Going around Guilin: the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan).

For me, Guilin was a first. For my travel companion, he had visited 10 years previously. He remembered this part of China as possessing great natural beauty, a rural kind of charm. This kind of beauty remains in fragments:

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But as with anything, development is a double-edged sword- and as we ventured away from the Reed Flute Cave back to our van, the same machines creating for Guilin were also marring the landscape of what used to be an untouched fishing village.

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See the crane- top right hand corner

But all was not lost, because the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan) provided us with a scenic snapshot to enjoy. Better still- whatever age you are- you’re never too old to enjoy a park (well that’s my theory).

The Elephant Trunk Hill gets it’s name from the shape the rocks form, resembling an elephant drinking from the River Li. Entrance cost CNY 75 and you pay more if you wish to climb the hill.

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Apparently, there are carvings in the rocks which provide information on the attraction, but you need someone with local knowledge to give more information about this. We decided not to climb the hill due to budgeting restrictions.

However, we did enter the “lovers park” (not awkward because, more than anything else, it was all humorously bewildering to my friend and I).

The park area is full of steel framed statues and larking around is a must:

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So basically quite unlike parks in the UK. Kids look away now. 

Though we didn’t know this at the time, parts of the park can be lit up at night- we figured this out upon seeing a tree with lights hanging down from the branches. So as a tip, perhaps this would be the best time to visit the Elephant Trunk Hill Park. However, entrance into the park at night is more expensive, so do take this into consideration.

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From the park, you also get views of the river:

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By now, we had completed both the Reed Flute Cave and the Elephant Trunk Hill and we were feeling incredibly hungry. We consulted a park map and located a restaurant on the edge of the park, overlooking the River Lijang. The Homa Cafe is a hidden delight- waiting staff are friendly, and on a cold day- food is incredibly warming.

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My friend tucked into a noodle dish whilst I enjoyed tofu, rice and stir fried vegetables. After swapping drinks (he wasn’t fond of his citrus, orangey tea but I enjoyed it), we returned to the area around our hotel in Guilin and explored the town during the late afternoon.

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Our late lunch at Homa Cafe. 

Our time in China was drawing to a close. But I still had a bit more time in Hong Kong before I approached the other part of my journey and settled down in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of months. And despite thinking I’d seen it all in Hong Kong during my first stint there (see the categories sidebar for my earlier blog posts on Hong Kong), it just so happens I was very wrong. The commercial capital of Asia still had far more to offer…

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Seeing Xi’an part 2: the Muslim Quarter, trying not to get run over and eating too much at a Birthday dinner!

The Muslim Quarter…

Was the plan for late afternoon/early evening. After the gas canister exploding incident. To explain what happened in a bit more detail, a guy behind us was carrying a glass jar which contained the gas and I guess the pressure just became too high and then you have green gas and shards of glass coming towards you (part 1 of seeing Xi’an). As a stereotypical Brit, I decided I needed a cup of tea to return to a normal state of self. Our nearest coffee shop was a Starbucks and so we headed there on automation after washing our mouths out with water.

There is little I can say about Starbucks that you won’t already know but in this Starbucks in Xi’an, beggars walk through the door and actively badger customers for money. It was a strange thing to witness- we knew China had a huge divide between the rich and the poor, but had seen nothing like this in Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan. Staff asked the guy to leave, and soon later we followed.

We headed west of the Bell Tower (in the centre of Xi’an, which we had previously visited) and towards the Drum Tower. We walked around the Drum Tower and proceeded onwards until we reached a new scene- smoke dancing in the air, and a riot of colour; street food sizzling and people jostling around. We had reached the Muslim Quarter.

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The Muslim Quarter

We walked through a sheltered market part of the Quarter- here, a range of weird and wonderful items were being sold. From the beautiful (woven Chinese scrolls and silk scarves) to the light-hearted (touristy souvenirs), slightly distasteful (playing cards on Gaddafi and Bin Laden) to the intricate (wooden carved ornaments and delicate teapot and teacup sets).

The indoor part market formed a circle, and once we exited the other side, the air was filled with the sounds and scents of fresh food being prepared; meat dishes in abundance although there were also stalls selling stews, soups and noodle dishes.

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We walked past a stall where chefs were making fresh pasta, which gathered quite a crowd. Though undoubtedly heavy, the guys in question never hastened their vigorous kneading and movement of the dough.

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The chefs making pasta

Then we walked back past the drum tower, glowing gold, silver and red in the night-time darkness, before finding a bus to take us to where my travel companion’s birthday dinner had been booked that night.

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Trying not to get run over…

Was one of the biggest challenges in Xi’an (in fact, extend that to the whole of China). There is blatant disregard for a pedestrian; if a car or bus is moving- you better move or it’s the end of the road (literally). In a way, this attitude that everyone has almost gives you the feeling that life is cheap in China. There was one point where I was standing on an insubstantial little island in between two sides of an incredibly busy road and experienced something like panic. However, we made it onto a bus and clung onto the railings on the vehicle with all our strength as the bus lurched forward.

Eating too much at a birthday dinner…

Was a given. A lot had happened that day, from a mellow morning to an eventful afternoon and evening. But it was still my travel companion’s birthday. The final chance to show my appreciation to the long-suffering person who had agreed to spend a fair amount of time going round Asia with me.

Redford Indian Restaurant is located in Tang West Market in the Lianhu District and is number 1 on Trip Advisor. I had emailed the manager explaining the birthday situation and they were amazing- when we arrived, they had put balloons and a personalised “Happy Birthday” sign outside their restaurant.

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The restaurant exterior (and the sign and balloons on the right)

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The restaurant interior

The restaurant is beautiful and the staff are ridiculously friendly. We both went for Singha beers and then gorged on an Indian food feast that proved both of us have eyes far bigger than our stomachs.

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The onion naan they served was probably one of the best naan breads I’ve ever tasted. SO GOOD.

Then they brought out a cream, fruit and meringue birthday cake for the person in question, which meant I got to be the most embarrassing friend I could be and sing “Happy Birthday”.

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Happy Birthday Sugartastic!

Afterwards, feeling suitably stuffed, we meandered around DaTang West Market. We had very little time in Xi’an compared to our other destinations. Our final destination would be Guilin, what used to be a quiet little fishing town… however, as we soon discovered- things change.

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Some photos of the different parts of the market

Calguksu (칼국수), hiking and staying up for shopping in Seoul (clearly all cities should have shopping until 5am)

Our stint in Seoul was coming to an end; after two days of running around, we were tired but still aiming to cram as much as possible into our final day in Korea’s capital.

Our first stop was lunch (we slept in a little that morning). As a result of the abundance of food we had ordered and/or were served in Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) (see the Gyeongokbung Palace blog post for more information), I decided that my lunch would be yesterday’s leftover dumplings and Sichuan spicy noodles, whilst Anna and my travel companion went on the hunt for food. We found a restaurant called Eunseong Calguksu for lunch, a traditional Korean eatery whereby my two companions ordered Calguksu. Calguksu is a noodle dish originating in Korea, which consists of noodles in a fish broth (or some other form of meat broth) with vegetables and long egg noodles.

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The area where the Calguksu restaurant was

After lunch, we grabbed a quick coffee before getting a bus from near the restaurant and heading towards Bukhansen National Park (which took about an hour and 15 minutes) to do some hiking. Because of our lack of climbing experience and the fact that we didn’t own a single cagoule between us (let alone three), we took an easier hiking route which meant that we missed a lot of the best views that exist further up the mountain. Unless you can climb that far up and are incredibly well kitted out (which we weren’t- climbing gear is not cheap), the views are not unbelievably impressive. However, the hiking route was very pleasant nonetheless, and a nice contrast to the urbanised and high-paced lifestyle we’d been living in Seoul until that point.

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The entrance to the walking route and map of the area

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A view whilst hiking and the leaves we stumbled across

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Interesting graffiti in the park

We found a cute little coffee shop near the park at the end of the hiking route. Here, we ordered some food and drink (a lovely onion bagel with Philadelphia and a peppermint mocha) and just relaxed and chatted. We were considering what to do that evening; a large part of me want to visit the Gangnam district (and I won’t lie, that infamous song by Psy definitely had something to do with it) but in the end we decided to head to the Dongdaemun area- reknowned for its late night shopping and upbeat ambience.

We returned to Gongjon restaurant (the Vegan restaurant we visited on the first evening- see the “A little sample of Seoul” blog post), located in the Dongdaemun-gu region. When we arrived at the café, it was crammed full of people- with lots of gorgeous dogs running around as well! We quickly deduced that this must have been an animal rights/lovers, vegetarian or vegan or pet-owners meet up (sorry guys, we weren’t detective enough to find out which, I think the former). Fortunately, the owners had enough space to squeeze us in so, like the carefree tourists we are, we gate-crashed the gathering. Dinner was good, but spicy was an understatement! Last time I ordered the tomato and burdock spaghetti- lovely, but with a definite kick of chilli. This time, under the recommendation of my travel companion who thought it would be less spicy, I ordered Aglio e Olio Pasta. After all, I thought, how spicy can a garlic and olive oil pasta be?

I was wrong.

One word, my friends. Jalapenos.

And yes, I ate it all.

And yes, the flavours were great but my mouth watered and tears were forming in my eyes and I got through my raspberry squash at a record pace.

What was bittersweet about this meal, though, was the fact that it was our Seoul goodbye to Anna (although we were seeing her in a few days in Daegu).

We gave her our gifts, a white patterned umbrella from Osaka and two hand-picked pearls from a stall in Cheung Chau (where we were also able to choose what silver pendant we wanted the pearls to be set in- see “Cheung Chau: sunshine, seafood and street stalls”).

After some shared sentimentality, we hailed a cab onto Dongdaemun. And wow- what an amazing vibe!

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Dongdaemun shops lit up at night

Lit up like a Christmas tree, with blue lights radiating outside one building, stairs lit up with black animated figures walking across them and the DDP (Dongdemun Design Plaza) festival in full swing, the shopping district managed to effortlessly encompass a clubbing and nightlife vibe, with bars and clubs being replaced by shops- both high-end and bargain priced. Music was being blasted out from a stage, where a band were performing and multiple people were crowded around. Street stalls were selling all sorts of foods- from twisty potatoes to sausages and doughnuts to waffles.

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Feeling so Avatar right now

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The animated stairs

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A sign leading towards the Art Hall                     The expensive shopping area

We first walked around the expensive shops and, despite finding some avant garde and genuinely gorgeous pieces, our wallets were not going to stretch that far. We walked down the street a bit to a building selling every kind of clothing imaginable alongside bags, shoes, souvenirs and accessories. The format was that of a market, spread out like a shopping centre; a range of stalls selling similar types of item existed on each floor yet each stall was manned by different people and stall owners. In spite of their unwillingness to smile, Anna managed to find herself some wonderful shoes for work and a very smart watch. The pricing was okay- not the cheapest but definitely affordable- think shops like New Look and H&M (with perhaps some clothing shops undercutting these prices slightly).

Although a big part of us wanted to stay out late (the 5am closing time hung over us- the huge temptation being staying out until that time purely to shop), we had to be sensible. An early flight out of Seoul to Jeju Island- combined with the fact that we hadn’t repacked our bags yet- meant that after a few hours, we returned back to the Blessing Hotel to pack. Spurred on by some excellent 90s hits (thank you Youtube) we packed whilst wondering why no boy band currently comes close to matching “Backstreet’s back- alright”. When we got to Britney, we realised that if our neighbours could hear us and didn’t grow up in the 90s, we were probably responsible for their suffering. So apologies if you’re reading this blog post 🙂

Stay tuned for Jeju Island, a hidden gem (at least to us Westerners, it is apparently a popular tourist destination to Koreans and Chinese people) which turned out to be rather enjoyable!

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this entry- I really appreciate your continued support.

Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) , a traditional Korean tea and exploring the “most international area in Seoul”- Iteawon.

Many Asian countries have their own identity; though this may be subjective depending on whether you are native or foreign, we found Japan to be traditional and China to be an intriguing mix, a country which sometimes lives up to its first world international persona and other times is languishing behind with marked (but often internationally hidden) third world dimensions.

South Korea, however, is a delightful borrower. It shows off aspects of Japanese and Chinese heritage, yet is influenced by another country as well- the United States.

And as testimony to that influence, we started our day that morning at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. Having never been fortunate enough (or indeed, able to afford) to go the United States, this was my first introduction to the popular American brand. And I enjoyed it- my travel companion and I sat with long onion and garlic bagels and lattes, and Anna had a doughnut and a coffee. Having finished breakfast at this nearby train station (we could have also gone to a nearby Starbucks or Baskin & Robbins if we so wished), we hopped onto the metro to where Gyeongbokgung Palace was located.

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At the nearby train station, the Pullomen langors.

Legend has it that if you walk through the stone arch, you will never grow old.

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Guess who wants eternal youth!!!

Gyeongbokgung had a few surprises in store for us; for one thing, the Changing of the Guards (typically reminiscent of Buckingham Palace) also exists here. And watching the procession was amazing!

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The Korean Guards during the Changing of the Guards

There are some very interesting things to note about Gyeongbokgung. For one thing, it was built in 1395 but it burnt down by fire in 1592 after a Japanese invasion. The Palace was restored in 1867, and whilst there were initially 500 buildings, only 125 now remain (I paid attention to our tour guide on the English group tour).

Also, it is useful to note that if you are a young Korean student, you can get into Gyeongbokgung palace for free provided you have proof of age.

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The gates of Gyongbokgung

The palace was beautiful- adorned with a lake, gardens and buildings made up of colourful materials, most commonly a dusty cinnamon colour.

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We were allowed to walk around the King’s chamber (though, as expected, the furnishings and paintings were behind a rope barrier) but the Queen’s chamber was more closed off to the public.

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Note, the palace also gets a lot of educational visits. Above, a primary school tour group gets shown around

As obedient tourists as we are, we eventually tired of the tour and so crept off to the gardens. Like the palace, these were lovely- made lovelier by the riot of colours that met the eye:

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After we finished exploring Gyeongbokgung palace (경복궁), we moved on to Insa-dong (인사동) to find something to eat.

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Anna had done prior research on a vegan restaurant, called Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) in the area. We headed through the lanes of souvenir shops, including those selling your typical tourist items to those whose windows were filled with marvellous homemade ceramics, paintings and jewellery. As we reached our destination, it transpired that the vegan restaurant was shutting for a little while whilst staff went on a break. We were all very hungry, and a bit unsure as to what to do in the meantime; however, it turned out that we needn’t have worried! Nearby lay a cute, traditional Korean tea shop. We walked around the side and removed our shoes (as is customary when entering a home and some restaurants in Seoul) and climbed some stairs until we entered the tea area.

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In the top right-hand corner, the tea place we went to

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The interior of the restaurant

Here, people were sat on cushions, separated by only a low wooden table. Anna ordered for us and we ended up with, amongst other things:

Sujeongwa/cinnamon punch (cold)- which was lovely!

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Patbingsu (red bean ice dessert)- which I wasn’t keen on but Anna and my friend (who comes from Hong Kong) enjoyed. Perhaps it is just less suited to a Western palate.

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Schizandra berry tea- very different

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AND

A sweet set- full of light rice cookie-esque treats- this was my favourite- so yummy!

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After we had finished tea and let food digest a little, we went on to Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) for a late lunch/early dinner.

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Picture of the exterior of the vegan restaurant.

Note that it says “vegetarian” because it used to serve dairy and eggs before it became vegan.

The three of us had mixed opinions regarding the food but I really loved my dishes, which consisted of a spicy Chinese-style noodle dish and vegetable dumplings. Anna also ordered this really lovely mushroom filled batter dish, served in a moreish sweet and sour sauce.

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The lovely mushroom batter filled dish

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Our table of food! Front right- my beloved noodles

We walked around the many shops and little shopping precincts in the area. In the precinct below, on the top floor, was a poo café. I felt this symbolised a substantial cultural difference. As a Brit, I don’t find poo to be especially cute but clearly some people in Korea view the substance very differently 🙂

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Picture of a shopping precinct

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Pic of poo café exterior

Finally, we headed to Iteawon, somewhere that Anna described to us as being “the most international area” in Seoul, and somewhere with a large variety of nightlife. We headed out with the intention of grabbing some drinks, and after heading into a very international nightclub full of (I hate to say it) creepy Western guys staring at any young female, we made a sharpish exit. We stumbled across a little French restaurant and bar called Un Deux Trois. Since the cocktail menu was impressive here and the restaurant had a lovely, sophisticated ambience, we sat down for drinks and Anna and I shared a gorgeous cheese board (I always have a lot of love for Goats cheese). I also ordered a wonderful blueberry cocktail- whilst I can’t remember exactly what ingredients it consisted of, it was more like a dessert since alongside liquor, it consisted of vanilla ice cream and was topped with chocolate shavings.

Eventually we decided to head back to our hotel and just have a few drinks, chat and chill.

Tomorrow was our final day in Seoul, and we were determined to make it a memorable one.

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!!!

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!