Tuesday 31 March 2020

What to do in Osaka, Japan

Osaka is Japan's second largest metropolitan city and of course, has an energetic and bustling night life, bright LED billboards and more food than you could ever stomach. It's actually known as the nation's kitchen because of it's plentiful delicious offerings. Apparently, there's a local expression, kuidaore, which means 'to eat oneself to ruin.' I feel personally attacked...

  • Opening hours: 24hrs

The heart of Osaka, Dotonbori is a vibrant and colourful area which can be best appreciated at night. A gastronomic wonderland, it's packed full of street food vendors, restaurants and izakayas (bars). Some of my favourite dishes sampled include:
  • Takoyaki: one of Osaka's iconic dishes, Takoyaki are savoury, wheat-dough which are grilled and filled with the creamy dough mixture and a chunk of octopus. Tako = octopus, yaki = grilled. The portion of takoyaki is then garnished, usually with dried bonito flakes, dried green seaweed, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. However, there are plenty of variations available. From cheese toppings to BBQ sauce, you won't get bored. 

  • Baked cheese cake: have you ever seen those videos of jiggly cheesecake? Well, they originate from Japan and I was able to finally get my hands mouth on these freshly baked delicacies from Rikuro Ojisan. Using cream cheese from Denmark, these super soft, moist cheesecakes have a layer of raisins at their base.

  • Melon pan: such a beautiful creation. Seeing characters in anime shows eating it, I always thought it was some sort of melon flavoured bread. Well, it is bread but it has no melon taste. Instead, it has a crispy, sugar-cookie top. The 'melon' comes from the criss-cross design which is thought to resemble the rind of a melon. Creative.

I stayed in Namba which is a 10 minute walk away from the party so when I came back from my day trips to Kyoto and Nara, I was able to enjoy the multitude of tastes that Osaka has to offer before heading off home.

Kuromon Market
  • Opening hours: 8am-6pm, different vendors have different hours

Located nearby to Nippombashi station, this market was first established in 1902 and since then, approximately 150 vendors have set up their shops and stalls to supply the locals of Osaka with fresh fish, seafood, fruits, vegetables, confectionery and more. I did find that the prices were a little inflated which could be due to the influx of tourists over the past several years. Regardless, there were still lots of local folk visiting the market and going about their weekly shop for supplies.

During my quick visit to the market before catching (and missing) my train to Tokyo, I was able to sample some:
  • Grilled, candied pineapple and sweet potato. The pineapple was juicy and delicious however, the sweet potato was sickly sweet
  • Dried fruits. Perfectly moreish, highly recommend buying some as gifts for others, or yourself
  • Grilled lobster with cheese and garlic butter. Tasty but not worth the price we paid for it
  • Orange juice, fresh from the orange 
  • Eel which was re-heated in the microwave. Not a fan

Osaka Aquarium 
  • Opening hours: 10am-8pm
  • Admission: 2450yen

One of the world's largest aquariums, this aquarium is home to over 600 species including spider crabs, penguins, jellyfish and whale sharks. The 8 floors are divided into different exhibitions e.g., Gulf of Panama, Japan forest and Antarctica to name a few zones.

I ended up spending several hours at the aquarium, taking snaps of the fascinating creatures, eating whale shark ice cream (ramune and vanilla flavoured) and absorbing the breathtaking view. I was able to observe feeding/cleaning time multiple times at different enclosures which made me feel that the animals were being well looked after.

Before leaving the aquarium, I popped into gift store and fell in love with a soft, cushiony, super-chubby seal plush. Osaka aquarium has become famous for their larger than life ringed seals. The most popular seal is Yuki-chan who is said to resemble a large, squishy steamed bun however, my heart was set on Arare-chan, the oldest ringed seal at the aquarium who is known for her sweet smile. I ummed and ahhed as to whether I really needed a £50 giant seal plush and decided yes, I definitely did. The cashier was kind enough to get a sealed (lol, get it? sealed) one from the back but damn, this chonk was hard to stuff into my luggage.

Daimaru Umeda Store
  • Opening hours: 10am-8.30pm, closes 9pm Friday and Saturday

Daimaru is a popular chain department store in the Kansai region. This particular department store can be found as Osaka station.Yes, you don't even have to leave the station to fulfil your shopping desires. From fashion boutiques and restaurants to Sanrio and the Pokemon store, you can spend hours here. But you haven't heard the most exciting part yet. Go down the escalators to the basement floors and low and behold, you will find a food paradise.

The food hall at Daimaru is called 'feast paradise' and I can see why. Bento boxes, baked goods, fried foods, delicious sweet treats and more. You can also find some 'luxury' fruit at the food hall. Fruits in Japan are already expensive however, there is a tradition of gifting luxurious fruits to others and that comes with a higher price tag. A melon I found in this department store was going for 16,200yen which is approx. £126!

As you can see, all I pretty much done in Osaka was eat and eat until I thought I was going to burst. My suitcase isn't the only thing that left Japan a couple of pounds heavier!


Friday 20 March 2020

What to do in Nara, Japan

Nara is a quaint city in the Kansai region of Japan. I say quaint but this pretty city used to be the capital of Japan before both Kyoto and Tokyo. I would describe the atmosphere as being similar to that of Kyoto in that it is rich in culture and home to an abundance of shrines, temples and gardens.

Nara Park
  • Opening hours: 24hrs

The most obvious difference between Nara and Kyoto is the presence of over a thousand sika deer who roam the lands as sacred messengers of Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder. Up until 1637, it was considered a capital offence to harm the deer and you could be sentenced to death however, after WWII, their status was lowered a little and today, they are seen as a national treasure.

These cute, spotted deers have learned to bow their heads in return for food. You can find vendors selling senbei (rice crackers) all around Nara park for a small fee (100yen-200yen). It's a fun way to kill some time - simply bow your head and the deer will bow in return for some delicious goods. Ensure that you only feed them the senbei being sold by vendors as they are made specifically for the deer and are good for their diet. Feeding them human food can be detrimental to their health.

It's important to keep in mind that the deer maybe used to the presence of humans however, it's their still wild animals. Mind your fingers when you're feeding them and also, when you're not feeding them. I sat down to eat a snack and a few minutes later, I realised that some deers were circling me like sharks. It was a little scary! I also found that they like to nip at your clothes and bags as they think that you're hiding food from them. Greedy little buggers but they're so adorable!

Todaiji Temple
  • Opening hours: 7.30am-5.30pm April-October, 8am-5pm November-March
  • Admission: 600yen

Todaiji is a Buddhist temple built in 752 as a way to bring forth peace in a time where smallpox, crop failure and violence was profuse. As you approach the temple, you come across the Nandaimon gate (great Southern gate) which has two, fearsome Nio posted at either side of the gate. These statues are the there to guard the temple from evil spirits, demons and humans.

On the day that I visited the temple, the sun was shining and the sky was bright blue. When entering Todaiji's dimly lit great Buddha hall (Daibutsuden), it took my eyes a few second to refocus and when they did, it gazed upon the 15 meter bronze statue of the celestial Buddha, Vairocana.

Inside the temple there is a wooden pillar with a hole at the base. It is said to be the same size as the great Buddha's nostril and if you can squeeze through the opening, you will be granted enlightenment in the next life. When I was there, a group of school children were visiting and one of the students manage to squeeze their way through the small hole. He just about fit but had to be pulled out with assistance from his peers - it was quite amusing to watch!

  • Opening hours: 10am-7pm

Nakatanido is a small confectionery shop which has become famous over the years for their mochi pounding performance. Steamed, glutinous rice is pounded using large wooden pestles at an incredible speed, fresh and warm and filled with mugwort and red bean paste. Japanese mugwort is an aromatic herb and adding it to the mochi gave it a fresh fragrance and green hue.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the mochi masters at work however, I was able to taste some warm, squishy mochi. My partner wasn't a fan of the traditional filling however, I didn't mind it as much as it was slightly sweet and creamy.

Cafe & Pancake Gram
  • Opening hours: 10.30am-8pm

Before coming to Japan, I had a list of food items I really wanted had to try and souffle pancakes were at the top of that list. These pancakes are a lot lighter and airier than you're accustomed to. In fact, the Japanese have a name of the texture of these pancakes and that is fuwa fuwa, an ideophone for fluffy.

You can only experience these premium pancakes at certain times of the day: 11am, 3pm and 6pm and there are only 20 orders at each seating so it's important to get there early. When I visited the Nara branch at 6pm (there's a few available over Japan including Tokyo and Osaka), there was only one other group of people present. We were seated, placed our orders and waited around 20 minutes before a gravity-defying stack of 3 jiggly pancakes were presented in front of me. Even with the addition of whipped cream, syrup and butter, the pancakes weren't overly sweet. They have a similar quality to cotton candy in that you have a bite and it's like you're eating air, but yummier.

The only disappointment is that you'll wait all that time just to devour the stack in under 5 minutes - or is that just me? You can have a look at the other items on their menu here.


Monday 9 March 2020

What to do in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, before Tokyo, was the capital of Japan. Today, it's a cultural playground with hundreds of historic, architectural sights including Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It's a charming city full of scenic, winding streets and beautiful, old traditions and I highly recommend that you pay it a visit on your trip to Japan.

North/South/East Kyoto 
Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Opening hours: 24hrs 
  • Admission: free

The shrine with a thousand torii gates. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto spirit/god of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake, of agriculture, general prosperity and worldly success. In Japan, more than 1/3 of all Shinto shrines are dedicated to Inari however, the main one is Fushimi Inari which sits at the base of Mount Inari.

Japanese companies have donated thousands of red torii gates to the shrine in order to have Inari grant their business success and fortune. These gates aren't cheap as they start from 400,000 yen (approx. £2,900) for the small-sized torii gates. Visitors going to pray usually give offerings of rice, sake and other foods to the please the fox messengers (kitsune) who are thought to plead with Inari on the worshipper's behalf. On my journey up the mountain, I came across plenty of fox statues with small dishes of in front of them.

Before my trip to Japan, I read that you should visit the shrine either early morning or late night due to the crowds however, I don't think that it makes much of a difference. The entrance of Fushimi Inari is rammed however, the higher you trek up the mountain, the more the crowds dissipate. So if you're wanting that Instagram-worthy shot, you're going to have to work for it.

Half way up the mountain, there's a beautiful view-point where you can sit down with a cone of vanilla and soy bean ice cream (so delicious!), admire the scenes of Kyoto and catch your breath. You then have the choice to retreat down the mountain or continue trekking upwards. My partner wanted to continue upwards as his justification was that we're here so we might as well. Well, I wouldn't say that the extra hour uphill walk was anything more special than the halfway point but I've done it now so I have no regrets. Fyi, the total hike amounted to around 30,000 steps. Your feet will hurt but it's worth it because, you know, Japan.

Nishiki Market
  • Opening hours: 9am-6pm, some vendors closed Sunday & Wednesday

Kyoto's kitchen is visited by both locals and tourists alike. You're able to sample all kinds of goodies from fruits and nuts to fish and tea without being obligated to buy anything however, after tasting, you're probably going to want to buy them! There's also non-food options available such as fans, chopsticks, small ornaments and garments. Make sure that you have cash with you as I didn't see any card machines being used in the market.

Kyoto Pokemon Centre
  • Opening hours: 10am-8pm

Amazing. Wonderful. Fun. Made my purse cry. This was the first Pokemon centre that I visited during the trip (and ever in my life), and I enjoyed every moment of it. Shelves full of Pokemon plushies, phone cases, trading cards, t-shirts and more. Each Pokemon centre has exclusive merchandise and at the Kyoto store, it was Pikachu dressed in traditional Japanese attire, either male or female. I chose the female version in plush and keyring form. Kawaii!

  • Opening hours: 6am-6pm
  • Admission: 400yen

Kiyomizu-Dera translates to pure water temple and is a Buddhist temple in the east of Kyoto. The temple has a large, wooden roof and sits on top of the Otawa waterfall. The waterfall splits into three streams and is said to cause longevity, success at school and a prosperous love life. Visitors are enouraged to drink from only one stream as it is seen as glutenous to drink from all 3 streams.

I was fortunate enough to visit during the autumn illuminations which meant that the temple was dimly lit from 5.30pm-9.30pm. This created a beautiful, romantic atmosphere (which is probably why my partner proposed to me here!). Unless you have some professional photography gear, it might be a little difficult to get some good night shots however, that shouldn't matter. Simply go to absorb the atmosphere and admire the autumn foliage.

West Kyoto 
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
  • Opening hours: 24hrs
  • Admission: free

The iconic Arashiyama bamboo grove. A short 10-15 minute walk through a sea of people surrounded by stalks of bamboo. To be fair, I was expecting it to be a lot more crowded than it actually was so it was actually a pleasant surprise to be able to find spots where I could take pictures with no one else in them.

Tenryuji Temple
  • Opening hours: 8.30am-5.30pm, closes 5pm October-March
  • Admission: 500yen, additional costs to enter the buildings 

Founded in 1339, the buildings of Tenryuji have been lost in fires and re-built again over the past few centuries however, the gardens remain in its original form. This Zen temple really has the most landscape garden. Words and pictures will do it no justice, it's something that you have to see with your own eyes. Relaxing on a bench within the temple's gardens, eating fried potato sticks coated in a sweet syrup whilst admiring the endless views of the gorgeous autumn foliage - it was surreal.

Sushi Naritaya
  • Opening hours: 11am-4pm, closed Wednesday

This small eatery is hidden away off the beaten track and only has a few tables inside so put your name down on the clipboard outside of the restaurant and be prepared to wait 15-20 minutes. It's definitely worth it though. Order a set and make sure you request at least 2 portions of unagi. Trust me, you'll want more of that melt in your mouth eel. My partner has always wanted to try uni and having the opportunity to do so, we thought why not. It tasted fresh and briny but nothing spectacular. Once you've finished your meal, head next door for some delicious, creamy ice-cream.

Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama
  • Opening hours: 9am-4.30pm, closes 4pm in winter
  • Admission: 550yen 

After crossing the picturesque Togetsukyo bridge and trekking up Mount Iwatayma for 30 minutes, you're greeted by at least 100 Japanese macaque monkeys. The monkeys are running around, doing their monkey thing. There's signs around advising you not to touch, stare or stand too close. You can purchase nuts and fruits to feed the monkeys but you have to do so from inside an enclosed building. Yes, you're the one inside the cage - it's brilliant! The monkeys can get quite aggressive towards each other so stay vigilant.

At the top of the mountain, you can also marvel at the beautiful views that Kyoto has to offer - mountains, rivers and colourful autumn foliage. Definitely one of my highlights from the trip.

Kimono Forest
  • Opening hours: 9am-4.30pm, closes 4pm in winter
  • Admission: free

When leaving Kyoto, I stumbled across the kimono forest in the Arashiyama area. A pathway of vibrant pillars were dimly lit as the day turned into dusk. Each pillar displays a kimono design, with the art installation showcasing 32 different designs in total. It was a pretty sight to see on the way back to the train station. 

As I had set aside time to make 2 day trips to Kyoto, I tried to group places together in terms of proximity so that one activity wasn't too far away from the next. That way, I could fully optimize my time in Kyoto however, I can tell you now that two days is not nearly enough time to cover everything that Kyoto has to offer. It's a breath-taking city and if possible, I would have loved to spend at least a week there, wandering around the districts and taking in the gorgeous views.