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 The reception was cold, barren and (in an attempt to seem upmarket) marble, with two outdated sofas, Japanese T.V playing in the background and a ludicrous set of rules (for example, a 9000 Yen penalty if you lose your room key- they therefore recommend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).

Osaka first day 015

Osaka first day 019

 Osaka first day 017

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:

Osaka previous day 035   Osaka previous day 025

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

A pathway going through the Okunoin Cemetery/Koyasan Okunoin

Osaka previous day 045

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 🙂

Osaka 016

The restaurant we ate at

Osaka 014

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.

. Osaka 019

Dontonbori at night

Osaka 032

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!!!

Advertisements

Amazing Arashiyama: the day that put a permanent smile on my face

Located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a beautiful scenic area, with some cute and inviting shops and restaurants, the magnificent Bamboo Groves and the ornate Path of Kimonos. Apparently there is also a romantic train, but needless to say my best friend and I were not particularly interested in that! From what is written on paper, Arashiyama seems like the perfect tourist destination but what really elevates it from just another attraction to something really charming is the ambience; amongst the sea of tourists are a good number of locals with ready smiles on their faces. School children weave in between us at the end of their day, queuing for street food and chatting animatedly. And any right turn from the main stretch leads to the more residential areas lined with houses (some of which have the most beautiful front gardens- there is a sense of pride in the way the owners are treating where they live).

But Arashiyama doesn’t deserve a brief description, or a rough bullet pointed list of what makes the place a good attraction to visit, so I’m now going to go into more depth about what we did, and why we enjoyed it. After lunch at Apprivoiser again (with it only 3 minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was too convenient and the food was too tasty for us not to make a return visit), we walked to Kawaramachi Station (in downtown Kyoto) and got the Hankyu Kyoto Line towards Umeda, disembarking at Katsura station. I’m pretty sure the station name has some anime reference, since my travel companion stopped to snapchat the station name, but I unfortunately have no idea what it is 🙂

We then got the Hankyu Arashiyama line to Arashiyama itself (note that there are multiple ways to get here, you can also take the a line to a different Arashiyama station, nearer to the Bamboo Path). Where we disembarked, we were only 5 minutes walk from the park and we greeted by bright sunshine and blue skies. So after removing the thick jacket and the thinner jacket I’d worn after a cold start that morning, we trundled merrily towards the park (I’ve no idea why I’ve used the word trundled, I think I just like how it rolls off the tongue).

Walking through the park was a joy; the Oi River glistened from afar, many people were out and about, basking in the sunshine and Mount Arash was standing dominant in the background.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 248

The River Oi and Mountainous backdrop

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 267

Near the entrance of the park

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 275

Another photo of the park from a different angle

We crossed a bridge (allowing for both cars and pedestrians) to reach the other side of the river, where the main Arashiyama café/shop promenade was present. We found the Bamboo Path very quickly, owing to my friend recognising the Mandarin character for Bamboo (apparently the same or similar to the Japanese one) and following the relevant signs. Though busy (as was to be expected) the bamboos were abundant and spectacular. Walking through the path, with the light peeping through the tall stalks and emerald leaves, was beautiful.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 332  Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 323

Note that everything in Arashiyama shuts down by 4.30/5pm. I felt it prudent to mention this at this point because we planned to return to the Bamboo Path later on, when it had quietened down, but when we returned, it was pitch black and the central Arashiyama area was virtually empty. We therefore decided to head back to the train station instead.

But I digress, back to the path- we passed a temple called the Tenryu-ji temple (which translates to the Sky Dragon temple) and my friend said that this sounded promising. So once we completed the Bamboo Path (and came across a beautiful and largely ignored landscape a bit further down from the path) we doubled back on ourselves and entered the temple gardens.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 353

The largely ignored landscape at the end of the path

The gardens were pretty- full of a variety of trees (all with Wooden name plaques informing the visitor of breed) but did pale into comparison when thinking about Zenrin-ji Temple (see the Finding #Zen-rinji blog post for more information).

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 366

An example of a wooden plaque giving information about the trees

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 367  Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 364

Some of the trees in the Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

Nonetheless, we found a very charming wishing pond full of coins and decorated with stone frogs, and right by the temple building, a large lake landscape which was gorgeous (and provided absolute justification as to why Tenryu-ji gardens are a world heritage site).

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 398  Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 400

The wishing pond                                               A temple building

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 424

The lake at the end of the gardens

There are two slightly cheeky things about the attraction to note; Firstly, it costs 500 yen to enter the gardens and an extra 100 yen for the temple (which you have to pay separately). You can see into the temple from when you are viewing the lake, and since the temple itself wasn’t world heritage (just the gardens were) we decided against this (being the budget travellers that we are). Secondly, this was the only place I found that was charging 100 yen for toilet roll (that’s why tissues in a rucksack/handbag are such an important tool). With the amount of tourism the temple was getting, I felt this charge was a bit unnecessary.

Next we went to Arashiyama station (different to the Arashiyama Hankyu JR station we disembarked at) which was a tourist attraction in its own right. This was the prettiest train station I’ve ever seen, with a walkway called the Path of Kimonos next to it, which consisted of kimono patterned pillars in red, pink, purple and orange lining the pathway. At the end of the Pathway was the Pond of Dragon, whereby:

“Wishes are granted if the dragon that landed in Arashiyama is prayed to. If you immerse your hands in the water springing from Atago, your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness”.

So I did (being the superstitious type that I am, but also because I thought the sentiment of the water feature was nice) while my friend amusedly abstained.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 450  Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 461

The train station                                                  The Path of Kimonos

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 459

Holding water in the Pond of Dragon

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 460

The descriptive sign next to the pond

We got hungry so I hunted for something to eat and… I failed (as was the norm in Japan at times). But my friend had a meat filled steamed bun, which he enjoyed, and I was in too good spirits to let the lack of vegetarian food get my mood down.

We browsed some shops, where I picked up a larger travel sized purse and we collectively looked at some souvenirs made from bamboo wood (nice, but a tad overpriced). We ate at an Italian restaurant called Akamanma that evening (just a bit further down from the main promenade of shops and cafes). The pasta was okay, but note that there are only two vegetarian options from a vast menu and the food is overpriced for a) what it is and b) the portion size. Nonetheless it filled us up. Walking back across Arashiyama, most of the district had been plunged into darkness bar a few lights, twinkling in the distance. It is definitely a place for the day as it sleeps by early evening but we didn’t mind- we’d covered a lot of ground that day. I found the place to be amazing, somewhere that set a very high benchmark for subsequent day trips we did from that point onwards. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, hop on a train there. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂

The tea ceremony that didn’t matcha up to our expectations and our visit to the “number one attraction on trip advisor” in Kyoto- Fushimi Inari

a

The tea ceremony was something that I had been excited for prior to Japan. Hailed as a personal ceremony in which we would acquire knowledge and be able to experience how Japanese tea is typically prepared and consumed, expectations were high. Our day started off fairly slowly- we looked for a vegetarian place called Mumokuteki Café and Foods to eat lunch but were unable to find the place, so ended up at our old safety net (where I was guaranteed at least one type of vegetarian food)- Starbucks. Following our over-sugary stint in what had become our saviour of a coffee shop, we changed into warmer clothing (since the weather had cooled substantially during the early afternoon) and went to the Kiyomizu Gojo Station, where we took the Keihan Main Line towards Demachiyangi and got out at Gion Shijo Station.

Organised under a company called EN, finding the tea ceremony could have been easier. Though informed on our tickets that access to the ceremony would be near the side entrance of the Chion-in temple, the problem arose in that a) we had no idea whether the entrance we were at was the main entrance or the side entrance and b) passing locals and tourists also seemed to have no idea. In the end, we arrived at the ceremony 3 minutes late, but were fortunately let in since we would have otherwise had to wait a further 45 minutes to attend the next ceremony. In our mind, the “intimate” ceremony we were told tea-making would involve would consist of 4-6 people. Instead, picture 16 of us crowded and sitting cross-legged in a narrow, dark, Japanese-style room. My travel companion and I were sitting against the door, and a couple of Asian tourists in the centre of the room were more interested in sniggering at certain points than the ceremony itself. The woman holding the ceremony was knowledgeable and clad in traditional attire, which was a positive. But I did not enjoy making the tea, and drinking it was adequate at best. Before preparing the tea, we were supposed to eat a cube saccharine-tasting jelly sweet dusted with sugar but not everyone chose to complete this instruction. I also had a poor whisking action apparently, whereas my travel companion mastered it. The moral of the story is- never ask me to make you a cappuccino… I can make you a decent cup of English breakfast tea (I hope) instead though 🙂

During the ceremony, my emotions transgressed from grumpy (when I saw how busy the ceremony was), to incredulous (tea-making was clearly an art, and the way it was presented to us was doing no testimony to this fact) to amused (at how some of the other attendees were reacting) to finally exasperated. The thing that I had such high hopes for was a bitter (and bitter tasting in terms of the tea) let down.

My friend and I were sitting outside Chion-in temple trying to decide what to do next; we hadn’t finalised plans for that day so it was up in the air as to what we should do at that point. I suggested we get the train to where the Fushimi Inari Shrine lay, since this was awarded the accolade of number 1 attraction on Trip Advisor and that site has been my kindred spirit online whilst travelling (alongside Happy Cow- love you Happy Cow). We got on a train again from Kiyomizu Gojo Station and ended up at the wrong station since we accidently took a lim exp (limited express) train compared to the local train we needed. However, doubling back on ourselves was easy enough and in no time, we ended up back at Fushimi Inari. We arrived in fairly good spirits and, when walking past a tour group, my friend exclaimed “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”, leading an older British woman to remark “Gosh, I haven’t heard that in years”. Amused, we carefully skipped past the tour group and approached the walkway leading up to the shrine entrance. To our left, stalls were selling grilled meats and pineapple sticks, and every few metres, a green flag proudly waved at us, reminding us how the shrine had been voted the number one attraction on Trip Advisor.

b       c

Some of the meat kebabs on a stall                                         The flag acknowledging Trip Advisor

I’m not really sure what my first impressions were- my friend said “stunning but ridiculously touristy”. The entrance consisted of a number of large pillarbox red buildings.

cd   d

The top of a Fushimi Inari building                                    A shrine located near the entrance of the attraction

We ascended up a number of stairs before our eyes met the start of the Fushimi Inari gates and the subsequent footpath that followed.

e

The beginning of the Fushimi Inari Path

At this point it was early evening and as we progressed through the makeshift tunnel of red arches, people were starting to leave the path, passing us in the opposite direction. It became more peaceful, easier to take photos and more mysterious, even slightly eerie. The now dark red (when light was absent) columns were majestic, stacked continually into the distance. We kept walking and climbing and walking again until we reached 15,500m on the path.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 141       Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 191

Fushimi Inari at night

Though we were by no means at the end of the path, by this point we were losing light rapidly, some areas around us had been plunged into darkness and we hadn’t had anything to eat since midday.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 195

A list of heights that the Fushimi Inari Path can reach

We followed a different route to leave the path and though this was poorly signposted, we discovered other statues, shrines and monuments along our route. Part of the way there, a cat started walking in front of us and stayed with us for a while (a number of cats are present around the various shrines in Fushimi Inari). Although we knew we were close to the entrance, we were a bit unsure of where to go at one point but my friend’s years of watching Japanese anime and general aptitude for languages meant he was able to ask a local and understand the Japanese word for left, leading us back in the correct direction.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 217

The Hacherei Shrine (which we found during our alternative route back to the entrance)

Was this one of my more inept days? Probably.

Was this one of our more fun days? Definitely.

Dinner that night was at the glorious Maharaja (see my veggie bites blog post for a summary of the restaurant). To access this Indian Food haven, hop onto the Kiyomizu line again and disembark at Gion Shijo Station. We ended the day back at where we are staying watching a few episodes of the trashy reality youtube show we’ve become hooked on (don’t ask what it is- you will become addicted and time is too valuable) and, for me, writing diary entries.

I like days that go well, but my appreciation soars when a day starts sour and gets progressively better as it continues. Kyoto was not just matching Tokyo but overshadowing it by a considerable amount, and our impressions of the place (with Zenrin-ji yesterday and Fushimi Inari today) were becoming more and more favourable.

Finding #Zen-rinji Temple: initial impressions of Kyoto and exploring our favourite attraction

a

When Japan was mentioned to me as a potential travel destination- my mind envisaged this image of absolute solitude in a beautifully sculpted Temple garden. And visiting Zenrin-ji temple provided me with that opportunity, though achieving this golden silence was not exactly easy, as I’ll explain later on. And choosing where to go is something that can also eat up a large amount of time- Kyoto itself is akin to a giant buffet when it comes to temples, which makes the situation especially problematic if you only have time for a couple of main courses 🙂

We started our first full day in Kyoto visiting Apprivoiser (see my veggie bites post for more information). Having left the restaurant feeling nicely re-energized, we made tracks to the downtown area of Kyoto, situated only 15 minutes walk away from where our hotel was located. The vibe in Kyoto is very different from that of Tokyo- for a start, the number of fellow tourists increases but not exponentially. You also need a state of permanent vigilance when it comes to bicycles racing across pavements, something which is not necessary in Tokyo (because everyone mainly walks their shorter distances). In addition, Kyoto fashion is far more “sexy casual” (as a floor advertising clothes in a Kyoto department store described) than Tokyo. Fashion in Tokyo is more diverse, but perhaps overarching more conservative. In Kyoto, it was more the norm for girls to wear knee high or thigh high boots, stylish cowl neck sweaters, cute mini dresses/skirts and brightly coloured but well-tailored mini coats. Perhaps this is a good time to note that both the Tokyo and Kyoto undergrounds carry signs like this one:

b

A sign warning girls to beware of people looking up their skirt

So despite fashion being (in my opinion) really nice- I’d be lying if I said that such signs didn’t unnerve or concern me slightly. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t walk around with my travel companion saying “I love what she’s wearing, but I couldn’t wear that on the London underground” multiple times. However, by and large, Kyoto had an air of youthful vibrancy that the region of Tokyo we were staying (Ikebukuro, the business district) unsurprisingly lacked.

But I’m going to stop myself before I digress anymore- we were heading to downtown Kyoto in order to hop on a bus to get to the Eikando Zenrin-ji temple. The temple itself was the headquarters of the Jodo Sect Seizan Zenrinji Branch, and is a still fully functioning temple amongst the Jodo Sect of Shingon Buddhism, with the still fully-functioning temple element being important to us when choosing which temple to visit.

We got a bus from the central downtown area- with the temple name clearly displayed on the list of bus destinations. It cost only 230 yen for our entire journey, with our stop being something like the eighth stop on the line- but the experience itself was not particularly pleasant. It was bumpy, crowded and jolty, but it meant that I was clinging on to the handle falling from the ceiling with such intent that I realised my upper arms had received a complimentary workout. And in that respect, every cloud has a silver lining.

When we disembarked from the bus, we realised we had no idea where we should be heading. Despite there being a board nearby, nothing said “Zenrin-ji” only “Eikando”, and since trip advisor hasn’t posted the full name of the temple (Eikando Zenrin-ji temple), this confused us as we were worried we’d be heading to the wrong temple. Reassured by the fact that there would be at least one temple in the area we could visit (since the map was full of them), we nonetheless decided to ask around in a few shops before one lady guessed what we were getting at and pointed us towards the correct place.

c

The sign which also helped us. A lot.

The part of Kyoto where Eikando Zenrin-ji temple was located fit my prior expectation of what Kyoto would be like far more than downtown Kyoto- this area had emptier roads, smaller dusty coloured houses, shops and cafes (although more of the former than the latter two options) and generally an incredibly communal, village-y feel that downtown Kyoto lacked.

d

Entry to the temple was 600 yen each and it was absolutely stunning! Autumnal coloured leaves, majestic trees, sparkling water with little stone bridges above, a small fountain by the exit and beautiful brown and white temple buildings. Below are some of my favourite images from the temple.

e       i

A temple building                                                       The bridge leading over the lake

f      g

The view from the bridge                                         Another bridge leading to a shrine

h

Autumnal leaves framing the lake

We enjoyed the peace (a school was nearby so we still had some background noise of children but this wasn’t disruptive per se). What was disruptive, however, was that we’d only been inside the temple for twenty minutes or so when what seemed like a tour group of Japanese businessmen arrived, completely killing the ambience with chat and noise. Like the other tourists present, we were not best amused, and we felt especially cheated since the same thing happened in Happoen Gardens in Tokyo (we had 10 minutes of peace before it was interrupted by a wedding). And I’m fully aware that I may sound a bit like the Grinch (in spite of it not being Christmas) but for many of these gardens in Japan, it is the silence that makes the place magical and ethereal, and allows you to feel a million miles away from reality but absolutely in harmony with nature.

We decided to move on from the Temple at this point. I’m not sure whether Zenrin-ji Temple has a marvellous policy whereby tickets allow for re-entry once you’ve left or whether the lovely women who sold us tickets simply recognised me and my friend and waved us back in (upon seeing our previously brought tickets) but after the Philosopher’s walk, myself and my friend walked back past the temple to get to the bus stop and saw the group of Japanese businessmen boarding a coach and leaving. We felt triumphant since this meant that we did get to return. But more on that later 🙂

The Philosopher’s walk was a pathway my friend wanted to try and had been signposted before we entered the temple. It was a long, gravelly walk, surrounded by grass, water and dark khaki trees, but we did see some interesting things along the path- a lady surrounded by cats who jumped for the ball when she held it up for them, an elderly man who drew the most amazing ink sketches of landscapes and then a coffee shop, mainly filled with locals eating mizo and noodles. We stopped there as we were in need of a little perk-me-up at this point; my advice is don’t- it wasn’t too great. My friend went for strawberry shaved ice (too artificial tasting) and I had an incredibly watery hot chocolate. I don’t actually think the name of the coffee shop was overly visible from the outside or I would have taken a photo but just avoid it if you are doing the Philosopher’s walk- I think it makes more sense to bring your own snacks.

m      k

The view at the beginning of the walk                    The cat lady we saw on the Philosopher’s walk

l   p

Moggy                                                                  The work of a Japanese artist sketching as we walked

Upon seeing the businessmen leave as we walked back, we returned to Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple and climbed up to a pagoda which was absent of people; I had a brief nap on a wooden bench (probably responsible for the subsequent insect bites on my leg despite having smothered myself in insect repellent). And I could do this, because the peace was magnificent- all we could hear was the birds tweeting merrily and, when we descended from the Pagoda, a gong being hit at regular intervals (about 4.30pm), symbolising the monk’s prayer time.

q   r

The view from the Pagoda                                    Another view from the Pagoda

You may need luck on your side to obtain peace in the temple gardens but if you get it, than wow- be prepared to be amazed. Hearing the monks during prayer was an additional unexpected bonus and I left the temple feeling more mentally relaxed and calm than at any other point in Japan.

s

The landscape at the exit of Eikando Zenrin-ji temple

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.

156    200

The café front                                                                                  Owl menus

207   208

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.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 090   Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 103

A vegetarian set meal                                                                 Mixed vegetable dumplings

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 093

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).

160   159

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

380

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.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 230 Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 228

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).

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 487    Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 482

The outside of the restaurant                                                   Lunch falafel in pitta

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 485

 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!

Spontaneous sightseeing in Odawara and watching Japanese football in an Irish pub

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 019

If you told me that during one of my days travelling, I’d stumble across a strange place in between Hakone and Tokyo and, this being totally unplanned, would lead to one of the best days I’ve had in Japan so far, the organiser in me would have snorted. But alas, my friend and I found ourselves in this strange place called Odawara on a “travel” day (getting back from Hakone to Tokyo), decided to have a roam around and subsequently gatecrashed a festival filled with locals, saw a castle, and got drawn into a Japanese football game whilst eating some of the best pub food I have ever eaten. This is the story of the day that makes me smile the most out of all my “Tokyo days” (next posts will be on Kyoto). This was the day we discovered Odawara.

The morning started off really well- we were checking out of the Hokane Kowakien hotel and had some breakfast/brunch (a lot of days we’ve skipped this meal due to an early start or sheer tiredness). And this might sound really melodramatic, but being able to have toast with butter and strawberry jam was a total luxury for me (especially due to the struggle to find vegetarian food). And I caved into temptation and got an éclair. After my friend indulged in an overly cheesy pizza and we were both feeling nicely stuffed (again a contrast to the hunger pangs I’ve had at times in Japan), we walked to the local train station and hoped onto a train to Odawara, with the intention of heading straight back to Tokyo.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 003   Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 006

We found Starbucks in Odawara with the intention of getting some wi-fi and looking up what we could do in this completely novel place. And we failed- there was no wi-fi in this branch. However, we soon stumbled across a map at Odawara station which listed some local attractions and my friend mentioned how the Soshu Odawara Castle rang a bell and maybe we should check it out? So we left the station and my initial first impression was… meh.

But then we walked on, and we found a brilliant bright orange building, an irish pub called Celts (my friend joked “we’re going there” and I laughed at the time), a café in a department store which served “safe” veggie food and finally, best of all, a gorgeous lake with a bridge leading across it and the sounds of people and music drifting from the archway on the other side of the bridge.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 017 Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 018

A street in Odawara                                          The orange building brightening up our day

 

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 073

The pub. More about that later 🙂

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 021

Standing in front of the bridge leading to the people and noise…

Upon entering the archway, the dulcet sounds of a Japanese rock band met our ears. Heaps of local people were milling around-watching the band, eating, shopping and chatting to each other. Although we were obviously tourists, the people and ambience were incredibly friendly.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 026  Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 028

Entering the festival                                           The Japanese rock band at the festival

My friend and I picked up a soda we had found at one of the festival stalls (the same kind of soda we had in Asakusa- see Tokyo Time Part 1 blog entry if interested) and meandered around the stalls which displayed an array of items including glass bottles (like cola bottles) shaped as vases and a number of kitchen items. Such items in particular were coveted by my friend, who said he would have brought them were he heading straight back to Hong Kong (our next country is instead South Korea).

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 034

A gate belonging to Soshu Odawara castle in their garden/back entrance

It materialised that we had arrived at the Soshu Odawara castle through the back entrance. As we walked through the gardens, we came across these little fellas:

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 050

Makes a change from Carp 🙂     

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 046

 The pathway towards the main castle

We eventually came across the castle itself: a huge, cream coloured, Japanese style building.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 058               Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 063

Soshu Odawara Castle- the first views you get

We paid 450 yen each for tickets around the castle and walked through a number of the levels. Exhibits were very interesting but photography was unfortunately prohibited in some places. We climbed the stairs right to the top of the castle and managed to get some pretty decent views of the Odawara area.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 072

Odawara from the top of Soshu Odawara Castle

By this point, we’d got hungry and because of how difficult finding vegetarian anything is in Japan, my friend suggested we head to the Irish pub. So, with expectations low (because I guess the patriot in me could not see how a Japanese Irish pub would be any better than a British or Irish pub) we headed to Celts.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 073

And yes, I was impressed. Very. I enjoyed the Japanese football in the background (although there were times where it was painful watching the teams play- very few goal attacks), I enjoyed my Gin & Tonic (there gets to a point where you don’t fancy Kirin beer) and most of all, we both loved our food. Who’d have thought chips covered in herb with a basil mayonnaise dipping sauce on the side would be such a comfort? Add to that some onion rings (for me) and deep fried mushrooms (my friend) and we both left the pub feeling very happy. The only slight downside is that you can smoke in pubs in Japan so, for me anyway, the passive smoking was not great. But it was a small price to pay for the friendliness and comfort food.

We headed back to Odawara station where were due to get the bullet train back to Tokyo (and yes, that impressed me too- less so my friend who had seen it before). Like the name suggests, watching the train travel past the station created a visual blur and the journey itself was rapid and pleasant.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 084

The bullet train in action

Having re-checked into where we were staying in Ikebukuro, we decided to go to Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop (veggie safe but with meat options according to Vegetarian app Happy Cow). This small restaurant (like a narrow shoebox) had two small tables squeezed into it, a kitchen and posters of glorious looking Taiwanese food. Also, the lady who owned it was amazing: super maternal and understanding. Anyone in Japan who beams upon hearing I’m vegetarian, checks whether I eat egg (I do) and comments on my smile  (bonus) is someone I become instantly grateful towards and fond of.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 093    Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 090

The food board                                                                                My fixed meal

She brought out lovely Jasmine tea, made me a vegetarian fixed meal (650 yen) and my friend a standard fixed meal and we ate sticky rice, soy plum sauce, a red pepper, spring onion and egg dish and these amazing multi-coloured gyozas (filled with meat for my friend and vegetables for me). She refused to accept a tip and asked us to come back (which we did- the next day). It’s so lovely to meet people who genuinely take pride in seeing others enjoy their food (my travel companion- who is an excellent chef- also does this) and the meal itself provided the cherry on top of what was a really lovely day.

Hakone and Oedo Onsen Monogatari 103

Happiness 🙂