Since my trip to Japan (See part one, two, three, four, five)I have really upped my game when it comes to Japanese cooking at home. I used to think it was not possible to cook a lot of Japanese food because I either could not get the ingredients or did not have access to the right cooking equipment. But that is not true and now I really enjoy cooking several things and want to learn how to cook even more!
One thing that helped enormously was finding the Japan Centre (www.japancentre.com). I’ve now both been to the shop and ordered online and it’s fantastic. I try hard to get the Japanese versions of things, rather than English or America versions as I want to be authentic. Plus the do fun fresh food such as this Hello Kitty bun!
There are two main dishes I feel really good about making and also switching things up with them easily (without a recipe) and they are ramen and okonomiyaki! From the Japan Centre I’ve bought a stock of all the basic ingredients, such as the ramen noodles with stock, the okonomiyaki flour and sauce, mayo, tempura flakes, seaweed, pickled ginger and a few other things that have made it so easy to cook great food.
This is an example of the miso chicken ramen I’ve made. I’ve also made a version with salt stock and soya stock. All are slightly different and worth experimenting with. I’ve also mixed things up using chicken, fish, pork and chorizo. I feel good about whipping a ramen up that I could use up things I have in the fridge and create something yummy.
This is an example of the okonomiyaki I’ve been cooking and it is amazing! I’ve used bacon lardons, porks fillet strips, chorizo and smoked salmon. All of which have been amazing even if not fully authentic, but making it yum was my priority as well as not wasting food.
I have also tried to make noodle soup and yaki soba, but these haven’t turned out quite as I would like so I need a bit more practice.
I am on the search for a Japanese cookbook as I would like to learn how to make other things. I’m not sure which one to get yet though and will continue to look, but if anyone has any recommendations let me know!
We finished our trip to Japan by staying in Tokyo for 4 nights. Our hotel was based in the Ikebukuro area and had great transport links all over the city. My first and lasting impression of Tokyo is that it is super huge! I would describe it as being 12 cities in one as every area we went too was different and felt like its own city. It was awesome and overwhelming – I definitely need to go back!
The first night in Tokyo our guide took us to Shinjuku. It has the busiest train station in the world and for a first trip out in the city is really a way to see Tokyo in reality. We visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to get a night-time view of the area. It was amazing to see all lit up, but not good for photography as it was brightly lit inside and even with the help of a scarf the reflections in the windows would not disappear. It was free to go up and makes considering visiting one of the towers in the city not as essential. We then headed towards the entertainment area and found a small restaurant that our guide had booked out for our group.
After dinner we wandered around the area seeing the bright lights and big city vibe. It was amazing in Kabukicho with so many shops, arcades and restaurants really making it atmospheric. It was still above 20 degrees in the evening making it really comfortable to walk around for an extended period. It was bustling with business people, locals and tourists and I could have easily found somewhere to people watch for a while.
The next full day in Tokyo our guide took us all over the city and it allowed us to get used to the transport system ready for our solo explorations for the rest of the trip. We got the train from Ikebukuro and headed to Korakuen on the Marunouchi Line. We stopped at Tokyo Dome City and went up another government building (which I have completely forgotten the name of and don’t seem to have written it down) for another free view. We marvelled at the theme park set up in the middle of a city as we wandered towards Ueno.
Ueno is the cultural centre of Tokyo with the park (Ueno-keon) at the very centre. It is full of many museums and when I go back I would like to make time to visit the Tokyo National Museum as there was not enough time to fit everything in.
We walked through the park and I spotted my first outdoors cats on the trip. We didn’t see many cats or dogs at all and it made sense to find all the animal cafes as the concentration of people make the city not a great place to have pets I imagine.
We then walked to Asakusa which is home to the most visited temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji. The legend is that a statue/image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Kannon) was pulled from the river by two fishermen in AD 628. You can get a great view of the entrance to the temple by going in the tourist information centre and up to the viewing platform. The entrance is lined by lots of little shops and stalls selling all sorts of trinkets.
This was a lunch spot and I managed to find a okonomiyaki place to take my mum to where we cooked it ourselves. It was ace and is something I said I must learn to cook when I got home (and I already have). They bring out a bowl full of all the ingredients and you mix it all together then cook on the hot plate set into the table. Simple and amazing!
We then got back on the train and headed to Shibuya. It is the centre of the city’s teen culture and is full of bright colours and amazingly dressed people. We came out of the station and watch the Shibuya crossing from above. It is said to be one of the world’s busiest crossing as when the traffic stops people head in all directions to get where they are going. It was fun to watch and again when I come back I will get a seat in the Starbucks looking right over the crossing and watch the world god by.
We also got to see people playing real life Mario Cart as we were waiting at the crossing. It looked amazing, but not something I would be brave enough to do!
If you find yourself at the crossing you will come across the statue of Hachiko, the dog that waited at the station everyday to meet his master and continued for another 10 years after his master died in 1925. Nowadays you’ll find a cat upstaging Hachiko for an excellent photo opportunity. He looks like a stray, but his owner pops him up there everyday. He was very friendly.
In the late afternoon we headed to Harajuku to Meiji-jingu. It is Tokyo’s grandest shrine with this amazing wooden Torii gate at the entrance, created from 1500 year old cypress trees. It is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and was constructed in 1920, but destroyed in the second world war and had to be rebuilt in 1958.
On the approach to the shrine the path is lined with barrels of sake and casks of whiskey.
It took the whole trip but I finally pursuaded my mum to join me in visiting a cat cafe and Cafe Mocha was located really close to the hotel. It was a modern and well spaced cafe and I didn’t see any cages, which I had read warnings a bout.
The cats were all quite sleepy, but that made it really peaceful. I could have easily sat there for a quite a while and read book, but my mum was expecting teh cats to be playful so we didn’t stay as long as I would have liked.
There were some fun characters in the room and all accepted strokes freely and knew if they went up high they would be left alone.
But this once just lounged right on the floor and gave the best looks!
It is such a good idea as it keeps cats off the street and gives them a safe environment to share with people.
That night we headed up to the top floor of a shopping centre where you can find all the restaurants you could want. We went for a teppan one and I could have a proper dessert of the Halloween variety!
We ended what was a long day by heading up for a drink in the bar on the top floor. It was expensive, but worth it for the ambience and view.
The next day we had it free to explore as we wanted. I will say I preferred having a guide to take us around as it was an overwhelming city, but we had fun and had many more coffee stops than we did the previous day. We started by going to the bakery across the street for breakfast and I partook in the Halloween theme again – who would have thought it would be such a big thing in Japan?
I mapped out our day starting in Ginza the upmarket shopping district of Tokyo. We walked through the shops and stopped for coffee as we headed to the Tsukiji Market. This is still home to the fish market, but we did not fancy the super early start you would need to see the action. Instead we experience the outer market and I enjoyed some fresh tuna sushi and my mum got to have lots of fruit!
The market is busy, but absolutely amazing! I could have carried on wandering and trying different foods all day, but we wanted to go and experience some other neighbourhoods as well. We headed back to Ginza so that we could go in the shops that opened later than the market. There were several things that were cheaper if they offered the tourist tax discount, so worth a look!
We got the train to explore Akihabara as I wanted to experience the geek subculture of the district. However I was quite tired by this time and it has peaked in temperature to 30 degrees (in October!!!). We wandered through the electric town and it was fun to explore, but I would have liked a bit of help to know exactly where to go and what to see – my guide books didn’t quite have enough information.
We took it easy the last night and went out with the group locally for a last meal as some of the group were heading off on an earlier flight and other had an extra week to explore. As our flight was not until the evening we pretty much had a whole day to explore more. We went to the Marunouchi area to see the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station. We didn’t end up getting to see the gardens of the palace as there was an event on, but we had a wander around the outside and went to see the old bridge entrance.
We then headed back to Ikebukuro to explore the local area bit more before having to be back at the hotel to catch the airport bus. It’s a great and fun neighbourhood with lots of quirky aspects and some big shopping opportunities around the station. It is very worth finding a 100 yen store before you go as you can pick up fun small gifts such as origami paper.
I was also able to fulfil a big part of my kit kat mission by finding a chocolatory in the food hall of a big department store and came away with some posh versions of kit kats I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
We decided to fill the last few hours by going to Sunshine City just up the road from out hotel. It has loads of entertainment things and we went to the rooftop aquarium. It was fun, but at the same time I was concerned about the lack of space the animals had, so would not go back and wouldn’t really suggest visiting. It’s quite an eye opener to go somewhere like a place you would go as a kid and see it in completely different light. I did however find a Pokemon shop and again dragged my mum in to have a wander!
Top tips for Tokyo:
Know you will not fit everything in to your trip and pick the things you want to do first
It’s a huge city so be prepared for crowds – wait until after 9am to use the trains
Don’t be afraid to walk between areas as it means you find other things along the way
The next part of the trip was through the Japanese Alps and heading towards Tokyo. We started the day getting the train from Takayama and heading to Tsumago. Tsumago is a designated protected area preserving the traditional buildings by keeping out modern disruptions. We walked along the Nakasendo way, which is one of the five highways from the Edo period between Tokyo and Kyoto. We only experienced a small part of this path, but it was beautiful and peaceful. It’s full of trinket shops and we tried gohei mochi, which is rice ball cake covered in a peanut sauce. It was very nice and tasted like rice in a satay sauce.
Then we carried on to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is surrounded by the mountains of the Alps in a valley only 20km wide. It is a lovely city and is a favourite of tourists and residents. We got there in the evening and with only one night in the town we headed straight out to explore and find food. We went straight to see the Matsumoto-jo, which is Japan’s oldest wooden castle. It was a great chance to practice my night photography and as I had decided to carry my borrowed tripod on this overnight stay I improvised with a beanbag to take this beautiful image. Lit in green it stood out throughout the park that surrounds it.
We found some great food in a local favourite. Full of business people ending their day with freshly cooked food. It was very much tapas style where we order a section fo meat and vegetables and each came freshly prepared and cooked. We were sat at the bar area and the chef handed over our dishes on a long wooden paddle.
The next morning we headed back to the Matsumoto-jo to go inside and experience it fully. It was extremely busy even though it was off-season and first thing. I captured this great picture of a koi. They see you walking along by the shadows you cast over the water and must be so used to be being fed they come straight up expecting food.
Inside the castle is an experience. It is made up of multiple floors with varying degrees of stairs, which basically become ladders at the top. There are boards explaining the history of the castle and the samurai while you look through the small windows of each level. We queued round the whole castle, where you also have to take your shoes off and carry them round in a bag (great system!) , and finally you make it to the top for stunning views of the city. I would recommend a visit here as this was completely different from the temples and shrines we had seen.
As we wandered around Matsumoto we explored several little shopping streets and stumbled across an organic vegetarian market, where we bought this wonderful sushi for our lunch on the train. It was lovely to wander freely around the city after the rush of the castle.
Our next destination was Obuse which is famous for chestnuts and art history including woodblock printing artist Hokusai. It was extremely busy with Japanese Tourists and at this point my mum and I decided to avoid the crowds and find a little coffee shop to relax. I would have liked more time on the places at this point in the trip as it felt rushed as we were fitting in so much. I will definitely return to the Japanese Alps if I return to Japan.
We then headed on the train to Yudanaka for another night in a ryokan. This time it was a huge hotel version, which would be wonderful in the winter for skiing, but just felt a little wrong for the time of year. It has two large onsens which changed over at 10pm switching from male to female. This time the group decided to go altogether and there were may more locals there using the amenities. It is a very odd experience being fully naked with other people in a spa like setting, but then having the shower facilities around the edge. It’s a body positive experience (I see a separate post on this coming) as all the Japanese women had no issues with stripping down, at least it did not seem that way. However when a couple of younger ladies got in they were trying to be modest like ourselves. It’s definitely an experience!
The next day we headed to the Snow Monkey Park just outside Yudanaka. It is another experience that is hard to explain. The park has been there since 1964, but unlike the interpretation of natural onsen ponds, the area is man-made. Without any snow you can see all the thermal pipes and debris from the operations. Also the monkey’s stay for the food they are given, as in reality they would migrate away from the area when it snows. Apart from this the monkey’s were free to come and go and although we were warned they would try to take things we had no problem with any of them. I also managed to take some great photos I am really happy with.
We then headed on to Tokyo, but before we explored the city we made the most of the extra day on the rail pass and tried to see Mt Fuji by going on travel day to the area of Hakone. It is a full day of travel, all by different modes, but there is very little time to stop and appreciate the surroundings you find yourself in. Again if I came back to Japan I would spend more time in this area as it was so beautiful.
The day started with getting the Bullet train to Odwara, then catching a local train to Hakone-Yomoto. We then transferred to a switch back train to start the journey up the mountain to Gara. We then transferred to a funicular to got straight up the mountain to Souzan to catch a cable car. The cable car took us to the volcanic springs at Owakudoni. Here they have a speciality of cooking eggs in sulphur water so they turn black, you can then buy a bag of 5 to eat. We had one each and they were very nice. Being hard boiled they give you some salt to add and it’s a very nice protein snack surrounded by volcanic activity!
We then got back on the cable car and headed down to Togendai-ko. Here we got on a pirate ship (yes you read the correctly) to Hakon-Machi-ko.
We then stopped for lunch and walked through the cedar trees to Moto-Hakone-ko to get back on the pirate ship (correct again) to Togendai-ko. We then got on a bus to go walk through the silver grass. It was a beautiful, but cloudy day and we did not get to see Mt Fuji, apart from the glimpse I got on the train in the morning. We then got back on the bus to get back to where we can catch the bullet train back to Tokyo.
That night we stayed close to the hotel for dinner and found a wonderful basement restaurant and tried some new things such as dumplings and this wonderful mochi strawberry dessert. Desserts aren’t big in Japan and there were only 3 on offer in this restaurant and it was very good.
Next up the big bright lights of Tokyo!
Top Tips for Matsumoto, Yudonaka & Hakone:
Make the most of your time by having breakfasts and lunches on the train
Get to tourist attractions early to have minimal crowds
If you can have more time in places I would recommend it, but this trip lets you see everything
Don’t be afraid to go down or up to find good restaurants
I’m still reliving my trip to Japan, even though it’s been 4 weeks since I came back. It was so much fun as well as cultural and exciting; I definitely want to go back! You can find my previous posts Part 1 and Part 2 through those links.
Our fourth day in Japan by catching the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima to the south-west. We started by going to the island of Miyajima, which is a World Heritage Site and one of the most visited tourist spots. The Japan Rail Pass gets you on the ferry across to the island. Our rail pass was only for tourists and lasted for a week and made it very easy to get around the country to all the areas we were going to. There are also private train lines, but you need different tickets for those.
The first thing you see as you arrive at the island is the torii (shrine gate) of Itsukuushima-jinja, also known as the floating gate. We unfortunately arrived at low tide and so you can see the bottom of the gate in the sand. It’s still very impressive and stands out against the tree lined background. The shrine sits behind the gate and from all the stilts I assume it also sits upon the water at high tide.
Our guide Tats introduced us to the island and the cheeky deer than are very friendly and ate the first maps Tats was showing us. My mum and I had our lunch interrupted by an overfriendly deer!
This is a view of the gate from the other side. It was still impressive, but definitely weird seeing people right under it and new photographer side was disappointed I could get a photo without people or the scaffolding in the frame! We only had the morning on the island, which wasn’t really enough time to explore beyond the main street and shrines. There are many temples and hikes on the island and I think it would be fun to go back and explore further.
The Itsukushima-jinja is thought to have begun in the 6th century, but the present form fo the shrine is from 1168. It was built on the water because common people were not allowed to step foot on the sacred island. It was very beautiful to see from the outside and I would have paid to go in if the tide had been in and water underneath the walk ways. That would have been an atmospheric experience.
The main street through the town was full of fun shops and restuarants. It also had many stalls and food outlets with interesting delicasies to take away. We went for the fish cake on a stick, wrapped in bacon with cheese on one and aspargus on the other. It was very nice and I would definitely eat it again.
We took a sit by the sea and it wasn’t long until the dear approached us and followed us like the couple below. He was not happy we wouldn’t share our food and reared up at me to try and grab mine. They weren’t nasty, just persistent!
It was fairly quiet on the island as it was outside normal tourist season. Many of the hotels and restaurants were not open as not many people live on the island and therefore shut down after the peak and live on the mainland.
When we were waiting for the ferry back a lot of school groups arrived and it felt much busier. It’s a beautiful place and well worth a visit.
After the island we got back on the train and headed to central Hiroshima. It’s an amazing place to visit and a stark contrast to anything else you’ll see. This is living history. The history we were taught in school about the second world war is nothing compared to the legacy that is still very real for the people of this beautiful and thriving city.
The first thing you see as you enter the Peace Memorial Park is the Atomic Bomb Dome. This is one of the few buildings that survived the bomb at the epicentre. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1966 and is a haunting reminder of what happened. This very much sets the tone for the visit. There is a erie quiet to the park, even with the amount of people walking around. Everyone is taking it in and like me probably had no words to describe what they were experiencing.
The biggest reminder that this still impacts people living today is the Children’s Peace Monument. It was built for Sadako Sasaki who was only 2 years old at the time of the bombing. She develop lukemia at 11 years old and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes, but unfortunately died before completing her goal. The paper crane is a symbol of longevity in Japan and so her school friends completed the goal for her. Today a monument stands surrounded by these colours paper tributes. It was a beautiful sight and one I will not forget.
We walked through the Peace Memorial Park and saw the Flame of Peace, which is set to stay alight until all the nuclear weapons in the world are destroyed. There were times I was speechless during this visit and at this point and heading into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum were both times of internal reflection. The museum was full of facts, figures and items from the bombing. It was very factual, with very little, if any, analysis of why it happened. As I said it was a very different view of the war than I was taught in school and it was eye opening. There were many school groups visiting when we were there and I just could not process seeing this at that age. The legacy of it is what got to me the most. People who were young at the time are now the older generation and the map of Japan in the museum that shows where people moved to and the amount of radiation illnesses was staggering. It was a humbling experience to say the least.
After the main visit we headed towards the station for dinner and tried the distinct Hiroshima version of okonomiyaki, which is built up of layers of noodles, cabbage, pancakes and topped with a BBQ type sauce. It was delicious and something I want to learn to make at home!
This was also our first experience of sake in a box. We did not know the equiette at the time and later learned that you are supposed to say stop just as the sake tops the glass. However as we did not know this they kept pouring until the box was full! A really fun experience to watch it cooked in front of you and very tasty food, a definite must!
The next day we headed to Takayama on the train from Kyoto. This was our only experience of the trains not going to plan. We needed to get 4 trains and that turned into 5 as one train had to stop a station early due to an accident. That meant we had to get a private train to the next station. Our guide was so apoligetic as it rarely happens and compared to the UK it was super smooth to get the addition train and get where we needed to go.
This was also our first experience of a Japanese ryokan, which is a traditional inn where you sleep on futons on the floor. It was fantastic and so simple and clean. It was also very peaceful and relaxing once you had settled in and got to know the customs.
The food everywhere was so so good. I very much liked the soup based dishes as they are very simple, while being extremely tasty. I also want to learn to cook these as they would make a very good work night dinner (apart from the tempura as I don’t want to deep fry anything!).
I’m not very good at taking photos of myself and even photos other people take I usually don’t like (something to get into another day!), but this one of me and my mum makes me happy as we are having a fantastic time. Plus this was the first restaurant where we had to sit on the floor!
Takayama is offically known as Hida Takayama and is located in Central Honshu. On our arrival we spent the afternoon at the Hida Folk Village, which is an open air museum and is home to lots of traditional houses that were taken down from the original sites and relocated to this village to keep them safe. It illustrates rural life over the centuries and how people lived in the Japanese Alps before the modern day conviences we have today.
While staying at the Ryokan we got to experience tradition Japanese set meals. All of which were set on raised trays while we sat on the floor. It was an interesting experience and I enjoyed elements of all the meals, but not all. Rice in the morning just does not work for me!
Takayama is a beautiful place and is home to a festival of floats and as you walk around you see these very tall doors that hide them away and keep them safe in between the festivals. The main area is called Sanmachi-suji and is the orginal district of three streets the merchants would frequent. There are also many shrines and temples within the town and you can easily wander around and experience the peacefulness of the place and then the bussle of the tourist areas.
The architecture is amazing and you can find modern houses next to amazing pagodas and shrines. It is worth getting lost to see what you can find as you find your way back to the centre of town.
This is the first place I saw lots of maneki-neko, or lucky cats. It was a fun place to explore the shops and even finding dedicated cat shops!
There are many sake breweries and they are denoted by cedar fronds hung above the doors. My mum was very happy as we got to try quite a few different sakes and whiskys.
In the afternoon we wandered to the area of temples along the Higashiyama walking course and wandered in peaceful silence for an hour or so. It was so quiet as many of the temples were shut to visitors, but their grounds were open to explore and appreicate.
At luch we visited a burger restuarant that our guide had to book 3 weeks in advance! It’s run by a young Japanese couple who liked what they could get in America, but knew nowhere they could get the same when they returned home to Japan and so opened their own place called Center4Burgers.
This was also the first place I saw a real life cat in the outside. I had not seen any pets since arriving and this little Merry and Pippin lookalike was watching us as we entered the restaurant.
This was the most amazing burger! I couldn’t decide what to have as toppings so went for the one with them all – egg, cheese, bacon and avocado! It’s a tiny place and our group of 16 was squeezed in and took up the whole place, including the seats at the bar.
Another first was being able to go to a little tea shop and try tradition matcha. It came with a little matcha cake/sweet and it was lovely. I would very much like to get a proper bowl and whisk to be able to make this at home. There was a peacefulness to being able to sit and enjoy this.
I saw this amazing teapot while in Takayama, but resisted as that price is about £150!
I loved that they had shops that were dedicated to specific themes like the cat shop, but also the chopstick shop and the rabbit shop we also saw. It was quirky and fun!
We had two nights in Takayama and that was a lovely amount of time. We didn’t do everything, but we did a lot and I felt like I experieced a different side to Japan compared to Kyoto and Hiroshima.
Top tips for Hiroshima and Takayama:
Get a Japan Rail Pass for your visit!
Try lots of the food stalls in markets for traditional cuisine.
I arrived in Kyoto by flying to Osaka on the evening of 8th October. This was a really good thing and I would recommend checking what time your flight arrives as this meant we could go straight to bed on arrival at the hotel and be ready to start properly the next day. From the Sunday it was non stop for the next two weeks and I loved it! The tour i was on started with a city tour and our guide, Tats, took us to several of the top sights in Kyoto.
Firstly we went to Njo Castle was the place where the miliatry and shoguns of Japan and it dominates a large part of the north west of the city. It is palace built in 1603 with glorious gardens (photos were not allowed inside) and our first glimpse of some autumn colour. It was still 23/24 degrees celcuis when we arrived and so most of the trees were still fully green. The gardens were very peaceful and the palace within the space gave an insight into the traditional arhitecture using paper sliding doors and tatami mats.
Before our next place to visit we went to a family restaurant with a sushi train! This was so much fun and the touch screen made it easy to find something my mum would eat. Anything you ordered would come a long on the top conveyor and stop directly by your table. The bottom conveyor was the normal things going round and round for a period of time for everyone to choose from. It was a great introduction for a lot of the group who had not been to a sushi restaurant before.
The next place our tour was the Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion. It is one of Japan’s best known places due to the top of the building being completely covered in gold leaf. It was originally built in 1397 as a retirement villa for the shogun and then was later converted into a temple. It was burnt down in 1950 and reconstructed with the gold leaf extended further than before. There is a designated path that takes you to all the viewing points, but be warned it was busy when we went and it can be even busier in the full tourist season.
Next we went to the Ryoan-ji, which is another well known sight form Kyoto due to the rock garden. The photo below does not do it justice as you cannot see all the racked lines in the gravel. I imagine it would be a very peaceful place if there wasn’t anyone else around, but where I was stood taking this photo was a viewing platform full of people. I would love to have a small version of this in my future garden. It has 15 rocks located within the gravel, but you can only every see 14 at one time (we tested this and it seems to be true).
We used public transport to get everywhere on this tour and it was a great experience to use the subway, trains, trams and buses as one of the locals. We headed to the east of the city to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove next. It was super busy and I was not able to get any photos like what you see online, but I gave it go. The bamboo is harvested and sold as a resource. If you look past the line of bamboo that marks the path you can see the cut stalks behind. It is an amazing place and I wish I could have gone once it had gone dark as I imagine it would be magical when all lit up.
Our first proper night in Kyoto the group went to the Gion area and Shabbu Shabbu for dinner. This is when you have a pot of water that you can control the temperature from the table and then to this you add vegetables and meat and then once cooked place in your bowls with sauce from the jugs. We got a bit confused and added the noodles too soon as you are supposed to have them at the end of the meal. The instructions were not great, but it was all you can eat and was very tasty.
We then wandered through the Gion area which is famous for entertainment and the geishas. It was a very beautiful area and is well worth wandering through later in the evening when it a bit quieter. A lot of people head there to spot geishas around 6pm, so heading there around 9pm gives it chance to settle down.
We also wandered through the park called Maruyama-koen, which is home to some beautiful shrines and Kyoto’s most famous cherry tree.
The first day was full of beautiful sights and that continued on the second day of the tour with a trip to Nara. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city and contains 8 World Heritage Sites. There are wild deer wandering around the whole city and can buy biscuits to feed to them. They were quite friendly, but would try to steal any food you had to hand, which made having lunch in the park fun!
The main sight to see in Nara can be found within the Todai-ji – the Daibutsu or Great Buddha is amazing! It is a bronze Buddha and is contained in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, orginally built between 710 and 784.
Several parts of the Buddha have been recast due to fires that have burnt the wooden build down and melted the metal. It is almost 15 metres tall and weighs 500 tonnes. It was an awesome presense and it felt very peaceful wandering around inside. I feel quite connect to Buddhism and it is something I keep thinking I need to spend some time really understanding what is it about.
As I said the deer were quite inquizitive and kept trying to make friends with my mum throughout this holiday!
Next in Nara we wandered behind the home of the Great Buddha and up a very beautiful stone paved street where we has lovely views above the rooftops. We climbed the hill to the Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do, which are sub temples of the Todai-ji.
I took quite a few photos of deer as I loved that they were just wandering around without a care in the world. These three young deer were right next to the path and I loved the pose they struck as I came up to take a closer photo.
We then headed to Kasua Taisha which is a sprawling shrine in the woods. The paths around it are lined with hundreds, maybe thousands of lanterns. It was founded in the 8th century and there are twice yearly lantern festivals, which I think would be amazing to experience. Maybe when I go back one day!
That night we were back in Kyoto and I made my mum walk quite a bit to find recommended ramen restaurant. It was amazing, but my mum was not so keen (because of the fat on the meat, even though it melted in the hot water as was so thinly cut!). It was so tasty and I must learn how to make these types of stocks as soup bases as I think I could live off ramen this good!
The third day of the tour was another full day exploring Kyoto. The first place we went to was Fushimi-Irani Taisha which is a mountain full of torii gate paths. It is a sprawling shrine and is probably the place in any photos of the shrines of Kyoto. You can walk all the way up tot top of mountain, but we only went about a third of the way due to time contraints. if i went again I would like to walk the whole thing as the further you went the less people you encoutnered.
I was lucky and managed to get some lovely photos without any people in the way. It was very atmospheric and I really enjoyed wandering and I could very much understand why people come to worship here.
It was just non-stop in a good way. Up and down the mountain with each torii gate deicated to someone or a family.
I did let my mum be in some of the photos!
After a morning in the ancient aspects of the city we headed back to the modern and explored Kyoto Station. It’s an impressive building made of steel and glass and includes a glass corridor across the top of the station. Also it has light up stairs that were fun to watch!
We then headed to Kyoto Tower as I like being able to get up high and get a sense of the city and it’s scale. It is nothing special inside, but the views are amazing , although it could do with having a few more seats up the top, but it does have a shrine!
We then walked to the Higashi Hongan-ji, or the Eastern Temple of the True Vow. It is said to the secnd largest wooden structure in Japan. This was the first place where we had to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag to carry around and it made total sense. I really loved the whole taking off your shoes thing as it kept places clean and the wooden floors were so smooth (which only turned into a problem when it came to steep steps and there will be more on that in a later post!).
We then walked to the Nishiki Market, which is arcade full of market type shops. It is full or weird and wonderful foods and is right in the centre of the city. We didn’t end up buying anything in the market, but we did have fun guessing what some of the things were as most signs were only in Japanese, but many of the shop keepers are happy to tell you about what they were selling.
The third day was super busy as we also then went to a shortened tea ceremony. It was less than an hour long and they show you the movements required and let you make a bowl of tea. I really enjoyed it and would like to learn more about the whole tradition and maybe one day go to a full ceremony, which I believe can be up to 4 hours long. We went to En in Gion which was recommended by our tour guide as they conduct it in English.
I found it very interesting and the traditions behind it we glimpsed sound fascinating.
We then wandered through the Gion area on our way to fidn some food and spotted a real geisha on her way to an appointment. My photo came out blurry as she was moving quickly and I didn’t have my camera ready or on the right settings. However I love this photo as you are warned not to try and stop them and rather take photos as they pass and this photo captures for me the sense of urgency and importance they have about them.
We did get distracted again on our way to find food as we found a tiny bar where they offered a sake taster. The bartender was super nice and instead of just 3 tasters each he gave us 6 different ones to try between us. I liked the sweeter sakes better and did not like the cloudy one at all as it had a gritty texture. We has a lovely evening and ended up getting another full glass of a different sake the bartender recommended. We also got talking to couple who came into the bar later and were doing the opposite from us as they had started their trip in Tokyo.
Finally we got to the food and randomly found a tempura restaurant. The process was to fill out a form stating all the different tempura pieces you wanted. As we didn’t know how much we would get we chose to get one of each of almost all the veggies and then come fishcake and a couple of hug prawns. It was amazing and we even had a whole medium boiled egg, which I have never had as tempura before! The batter is definitely lighter than what we get at home and it was amazingly crisp and tasty!
My tips for Kyoto and Nara:
If you have the time walk everywhere to explore more than the tourist spots
Go early to the main tourist sites to avoid the crowds
Have cash (general tip for visiting Japan)
Overall an amazing first 3 days of my trip. This pos turned out a lot longer than I thought so I am adding an extra post to my to cover everything I want to cover.