Trip reflection: Japan

Trip reflection: Japan

Photo of the day: Gion, Kyoto.

We did not spend too much time in Japan but I was able get a general sense of it. Aaron’s opinion probably also influenced some of my thoughts about this country. I compared it a lot to South Korea because they were the most similar out of the countries we visited this trip.

Culture

Compared to South Korea, Japan definitely has more Western influences and also has more diversity. At the same time, here was where we were by default spoken to in Japanese even though we both did not look very Japanese. It was only when we say “English?” that they would switch to English. This was different than Korea and Vietnam where they assumed we didn’t speak their language. Thailand was an exception because we look Thai. Technology is definitely advanced just looking at their toilets and their robots in various stores and malls. Because space is very limited, many stores are built up. Japan is where you can find multi-level stores compared to the wider layout of the North American stores. Efficiency is one thing I really appreciated here. The ordering system and seating at restaurants are optimized so wait time is limited once you were seated. The waits to be seated, on the other hand can be substantial since there are many small bar-seat only restaurants. Most people can probably finish their meals in 10-15 minutes if they wanted to, especially if you were eating alone and not to socialize, which I saw a lot of. Cleanliness is one thing I really appreciated about Japan. For the most part, the washrooms were very clean, there was no garbage on the streets and “clean” and “dirty” areas of the home or the onsens are kept clearly distinct.

Food

There were cheaper options for food here compared to in South Korea, including soba and ramen. There were fewer side dishes and the portion-sizes were smaller so I felt less stuffed after a meal. The main seasoning for food is soy sauce and mirin so a lot of their food is sweet and salty. The spice powder is equivalent to the Korean hot pepper sauce and the Vietnamese Nuoc Mam and is found at the table side of most meals to complement most food. The quality of the raw fish here is definitely one thing I will really miss as well as the quality of their noodles.

Weather

I enjoyed the warmer weather here compared to South Korea. I heard January can be very cold, wet and windy though. I think I would probably prefer to return in the spring time where the temperatures will be pleasant and the sakuras will be blooming.

Language

I definitely did not pick up too much Japanese. I tried learning some basic phrases but I found it more difficult to remember than Korean. I am fortunate that I can read Kanji so I was able to understand some signs and menu items, so I felt I was less confused than in Korea and Thailand in terms of reading.

Top food picks

  1. Gyukatsu @ Gyukatsu Motomura
  2. Fatty tuna at Tsujiki Market
  3. Blue fin tuna @ Uobei
  4. Ramen @ Ippudo
  5. Cheese tarts @ Bake

Most amazing sights

  1. View from Tokyo Sky Tree
  2. Shibuya crossing
  3. View from Okochi Santo
  4. Patch of rape bloosoms @ Hama Rikyu Gardens

Firsts

  • First time in Japan.
  • First time eating blue fin tuna. Eating sushi/sashimi in Canada will never be the same.
  • First time eating at a “train” sushi restaurant.
  • First time staying at a Ryokan and sleeping on a futon.
  • First time wearing a Yukata.
  • First time eating Okonomiyaki
  • First time eating Wagyu – love it!
  • First time taking the “bullet train”.
  • First time sleeping on a “semi-double” bed. It is actually not that bad; it is much more comfortable than sleeping 2 people on a twin.
  • First time in a Japanese onsen!
Advertisements

Asia Day 62: Last day in Tokyo (Shibuya)

Asia Day 62: Last day in Tokyo (Shibuya)

Photo of the day: Gyudon @ Matsuya.

I woke up this morning craving a good bowl of Gyudon. I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to eat this in Ottawa, unless if I try cooking it myself. I waited for Aaron to wake up and walked down the street to Matsuya. Aaron wasn’t feeling up for Gyudon, so he grabbed something at Family Mart instead. I ordered my mini-sized Gyudon with special spicy sauce (as well as green onions and a soft boiled egg) from the touch-screen machine and handed the ticket to the server. My meal arrived within minutes along with a bowl of miso soup! I mixed everything together and tried to really enjoy my last Gyudon in Japan. It was good but probably not as good as the one Aaron had the other day from Yoshinoya. I added some 5 spice powder into it at the end and it made it a lot tastier.

I joined Aaron and we went to Tokyu Food Show to pick up some last minute spices and souvenirs from this supermarket part of the larger department store – Tokyo Plaza. I was hoping to find some interesting flavoured KitKats or other interesting snacks here but they only had Matcha and we already have that in Canada. What I did find interesting was the very large “food court” area. Think of the hot food sections at Whole Foods or Farm Boy and then multiply that a few times! It was impressive! Aaron had to go home to pack up, so I continued to wonder around Shibuya a while longer on a search for some interesting snacks to bring home. I tried looking in a few convenience stores and department stores but no luck. I eventually gave up and went home to finished packing. We were given a later check-out time but our flight was delayed and we still had some time left to spend in Shibuya, so we found a locker at the station to store some of our belongings. There were lockers throughout the station and the city; however, it was quite difficult to find an available large locker to hold suitcases. We ended up just storing away our smaller bags/backpacks and rolled around our suitcases. 

Before we left, I really wanted the “train” sushi at Uobei again. There was no wait this time and I felt like I knew what I was doing now. I was disappointed to see that they did not have any blue fin tuna on their menu today. I tried a few more new things, like the squid here and it was better than the ones I’ve had in Canada but not as good as the one I had at Tsukiji Sushi the other day. I also tried the Seafood Yukhoe Sushi and it tasted like the spicy salmon/tuna sushi that we would get in Canada. So I did not enjoy the fish as much this time around, but it was still a fun last meal of the trip.

IMG_0778.JPG
Our last meal in Japan @ Uobei.

I was going to give up on my KitKat hunt and hoped that they would have some at the airport, but Aaron suggested that we check out Don Quijote. It turns out that is the place to go! They had all sorts of flavours here along with different flavours of Pocky too! I obviously did not look carefully when I was browsing the Don Quijote in Asakusa or else I would have known to have done all my cosmetics/snacks/souvenir shopping here! They had everything under one roof and you can take advantage of the tax refund here, by combining all your purchases! Lesson learned for next time.

We grabbed our belongings from the lockers, then took the train to Haneda Airport. There were showers here so Aaron decided to use their facilities. While I was waiting for him, I saw a line suddenly form with securities surrounding the area. The demographics is mostly young ladies. I am assuming they are waiting for a famous celebrity. We never ended up finding out who they were waiting for. The check-in/security/customs process went a lot quicker here compared to in Seoul. The customs process was also quite simple. The officer just took our tax-free receipts, which were attached to our passport, then we were off to our gate!

So here we are at the end of our 2+ month trip across Southeast and Northeast Asia. It’s been a fun journey and I am thankful for those who followed along. Stay tuned for the trip reflection post for Japan as well as future posts with tips and lessons I’ve learn during this trip!

Asia Day 61: Tokyo (Shibuya – Meiji Shrine – Okonomiyaki)

Asia Day 61: Tokyo (Shibuya – Meiji Shrine – Okonomiyaki)

Photo of the day: Okonomiyaki bowl (before cooking) @ Sakura Tei.

We decided to take it easy on our last full day in Tokyo and as a matter of fact, of our entire trip. It is crazy how time flies and it is unbelievable that we have traveled for 61 days now. Aaron and I both had friends in Japan, so we will be spending some time with them separately tonight. It is also the first evening, that we will be apart since the beginning of this trip! That’s pretty amazing and we are very grateful to have had this opportunity to spend so much time together.

Aaron’s been wanting some good Japanese curry since we’ve arrived, so for brunch today we went to CoCo Ichibanya. It was similar set up to the curry place we went to at the Shinagawa Train Station the other day. We ordered as soon as we arrived then once we got our seats, our curry was soon ready. I choose the stewed chicken curry with some spinach as an add-on. Here, you can also choose the rice amount, as well as the spice level. Aaron had the Tonkatsu curry with “level 3 spice”. I tried some and it was spicy. My regular spice was still a little spicy. I guess I have this misconception that Japanese curry should be more sweet rather than spicy. I realize that curry is not my favourite type of food, but Aaron quite enjoyed his meal. P.S. I later watched a Simon and Martina episode on CoCo Ichibanya and realized we did it all wrong. I was trying to be all healthy but then there are so many more tasty add-ons (e.g. cheese, roasted garlic, soft-poached egg, fried chicken!!), which can definitely enhance your experience. We missed out!

IMG_0686.JPG
Chicken and spinach in pork curry sauce @ CoCo Ichibanya.

Next, we stopped by Excelsior Coffee to catch up on some blogging/emails. We’ve been seeing it everywhere and it kind of feels like a Japanese Starbucks. The seating on the top floor was quite nice overlooking a typical Japanese intersection. I quite enjoyed it especially since today was such a nice sunny day to be enjoying some tea and catching up on blogging by the large windows. Note though that there is no wifi here, so we had to rely on our portable wifi. The royal milk tea here was better than the one Aaron had in Thailand, but we wonder if that was because we were so used to the super sweetened Thai iced milk tea at that point, so this less flavourful tea seemed less appealing.

IMG_0688.JPG
Royal milk tea @ Excelsior Caffe.

 

There was a Muji across the street, so we made a trip there to pick up some essential oils for our diffuser as well as some stationeries. It was quite a large location with many floors, including one with cafe/restaurant. It really was like a Japanese version of Ikea! Just like with Daiso, I really enjoyed looking at the little travel sized items and organizers available here. I wish we had one in Ottawa! It was interesting to see that the tax-free counter here will seal your purchases, as to prevent consumption of it prior to leaving the country.

After dropping of some stuff at home, we went our separate ways to meet up with our friends. I still had a couple of hours prior to our meeting time and the Type A personality in me wanted to visit one more tourist attraction. I got off the train at the Kita-Sando station and walked into Yoyogi park towards Meiji Shrine. This popular shrine is open from dawn to dusk, which was soon approaching, so I walked quickly, especially as I saw most people were leaving and no one was going towards the shrine. It was a nice walk around the park, away from the busy Tokyo streets. I can even smell the trees and felt very much like I was in a forest. It wasn’t long before I reached the shrine. It was quite similar to the other shrines I’ve been to with the large arches at the entrance ways. Unfortunately, it was under renovation, so I wasn’t able to appreciate the full beauty of the place. There were again fountains at the front, a stall to buy charms, a place to get fortune telling scrolls and places to pay your respects. There were even instructions on what to do. First, place a coin in the offering box. Then bow twice. Clap your hands twice. Then bow again. One thing that was special about this shrine was that there was an area to write your wishes/prayers on a piece of paper. A offering should be placed along with your wish/prayer into an envelope and this was all placed into a wooden box. This will later be set in front of the alter in a ceremony. There were also Ema votive tablets for 500 Yen, for visitors to write their prayers on, which will also be offered in a ceremony.

IMG_0708.JPG
Ema votive tablets @ Meiji Shrine.

The park wasn’t that large, since I soon reached the busy streets of Harajuku/Omotesando again. I went into a multi-level cosmetic shop for the first time in Japan and it was quite impressive. Unlike Korea, where I would see multiple copies of individual brands, I see larger stores with multiple brands. This is nice because you can pick up everything at once. Skin care is also a huge deal here and they conveniently labelled their top selling products as no. 1, so it was not difficult to find the most popular products. Again, they seal your purchases here if you want to claim the tax-free benefit. I would have to say it makes it more annoying to pack because you cannot stuff little things here and there. It becomes an odd shaped ziplock you’ll have to deal with.

I met up with my friend shortly after at Omotesando station and I must say it was the perfect weather to be walking around. If I were in Seoul’s cold winter climate, I would have probably just taken the train instead. It is always nice to catch up with friends after years of not seeing them. We chatted about her experience in Japan so far and how she managed to be fluent Japanese after 1.5 years of study. I was very envious that she was able to learn a new language and become fluent it in. I find it very difficult to be able to learn at new language and I would love to have been able to speak more Vietnamese/Thai/Korean/Japanese during this trip. She also helped me understand certain cultural practices of the Japanese people, including my concerns about the no soap situation in the public washrooms. I was also reminded that Japan is quite large and there are still so many prefectures that I have yet to see. 

For dinner, we went to Sakura Tei, a restaurant specializing in Okonomiyaki. I have never had this before and was excited to try. At every table, was a large flat plate for cooking. We ordered 1 order of the Okonomiyaki, which originated in Osaka, then we also had the Monjayaki, which was Tokyo’s take on the Okonomiyaki. We also had the Sakura salad to start. It was not bad with bonito flakes adding a lot of flavour. I noticed that there was something quite gooey in the salad and was told it was Tororo, the pureed yam that we had the other day with our Gyukatsu meal. It was not my favourite thing. My friend encouraged me to try doing the cooking so I did. First, oil was poured onto the hot flat plate, then ingredients of the Okonomiyaki are mixed well. This was all poured onto the plate and spread out like a large pancake. The meat (in our case, bacon) would be laid on top. After the bottom was well-done, the whole pancake will be flipped over. It was tricky to not have the whole thing fall apart. Then an egg was cracked beside the pancake and the pancake was moved on top of the egg. Top it off with some sweet sauce, mayo and bonito flakes and then it is good to eat! We cut it up into slices and dug in. It was quite tasty and reminded me of Takoyaki, I guess because it had the same toppings. Next, I had to cook the Monjayaki, which was a little more complicated. I had to first scoop out the solids of the bowl leaving the liquid mixture intact. Then I had to stir-fry these contents for a bit. Next, I would move these contents to create a large donut. The liquid mixture was then poured in the center. The goal was for the liquid not to spill over the donut fence. The solid component is slowly moved into the centre of the donut until another pancake is formed; however this pancake will soon spread and look like a large spreading rectangle. To eat, there were little spatulas that we used to “play” with the cooked bits on the edges until it stuck to the spatula and then you would eat it. The concept was quite interesting. It was definitely not meant to be a quick bite as you slowly work through the large gooey pancake. I liked the novelty of this dish but I preferred the texture of the Okonomiyaki. For dessert, we had the dessert Monjayaki with banana, ice-cream, “corn flakes” and chocolate syrup. The regular price is 550 Yen (~$6.50 CAD) but there was an option to play rock paper scissors and if you win, you get it for free, whereas if you lose, it’s 700 yen (~$8.25 CAD). I am usually not a fan of gambling because I don’t trust my luck but where else will I get to play rock paper scissors with a server in hopes of getting a free dessert? And I won! It was awesome! She asked if we wanted to cook or if we wanted her to cook, so I said I wanted to watch her cook. She first scrapped the flat plate clean, then placed everything on top. She smashed everything up and the cooking method was pretty similar that what I did for the first Monjayaki, except she did it with such ease. The consistently was like oatmeal and it tasted really delicious – like banana and chocolate milkshake with cornflake bits.

IMG_0748.JPG
Our ingredients for the carbonara Monjayaki – before.

IMG_0755.JPG
Carbonara Monjayaki – after.

So that was how I spent my last evening in Tokyo. I ended the night putting on a facial mask and packing up for the last time on this trip.

Asia Day 60: Tokyo (Odaiba)

Asia Day 60: Tokyo (Odaiba)

Photo of the day: Yakitori @ Oedo-Onsen Monogatari. Photo credit: Aaron.

Today, we wanted to explore Odaiba – an artificial island with entertainment suitable for the whole family. But first we stopped for some tea/coffee at a nearby coffee shop called Cafe Bleu. They had a very reasonably priced breakfast so I ordered one set of that. A meal consisted of a plain omelette, salad, toast and a drink, all for only 600 Yen(~$7). A coffee or tea is around the same price so why not get some breakfast along with it? The omelette was so soft and smooth, just like the egg you would expect over an Omurice. The toast was thick and nicely buttered and the salad was not bad as well. The ambience of the cafe is really nice except for the fact that smoking is allowed, so we did not stay too long. This was one thing I found travelling in Asia. Smoking is not prohibited indoors and it is difficult to avoid exposure to second-hand smoke. Even in establishments with “smoking rooms”, they are either not completely sealed or once the door opens, you get a nice big whiff of smoke anyway. I can see this being a problem for those I know with asthma or reactive airways. But I digress.

IMG_0587.JPG
Breakfast @ Cafe Bleu.

There were several ways to get to Odaiba, but we selected the route including the Yurikamome Line since it’s a skytrain and allowed us to see some views of Tokyo Bay along the way. After around 50 minutes or so, we reached Odaiba. We got off at the first station and took a walk along the beach and around Daiba park which used to be a gun battery. The weather was very nice today and it was such a pleasant stroll without too many people around.

IMG_0596.JPG
Odaiba beach with the Rainbow Bridge in the background.

Our walk lasted longer than we expected and we were getting hungry. We went to Decks, a shopping/entertainment complex, to find some food. We found a sushi chain restaurant called Tsukiji Sushi, who claims to get their ingredients fresh from Tsukiji market. They had a pretty reasonable set menu and they had a buffet menu for dinner time. I found it amusing that they had a 1000 Yen price difference for men versus women because they should not underestimate the eating powers of the female sex. Their sushi was very good. I usually would not order squid sushi given it’s often tough and chewy but the one I had here as part of the set lunch was the smoothest, most tender squid I’ve ever had. It opened my eyes to the fact that I should not dismiss an ingredient I’ve tried before, as it might not have been the particular ingredient but the way it was prepared, or the freshness of ingredient used.

IMG_0079.JPG
Sushi @ Tsukiji Sushi. Photo credit: Aaron.

After lunch, we took our time exploring the many malls in the area, including Decks and Aqua City. At Aqua City, we met Chihira Junco, a robot working at the information desk. You are supposed to be able to ask her questions but she kept going on about facts on the island so we just moved on. Here, we also picked up some kitchenware from Daiso. It’s actually quite fun walking around looking at all the little things they have here especially with most things at a very affordable price of 100 Yen (~$1.20 CAD) plus tax. It was raining so we picked up an umbrella here for a good price as well.

IMG_0629.JPG
Meet Chihira Junco @ Aqua City.

We didn’t walk to far before hiding out at DiverCity in hopes of finding a nice cafe to just chill. Unfortunately, the mall is packed with people and we couldn’t find a quite cafe. We did end up trying the cheese ice cream that Aaron has been looking for here at Cheese Craft Works. It was really delicious! Think cream cheese in ice cream form.

IMG_0080.JPG
They’re moving this ginormous Gundam model @ DiverCity! Photo credit: Aaron.

It wouldn’t be a trip to Odaiba with Aaron without visiting Venus Fort and its car museum. They even had his Datsun there. What I enjoyed the most there was their cafe. It was quiet, where you can relax in chairs made with real car seats, with free wifi and phone charge cables coming out of toy cars. We finally got to take a bit of a breather here sipping on some tea and coffee, while catching up with blogging/admiring the cars. You can also test drive some Toyotas here if you have an international license but I figured I could also do that in Canada, so I passed.

IMG_0081.JPG
Datson 240Z @ Venus Fort’s History Garage.

The time has come. There was one thing on our trip to Japan that I’ve been avoiding. As a matter of fact, I was pretty adamant on skipping this activity prior to embarking on this trip. We did not really plan to go but we kind of ending up here on a whim. What was it, you ask? I was ready for my first Japanese Onsen experience. To give you some context, I’ve always been a very conservative person. I was taught from a young age to be fully dressed before coming out of the bathroom. It was only until I went to Europe with some girl friends that I learnt it was ok to walk around in a towel. At locker rooms, I always preferred to change in private rooms and not out in the open. This idea of being completely naked in front of a bunch of strangers is definitely something that I would have never considered. But something about travelling, which makes me want to try new things and push my limits. Or perhaps it was the massages I’ve gotten in Southeast Asia where privacy was thrown out the window?

Whatever it was, I’ve arrived at Oedo-Onsen Monogatari. First impression was that it seemed quite busy as we entered the front lobby. This sight of all these people made me question my decision a little. Hopefully they are not going into the bath all at the same time as me. Let me walk you through the Onsen experience here, as it can be confusing. First, we must take off our shoes and place it in a shoe locker. Here was where we got our first key. We then received our wristband with our second key at the reception area. No payment was needed yet. Our wrist band will track all our purchases and we pay for everything at the end of your stay. We then head over to the Yukata station to choose our Yukata as well as the ebi we wanted. There were around 4 designs for each gender to choose from. This part was pretty fun. Next, we entered our segregated big locker rooms and find the locker corresponding your wrist band with second key. As I was changing into my Yukata, I noticed people around me being quite discreet, using the Yukata to cover their body while changing. This I found interesting because shortly after, everyone was going to be completely naked anyway! We were allowed to keep our undergarments on at this time under our Yukatas. I placed all my belongings in the locker and just took my phone with me. I then entered the main hall of this Onsen-amusement park. This area was quite pretty, decorated as if you are back in the Edo period of Japan. There were lanterns and cherry blossoms everywhere we looked. There was a relaxing atmosphere with everyone walking around bare feet in their Yukatas. There was a souvenir shop as we entered. This is also where you can pick up a Yukata to bring home if you wanted. There was fortune-telling stall as we walked along. Next, there was a huge food court with multiple food stalls (mostly Japanese, but one Korean. There was table seating as well as tatami rooms for sitting as well. There were two Izakaya restaurants, or drinking establishments, which also serve food with drinks. Think pub. It was actually really exciting seeing everything that this place has to offer! We decided to go to the foot bath area first to start off the night. This was located outdoors and covers were provided but there was a  limited quantity. It was fine because today was not too cold and the water really warmed me up. I tried walking along the stoned path in the water but did not get very far as it was quite painful. There were also fish foot therapy too if this is something you were interested in.

IMG_0656.JPG
Inside Oedo-Onsen Monogatari.

Finally, Aaron asked, are you ready to try the baths? I took a deep breath and then we split up into our own gender-divided bath rooms. Here I was given two towels, one large and one small. The large one stayed in yet another locker in the bath locker room. The small one is for covering important parts of your body. I was pleasantly surprised that this “small towel” wasn’t a tiny face towel I was expecting but instead a large enough towel, that when hung vertically, can cover all the important bits in front. I took another deep breath and placed everything except for the small towel into the locker and walked into the bath. Here goes! There was an area where you can scoop warm water to rinse yourself as your entered. There were also standing showers as well. Then to the right, there were rows of sitting showers with soap, shampoo and conditioner to get all cleaned up before entering the baths. Once I was in the first bath, being naked didn’t matter anymore. The water was perfect at around 40 degrees C. There were so many baths throughout the area, some warmer, some cooler. There was a cold bath area to totally cool off. In addition, there was one sauna and one steam room too but I felt a little awkward sitting in those. My favourite part was actually the outdoor baths. On the ladies side, there were individual-sized wooden tubs, which were nice for those who wanted their own space to relax. It was so nice to soak in hot water while feeling a light breeze. Aaron and I said we would meet up in 30 minutes back outside but we did not realize how many baths there would be. We agreed once we met outside that we would probably need do another round of the baths again later.

We then had some snacks and drinks at one of the Izakaya. The food was decent. Not terrible to also not the best. We read a lot of poor reviews about the food here but I guess the point of coming here is not to eat the best food in Tokyo, so we set our expectations right prior to coming. We walked around some more and had some of the lightest, most airy shaved ice ever. It was neat because we can see her shave the big block of flavoured ice. Next, we went upstairs to relax in the relaxation lounge with reclining sofas with an attached TV set to each chair! It was so awesome! There was even a room just for women too if you did not feel comfortable sleeping in a co-ed room. This Onsen is open until 9 am the next day, so for a surcharge, you can stay here overnight. We seriously considered that for a bit because we were enjoying our time here so much! We ended up just enjoying another bath round, then snacking some more on some late night ramen before calling it a day and headed home. Funny story: because this was unplanned, I did not bring clean underwear to change into; however, these were conveniently sold in vending machines in the locker rooms. I scanned my wristband and got my individually wrapped new underwear only to realize that I had chosen the one for children! I can fit into it but the fit was like granny patties but with small leg holes. It was quite hilarious. I knew I shouldn’t have picked the one with the cute bear on it.

IMG_0669.JPG
Shaved ice @ Oedo-Onsen Monogatari.

We really made the most out of our night as we had caught the last train home. We saw others miss their train as the gate closed. It is also at this time of the day where a sea of taxis are patiently waiting on the streets to come to the rescue of these commuters. It was quite an interesting sight to see. So that ends our fun-filled day in Odaiba! See you tomorrow on our last full day in Tokyo.

Asia Day 59: Tokyo (Ginza)

Asia Day 59: Tokyo (Ginza)

Photo of the day: Tonkotsu Ramen @ Ippudo. Photo credit: Aaron.

We had a lazy start to our day today, sleeping in until lunch time. It was nice after an eventful weekend to Kyoto. We decided to spend the day in Ginza today. It felt to me like the Gangnam of Tokyo. Streets were filled with tall buildings, business people, and many jumbo-sized stores.

IMG_0571.JPG
Ginza.

For lunch, Aaron brought me to Din Tai Fung, which is a Taiwanese restaurant specializing in the Chinese Xiao Long Bao, but since we were going to Taiwan this trip, Aaron thought Japan would be a good place for me to try this. We, of course, ordered the original Xiao Long Bao, as well as a special set with a variety steamer of crab meat, uni and scallop filling dumplings. At the front of the restaurant, you can see the dumplings being meticulously prepared, which each dumpling weighed in a scale to ensure consistency. We also had the spicy pickled cucumber as a starter. The cucumber was ok. Not the best I’ve had. The variety set was creative but definitely not as good as the original. Out of the three, I preferred the crab as it took away less from the pork filling. There was an instruction sheet advising us to place some strands of ginger and vinegar in our spoons, then placing the dumplings into the spoon. You are then to puncture the dumpling slightly so the soup would leak out before you enjoy this delicacy. The original dumpling was nice and soupy but not the best I’ve had. Overall, I was somewhat disappointed. I will stick to eating Xiao Long Baos in Vancouver.

IMG_0564.JPG
Hard at work making Xiao Long Baos @ Din Tai Fung.

IMG_0073.JPG
Spicy cucumber @ Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: Aaron.
IMG_0562.JPG
Crab meat Xiao Long Bao @ Din Tai Fung.

IMG_0074.JPG
Xiao Long Baos in their natural habitat. Photo credit: Aaron.

After lunch, we wanted to find a nice coffee shop to catch up on some work. We went into Hoshino but quickly realized it’s more for socializing rather than working. Still on a journey to find the best Japanese soufflé cheesecake, I had to try a piece here. It was not exactly what I was thinking of, as it was less airy the one from Uncle Tetsu, but it was still amazingly smooth and light. It got pretty busy, so we decided to head somewhere else so we were not taking up their table for too long.

IMG_0573.JPG
Souffle cheesecake @ Hoshino.

We’ve been trying to avoid Starbucks and to try more local coffee shops but it was raining and we were desperate to get some work done. We decided to go to the first Starbucks in Japan. I had the Sakura cream latte there, as it is something I probably won’t get in Canada. The taste was ok. It was very sweet, just like most other specialty lattes at Starbucks. I also realized I’m not a fan of Sakura flavoured things. It was pretty busy and the internet was not very good but I still managed to upload one post, so I’m happy.

IMG_0576.JPG
Sakura Blossom Cream Latte @ Starbucks.

We were getting hungry, so we started looking on Foursquare for food choices. Apparently there was a ramen restaurant, Kagari, specializing in ramen in chicken broth, which had a incredible 9.3 rating. We read it was a small 8-seater restaurant and wanted to try our luck but it wasn’t our lucky day. There were at least 12 people in front of us and we weren’t too keen on waiting, so we went to Ippudo, with still pretty good ratings, instead. Aaron ordered the original Tonkotsu ramen (see photo of the day) and I had the spicy minced meat one. I got to choose my spice level and I choose 8 spices. We also got a small order of Gyoza. Aaron’s ramen can first and we both had a sip of the soup immediately. It was very rich and full of pork flavour. It felt very authentic and pure. The noodles were also very tasty and different than any other ramen I’ve ever had. It was very flavourful. My ramen came shortly after with a vibrant orange oil over it. It looked amazing and it also tasted very vibrant and full of different spices. If you prefer more complexed taste and more spice, then this would be your choice. If you like simplicity and authenticity, then have the original one. The Gyoza here is also very good. It was served with a Shichimi paste, which really added another dimension to it. We ended up ordering another plate because it was so unique.

IMG_0077.JPG
Spicy minced meat ramen @ Ippudo. Photo credit: Aaron.

After dinner, we made a obligatory stop at Nissan Crossing to check out cool cars. Then, Aaron went on a shopping spree at the largest Uniqlo in the world, while I just walked around to check out the area. It’s not just Uniqlo. There were multi-storey versions of Zara, H&M and other well known brands here as well. Most were still open while we were there around 8pm. Some stores also offer tax-free shopping in Japan, but you’ll need to spend 5000 Yen and up. It is fully tax -free, unlike Korea, which charges a small fee. Just remember to bring your passport. We called it a night and went home after Aaron was done purchasing his wardrobe for the next year, or until the next time he comes to Japan.

IMG_0078.JPG
Nissan GT-R NISMO edition @ Nissan Crossing. Photo credit: Aaron.

Asia Day 58: Kyoto – Tokyo (Gion – Mariyama Park – Ponto-Cho – Nishiki Market)

Asia Day 58: Kyoto – Tokyo (Gion – Mariyama Park – Ponto-Cho – Nishiki Market)

Photo of the day: Special outside skirt Kobe beef @ Yakinikubaru Han No Daidokoro.

After checking out of the Ryokan, we headed to E-fish for some breakfast. It had a nice view of the river. I ordered the tuna, cottage cheese and avocado sandwich, and Aaron had their beef balls soup. The sandwich turned out to be humungous so we shared. The taste was ok. The contents also kept spilling so I felt it was a bit messy. The beef balls soup was pretty good. Aaron was meeting up with a friend, so I used this time to do some blogging. My keyboard has official stopped pairing properly with my devices, I have been needing to rely on typing with my thumbs on my phone or awkwardly typing on my iPad mini. It was also a busy place, so I felt uneasy occupying the space for so long. I was considering visiting Kiyomizu temple since it was close by (a 20 minute walk) but read that the temple itself requires a lot of walking up steps, so I decided against it. My feet were still not in top shape.

IMG_0518.JPG
Tuna, cottage cheese and avocado sandwich @ E-fish.

After Aaron finished, we walked along the river to Gion. I felt like I didn’t get to fully appreciate it the other night since it was so late and it was so dark. The ancient architecture can be seen today and it was actually really beautiful, especially with all the people in Kiminos. We even bumped into a few Geisha walking around. We eventually ended up in Maruyama Park, which was full of people and even had some street food stalls. We were getting hungry but didn’t feel like street food, so we walked back to Ponto-cho hoping to find some food. It was around 2:30pm now and a lot of the restaurants seemed to be on their break between lunch and dinner, so we walked towards Nishiki market instead.

IMG_0532.JPG
A group of young ladies in Kimonos in Maruyama Park.

We finally decided on a restaurant specializing in Soba noodles called 有喜屋. I was originally attracted to their chicken and egg dons but decided to try their specialty instead. I had the Soba in soup with chicken and Aaron had their regular Soba with tempura. I realized I prefer to dip Soba noodles instead of eating it in a broth. Aaron seemed to have enjoyed his meal. At the end of Aaron’s meal, they brought over some of hot water for him to add to the dipping sauce so he can drink it. That was some concentrated soup!

IMG_0547.JPG
Chicken with Soba at 有喜屋.

We wanted to do some shopping in the market and found some lockers at the main shopping area. We’ve seen these everywhere in South Korea and Japan. They are very convenient and found in many tourist attraction sights as well as train stations. We placed our backpacks in there to relieve some pressure on our backs while we walked. My priority was to buy new shoes to see if it would make a difference to how my feet felt. I’m a picky shopper so it took me a while to find something comfortable but also looks good. I ended up getting some sneakers with memory foam that made me feel like I’m walking on clouds. Hopefully my investment will not be wasted. (P.S. It was definitely not. My feet were no longer in pain for the rest of the trip.)

IMG_0549.JPG
Lockers!

Aaron was more interested in the little spices and snacks in the market. The food market was not big but Aaron was curious to try everything. I eventually had to split up to visit the public washroom. To my dismay, it was a squattie. Not the dirtiest I’ve seen but not the super fancy Japanese toilets I’ve been used to with a million functions such as deodorizing, background noise-producing, bidet, and seat warming. I am also starting to really wonder why there is rarely ever any soap and hand towels found in washrooms of a country, which places so much importance in cleanliness. It’s not a problem for me since I carry around hand sanitizer with me. But what about everyone else? I later confirmed with a friend who lives here that you are expected to carry around your own hand sanitizer and handkerchief here. Phew! We’re ok!

We must not leave before getting some more cheese tarts from Bake. This time, Aaron decided we should get a box to go, so we can snack on the train. Apparently, they also had franchises in Tokyo, so I guess we didn’t need to load up on them now, but I can’t complain! The trains were definitely busier around 6:30pm. We had walk through a pretty full train before deciding to get off to wait for the next one, which came shortly after.

It was nice to finally be “home” again. It’s actually quite nice to have a home base, then take short trips from this central hub. We dropped off our bags then went out for some Kobe beef! Aaron found a place called Yakinikubaru Han No Daidokoro. I realized it was actually Korean BBQ as I saw the kanji for Korean on the signage as we walked it. We got a seat near at the bar, which was a great decision because our server/trainee chef was so fun to interact with throughout our meal. Our first order was the “special outside skirt” and the ribs. We were given a small appetizer with a cabbage and sliced beef in a vinaigrette. They set up the grill for us and then the meat came shortly after. We were instructed on how to cut the meat then it was time to eat! The “special outside skirt” was the fattiest piece beef I’ve ever had. It would just melt in my mouth. I ordered some Korean lettuce on the side but did not want to cover up the taste of such good beef with it. It came with a miso paste so I just ate the lettuce dipped in miso paste instead. There were a few options for dipping the meat. There was lemon juice, a special Yakiniku sauce and soy sauce with wasabi. My preferred way of eating this was dipping the beef in Yakiniku sauce with some wasabi on top. The ribs were also very good. It was definitely different than the beef we had in Korea. We also ordered the Aburi beef sushi and our server kindly reminded us to eat it fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever had raw beef sushi before so this was quite exciting. The beef was so soft, I couldn’t even tell it was beef! I can tell they really took pride in their food because they were so appreciative when I said it was “Oishii” (delicious)! For drinks, I tried the citrus plum wine hoping it would have some Yuzu flavour but was disappointed as it was just sweet. Aaron really enjoyed their Makgeolli, his new favourite drink. We couldn’t just stop here. We had to order more beef. For our second order, we had some “beef finger meat” (which I later learnt was actually the meat between the ribs) and the regular outside skirt meat. The finger meat was definitely tougher, while the regular outside skirt meat was still quite good but once you had the “special” one, there is no turning back. We also had some of their Bancho salad to balance out all this beef. We were warned it would be spicy and it sure was! This was a great way to wrap up our weekend. It was really late by now, but I’m glad we decided to spend more time in Kyoto since we really only had 2 full days there. The non-reserved seats option on the bullet train is so flexible and made our last minute decision a lot easier to pull off.

IMG_0556.JPG
Kobe beef @ Yakinikubaru Han No Daidokoro

 

Asia Day 57: Kyoto (Arashiyama – Kinkaku-Ji)

Asia Day 57: Kyoto (Arashiyama – Kinkaku-Ji)

Photo of the day: Arashiyama bamboo grove. Photo credit: Aaron.

We were hoping to see the beauty of the Arashiyama bamboo grove but Aaron also read that it gets really busy, especially since it is the weekend; therefore, we got up early for the earliest seating for breakfast at the Ryokan at 8am. We had ordered the traditional set menu. I really enjoy eating traditional meals because there were so many little dishes to try. Our breakfast came with fried salmon, Tamago, tofu, pickled goods, Nori, pumpkins, rice and miso soup. The food was not bad except the fish was too salty.

IMG_0053.JPG
Traditional Japanese breakfast @ our Ryokan.

We had a bus to catch so we quickly finished our meals and were off! The buses here were boarded through the back and then you would pay when you got off the bus from the front. We made use of our one day pass which provided us with unlimited bus access and limited subway access. The train system is not as extensive here and it made more sense for us to bus. It took us around 1 hour to reach Arashiyama, meaning we arrived around 9:30 am. It was another 10 minute walk to reach the bamboo grove. It wasn’t too busy when we got there but it was still difficult to snap a good picture without any tourists in it. I was a little disappointed amount the appearance of the bamboo first since it looked not as vibrant and magical as in pictures. We later tried to do some colour editing on our phone and was able to get the same appearance. With today’s technology, it is easy to be deceived. Please note the photos here are unedited, so you can fully appreciate how it would look in real life. It was still a very nice area to walk along especially in the morning when there were still not too many people. There were many temples and shrines along the path. We visited Nonomiya-jinja, where princesses used to come to purify themselves. Here you can pray for marriage and even a smooth delivery.

IMG_0058.JPG
Arashiyama bamboo grove. Photo credit: Aaron.

Next, we visited Okochi Santo, the villa previously owned by a famous actor, Okochi Denjiro. He put a lot of effort to build a beautiful environment for him to meditate and enjoy the mountain views.  Perhaps the 1000 Yen (~ $12 CAD) entrance fee was a bit of a barrier to entry, there weren’t too many people when we visited, creating a very peaceful environment. The views were definitely worth the visit. I can imagine how much more spectacular the views would be with Sakura blossoming or snow falling. There were various lookout points throughout the villa/garden and there were signs everywhere to show you which way to go on this one way circuit trail. At the end, you can visit their teahouse, where you will receive free matcha tea and sweet. It was a particularly lovely day, so we were able to sit outside to soak up some sun while enjoying the tranquil ambience.

IMG_0441.JPG
View from Okochi Santo.

We loved our visit to this garden/villa so much, we decided to also visit Tenryu-Ji, a Buddhist temple, which a supposedly gorgeous garden. We entered via the north gate and got our tickets for the garden only visitation, meaning we needed to purchase another ticket to visit the interior of the temple at the main entrance, if needed. We were again pleasantly surprised by the amount of blossoms on the trees. We then reached the area temple was situated by the pond and it was absolutely gorgeous. Again, I can only imagine how beautiful it would look during cherry blossom season or with the autumn foliage.

IMG_0064.JPG
Plum blossoms in Tenryu-Ji. Photo credit: Aaron.
IMG_0067.JPG
The central pond within gardens of Tenryu-Ji. Photo credit: Aaron.

We were getting hungry, so we headed to the Main Street for some lunch. There was a good Kaiseki place called Hanana but it had a significant line up. We waited for 30 minutes without much progress before giving up and deciding on eating some “soy milk skin” or Yuba instead. Apparently, this is a thing in Kyoto. The restaurant which caught our eye was 嵯峨とうふ稲 北店. There wasn’t too much of a wait to be seated, which was nice. We took the seats by the window with a good view of the busy street down below. Unfortunately, it took maybe 20-30 minutes before someone took our order and perhaps another 15-20 minutes for our food to arrive

IMG_0487.JPG
People watching, while waiting for my food.

During that time, I watched as the people walked by downstairs, many dressed in kimonos. I started researching how kimono rental worked. So many kimono rental stores are set up at main tourist attractions, where you can get dressed and then do sightseeing in the kimono. They usually allow you to keep the kimono until the end of the business day. The cost is around 1500 Yen (~$18 CAD) and up depending on the quality of the kimono you wanted. There were packages for friends as well as couples. There were also optional add-ons such as luggage storage, a studio photography session and hair styling. I really appreciated how so many people dressed up, since it really adds to the ambience of the whole area. I feel like I’m transported back to ancient Japan. It made sense that a lot of people decided to rent it and walk around at old temples and old streets. It’s a great photo shoot opportunity. Imagine walking around modern Shibuya wearing a kimono. It just doesn’t work as well.

Finally our food arrived. It was again full of little dishes. I had the Yuba in a tub (Kumiage Yuba) and Aaron had the Yuba in a thick sauce in some rice. Our sets were similar, with some gelatin on a stick dipped in a hoisin like sauce (Namafu No Dengaku), a homemade tofu, white miso soup, “Kyoto pickles”, as well as a powdered rice cake. My meal had a bowl five-grained rice on the side instead of with my Yuba like with Aaron’s set. Aaron had some tempura vegetables which is dipped in this deliciously addictive green powder, while I had the seasoned Okara, a byproduct of Yuba making. My Yuba came with two dipping sauces and according to the instructions on the table, I can dip the Yuba in or add the sauce to my tub and drink it like a soup. The Yuba was pretty bland, relying on the sauce for some taste. The soup tasted like a diluted, unsweetened soy milk. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed with the Yuba itself. I did really like the tofu, which was super flavourful especially paired with wasabi.

IMG_0068.JPG
Aaron’s Yuba set meal. Photo credit: Aaron.

We still had some time before our bus was due to arrive, so we had some soy milk and matcha ice-cream from the stall just outside the restaurant. Both were really good. It was sad to say that this 300 Yen (~$3.50 CAD) soy milk soft serve was so much better than the soy milk meal we had at more than 10 times its price.

IMG_0069.JPG
Soy bean and match soft serve. Photo credit: Aaron.

We headed over to line up for our bus. Unfortunately, our bus did not arrive and after waiting for some time, we decided to take the more reliable train instead. Again, I must emphasize that the train system is not as developed as Tokyo’s since we still needed to transfer to another bus to get to Kinkakuji Temple with the famous Golden Pavillion. We arrived at 4pm and the temple closes at 5pm. One would hope that there would not be as many people near closing time but the temple was packed. I felt like I was in the Louvre again, where everyone was trying to get a selfie with the Mona Lisa. Aside from the pavilion, there is also a tea house to relax in and the Fumo-do, where you can pay your respects, get some fortune slips (Omikuji) from a vending machine (they even had English scripts!) and little stalls to get lucky charms and shuin stamps.

IMG_0070.JPG
Kinkaku-Ji. Photo credit: Aaron.
IMG_0504.JPG
Omikuji from vending machines.

The temple was soon closing and my feet were really hurting, so it was time to bus home. I guess the last two months of daily 10+ kilometres walking has finally taken a toll on my feet, even with my trusty Merrell trail running shoes. The bus ride home was long and incredibly crowded, so when we arrived at the Ryokan, we immediately asked if the bath was available. There’s nothing like soaking in a nice hot bath after a long day of sightseeing.

For dinner, we decided to stay close by, since my feet aren’t up for too much more walking. We decided to go get a simple Gyoza a meal at Sukemasa. It was a cozy little place, mostly with locals. We ordered two of the Gyoza meal sets. One set consisted of 12 Gyozas, rice, soup, and pickled vegetables. The Gyozas were perfectly fried with a tasty filling. I appreciated how every restaurant we’ve been to had their own take on miso soup. Here they had minced pork in it, which Aaron thought to be the same pork as the one they put in the dumplings. I saw they had Yuzu liquor available here, so I ordered one with soda. Aaron liked it so much he ordered one for himself too! I definitely was overly ambitious with my sightseeing goals today and underestimated how long it would take to get from one place to another here. I was pretty exhausted and ready to call it a night!

IMG_0072.JPG
Gyoza @ Sukemasa.