Building on from my last blog post (the struggle is real), I have decided to compile a list of my five favourite Vegetarian-friendly (and/or Vegan friendly) eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto. Osaka unfortunately does not rank as, although it was visited, we seriously struggled to find any palatable vegetarian places here.

So here are my top 5- I hope you find them somewhat useful 🙂

Number 5: Apprivoiser, Kyoto

This wholefood café scores points with it’s light, ambient interior, cute material covered menus and, most importantly, very yummy hot vegetable sandwich.  In addition, it was only two minutes down the road from the Rich Kyoto Hotel where we were staying. Although not providing an abundance of choice for vegetarians, they also offer a vegetarian curry and their breakfast menu offers granola as a veggie-safe option. The vegetarian sandwich itself varied in terms of ingredients both times I visited; both times the café used thick, fresh white bread but the first time, it was filled with seitan (a wheat derived mock meat) marinated in ginger and soy sauce and the second time, it was filled with sweet potato and other root vegetables (my favourite variation of the sandwich). For those of you that are happy to eat meat, my friend seriously enjoyed his croquet monsieur. They also serve a really excellent mandarin juice for those with a citrus sweet tooth.

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The café front                                                                                  Owl menus

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My first hot vegetarian sandwich                                        My friend’s croque monsieur

 Number 4: Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop, Tokyo

This dumpling haven may be a bit difficult to find but is a valuable needle in a haystack for any vegetarians in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Run by the most lovely Taiwanese lady who speaks some English and has an unbelievably comprehensive understanding of vegetarian and veganism (upon finding out I was vegetarian, she proceeded to check if I ate egg), food here is incredibly reasonably priced. You can grab a vegetarian set dinner or, if you eat meat, a regular set. This tends to include seaweed soup, sticky rice, a red pepper and egg dish and a selection of gyozas filled with whichever fresh vegetable ingredients the owner has in her kitchen. Jasmine tea is complimentary and since the restaurant is very small and narrow (with only two tables inside), takeaway is also an option.

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A vegetarian set meal                                                                 Mixed vegetable dumplings

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The boards lining the wall of the gyoza shop filled with food posters

Number 3: Café Matsuontoko, Kyoto

This completely Vegan café seems popular with locals and tourists alike; in spite of the dark, wooden interior, the food warms you up and impresses- so much so that my meat-eating friend considered the food to be “a stellar example of Vegan food being perfectly capable of tasting good”. Needless to say, you are spoilt for choice regarding the menu but the things I ordered when I ate there were the burger special (a teriyaki tofu burger with French fries and salad, my favourite dish there) the first time round, and a seaweed, potato creamy ragu pasta the second time I went. My friend went for a fried miso burger the second time we visited. Food is freshly made and tasty,  fusing Japanese flavours with Western dishes. and the café itself is not difficult at all to find (central to the downtown Kyoto shopping area).

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The outside of Café Matsuontoko                                          The burger special set (teriyaki tofu burger)

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Ragu Spaghetti (a Japanese twist on an Italian dish)

And finally, my friend and I argued about how to order these top two but you know, it’s my blog (I say in total jest… I have to be honest- both were excellent).

Number 2: Maharaja, Kyoto

Located near Gion Shijo Station, this Indian restaurant wowed in every way. Bollywood movies played in the background (I’m a fan already), the staff were really friendly and, best of all, the food was some of the best Indian food myself and my friend have ever eaten. Portions were ample, and I seriously over-ordered with a delicious garlic naan, cleverly spiced vegetable pilau rice and beautifully creamy veggie korma. My friend went for keema naan, butter chicken and pratta. He also enjoyed the Mango Lassi but I can’t say no to Singha beer with a curry 🙂 Note that the restaurant is at basement level but the sign outside doesn’t make it too difficult to spot. This was the first time I left a restaurant in Japan with a food baby.

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Garlic naan, beer, pratta and butter chicken               Veggie korma and pilau rice

Number 1: Falafel Garden

I can’t help it- I’m a total sucker for a good falafel and these were absolutely fantastic! Located down the road from Demachiyanagi station, this Israeli Café and Restaurant was incredibly popular with locals and became very full very quickly. Whilst this meant service at times was slow, the food more than made up for this. Falafels were the best I’ve ever had with a really lovely bite (I chose for mine to be served in pitta with salad and a homemade dressing), houmous was rich and flavoursome, the crispy pitta (though a bit oily for my friend) was spiced to perfection and the baklava bites we had for dessert were very yummy! Note that although this place is veggie-friendly as opposed to completely vegetarian or vegan, the menu clearly labels vegan dishes. Easy to find, good ambience, and a meal that kept me very satisfied despite not being able to find a restaurant to eat dinner in when I got to Osaka (thank goodness for Pringles and fruit).

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The outside of the restaurant                                                   Lunch falafel in pitta

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 Baklava

And if you end up in really dire straits:

1) Look for a nearby Irish pub. I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but as well as being guaranteed Guinness (if you like it that is, not for me but it is popular in Japan), you will get chips and onion rings. And when you’re hungry, beggers can’t be choosers.

2) Check out Brown Rice in Tokyo. I’m not saying the food here was bad because it’s not- it was fresh and well made. But it will leave you hungry, and the food is expensive for what it is. This is a vegan restaurant strutting around as a macrobiotic health food place, rather than a genuinely comforting place to get filling vegetarian or vegan food. Also note that the restaurant is hard to find- it is located behind Neal’s Yard Remedies in a rather plush area of Tokyo- Omotesando (we were there to visit Nezu Museum).

I hope that was of some help. This is just my own personal opinion, but Kyoto was by far the best of the three parts of Japan we visited in terms of catering for Vegetarians or Vegans. Incidentally, it was also my favourite part of Japan so if you like, keep an eye out for my upcoming Kyoto blogs regarding attractions there- I would be very grateful 🙂

Thanks for reading!!!

The struggle is real: attempting to survive as a Vegetarian in Japan

Hi guys,

I’m writing this from Jeju Island where I’ve just arrived. Seoul has been manic so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a few days (apologies for that). This entry in itself was one I wrote a while ago in Hakone but I was having massive doubts about whether to upload it or not. In the end, because of how difficult the Vegetarian situation was in Japan, I decided to upload this but please note that it is a personal view- I may have just been unlucky and Japan in itself is wonderful in so many other ways.  I found people to be amazingly polite, transport to be incredibly efficient, unbelievable cleanliness in most places and fascinating culture. But here is what I found to be Japan’s biggest flaw…

When you travel, you need fuel. You are running around like crazy and, for me, food is a form of comfort. I don’t want to be running around with those awful, aching hunger pangs or feeling weak from a lack of calories. In Japan, for the first time ever, I find myself really flagging. In a country where Buddhism is a main religion (and granted, there are some temples you can eat at, though these are few and far between and costly), this lacto-ovo vegetarian (who eats both dairy and eggs) cannot find “safe” food in a vast majority of places.

And I guess this highlighted to me a huge cultural difference- you go to a restaurant in the UK, any restaurant, and there’s at least one vegetarian option. Even in a fish and chip shop or steakhouse (not standard places for a vegetarian to visit) often you’ll see veggie safe cheesy chips or a veggie kebab, or a grilled pepper, halloumi burger or risotto as vegetarian options in a steakhouse. Not so in Japan.

Vegans would not cope out here unless they never ate out (this is in the Ikebukuro region of Tokyo, a commercialised area with every other shop front being a restaurant). Vegans would also struggle in Osaka. And perhaps if they ventured to other regions of Tokyo, they’d cope on raw, microbiotic food marketed to the masses as healthy. Not tasty food. Just calorie-orientated. Just safe.

And for Vegetarians, food-wise it is close to a personal hell. Why should I have to plan my schedule around being able to obtain something vegetarian?

What if my religious beliefs forbade me from eating pork or seafood or milk and meat together? (they don’t, but hypothetically speaking).

And what if I was gluten-free or allergic to nuts or lactose intolerant?

It feels like, unless you eat everything (and by everything, I mean a lot of meat and fish), Japan punishes you for choosing a different diet. And I’ve chosen and maintained vegetarianism for 17 years (none of my family are vegetarian- just me- just a personal choice).

I wouldn’t dream of telling people that they should become vegetarian and will happily watch friends tuck into roast lamb and goose-fat cooked potatoes without feeling anything (except maybe amusement if they really love their food or have little quirks when they eat).

The crux of the matter is that food is a form of happiness for many. And the struggle to find safe noodles, any form of potato or pasta (that doesn’t have meat or seafood in it), a legitimately “safe” form of bread (hotdogs are common, or ham in bread, or chicken…) leaves you feeling so despondent. You’re not meant to tip in Japan, but one day in Tokyo I was so grateful a restaurant removed all their animal product from one dish on their vast menu (the only one that actually looked vegetarian), that I had to leave extra and insist the lovely waitress take my money.

There was also a piece of chicken in what was meant to be a mixed vegetable dish (only one piece, and my friend who is not vegetarian confirmed my suspicions and thought it fell into my dish by accident) but this was after we were assured that my meal was vegetarian (and we used a Japanese phrasebook for this). This still left me paying for a meal I then refused to eat (thanks watami).

Where I stayed one night in Hakone had six restaurants in the reception/ground floor area. Six. Yet no vegetarian options bar a steamed tofu side and seaweed soup at the Japanese restaurant (this with sticky rice was an incredibly insubstantial amount of food and very overpriced). And the irony is that vegetarian food is not hard to make. You don’t have to add meat to everything- a restaurant could offer vegetarian food by using a vegetarian stock base and then separating half the mixture into one bowl and adding whatever meat or seafood they wish to the other half of the mixture. And this would incur no extra cost but still allow for a vegetarian option to exist.

Japan: I love your people, vibrancy, politeness and efficiency and the huge amount to do in Tokyo. Also, some credit needs to be given to Kyoto for having a couple more vegan restaurants than Tokyo or Osaka (though to be fair, that was really not difficult considering the lack of veggie-friendly places in both of the latter cities). But Vegetarians be warned- the struggle to find things to eat has caused me a lot of undue stress and genuine frustration and disappointment.

If you want to see Japan (it has a lot to offer), Veggies or Vegans check out Happy Cow, an excellent vegetarian app which is applicable worldwide, and maybe Trip Advisor as well.

But don’t expect too much.

And don’t expect it to accommodate for you in the same way that Hong Kong can and China (I’ve been told by many people) will.

Because there’s only so much gorging on sugary “safe” baked goods in Starbucks a girl can take. And incidentally, I still lost weight in Japan because of the food situation- despite eating unhealthily as a form of sustenance.

Amongst a lot of the bad, Japan does have a few hidden gems to eat at (especially in Kyoto) should your diet vary from the Japanese norm. If you want me to do a post about them, please comment or give this post a like. Otherwise my next entry will be about my favourite part of Japan- Kyoto- and it’s subsequent attractions.

Thank you very much for reading!