Japan 2016: Drinking Tea, Rainbow Bridge, and a Stroll Through Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen: NTT Docomo Building trying to hide

NTT Docomo Building trying to hide

As I said before, we didn’t do too much in terms of touristic things in Tokyo, shopping and eating is sort of touristy but you can do that anywhere. We attended a tea ceremony lesson (thanks to Emmy’s friend), decided to have a quick look at the Rainbow Bridge from Odaiba Marine Park one night, and I took Oscar to Shinjuku Gyoen our last afternoon in Japan to try and chill out before going home. And even that isn’t really that touristy since a stroll through the park is a normal thing anywhere.

Shinjuku Gyoen: Chrysanthemums

Chrysanthemums

The tea ceremony is an interesting thing, and the tea ceremony lesson is possibly even more interesting. We were invited (I think) to attend the lesson as guests so we didn’t have to do anything except drink tea and eat sweets, although we did have to stir our own tea one time. I was sitting there observing it all, and while it didn’t look like much, I am pretty sure pretty much everything the teacher was doing was following a very specific routine, e.g. which hand to use to place a hanky down, and which hand to lift a bowl, and when to move this or that.

It had to be very precise, I’m sure of it, I’m not making it more than it was, the Japanese are very OCD like that, it would seem to be very easy to mess up while learning, but after enough practice it would become a habit to follow all the steps precisely I would think. We got to eat some yummy sweets and learn how to stir the green tea (not in a round motion, but back and forth) before heading out for dinner (more on that in a later post).

One evening we were at home, I think it was the Tuesday, the weather was clear and we were just going to go shopping, but I thought it might be a good idea to visit Odaiba Marine Park and get a view of the Rainbow Bridge from across the bay. The train ride was an interesting one as it is on a newer train line that runs on different tracks (or something), and even goes over the Rainbow Bridge. Turns out that we were far too late as the nightly light show had already finished and it was pretty dark with nothing much to see. We walked along the path and headed toward one of the boardwalk piers, the bridge was still illuminated so there was at least that to look at. It did look nice, though it probably would have been worth spending a half day in Odaiba and finishing with the night view of the bridge.

Shinjuku Gyoen: NTT Docomo Building Koyo

NTT Docomo Building Koyo

Our final full day in Tokyo (and Japan) we did some shopping in the morning (yay for me! I got some stuff), and then after lunch Emmy carried on with that while I took Oscar to Shinjuku Gyoen for a good wander. It closes quite early 4.00pm (gates close 4.30pm) and having only arrived at around 3pm I didn’t have as much time as I ended needing, as I had to rush about before I even got to enjoy the Japanese Garden portion properly.

I think next time I’ll definitely try to arrive at around 1.30pm or so, then I can take my time and enjoy it more peacefully. Even so, we were able to follow the route and see several areas of the park, including a few ponds, bridges, and maple trees, and with the NTT Docomo Building poking its head in. There was a chrysanthemum flower festival or something as there were many displays with all different kinds of chrysanthemums, some growing at very peculiar angles, they were quite nice, although I’m sure Emmy would not approve. I was really impressed by the park and will definitely make it a higher priority next time I’m in Tokyo.

That’s pretty much it, the tour is finished, but, I will regale you with more details on some of the food we ate as well as the places we stayed in the next couple of posts. Kaiseki in Kyoto wasn’t the only delight we lavished on ourselves, in Japan, there is always something delectable around the corner, and the same can be said of dtraCorp :D.

  • Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba Marine Park
    Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba Marine Park
  • Odaiba Marine Park
    Odaiba Marine Park
  • Shinjuku Gyoen
    Shinjuku Gyoen
  • Shinjuku Gyoen
    Shinjuku Gyoen
  • Last train ride to Narita
    Last train ride to Narita

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Japan 2016: Ghibli Museum

Fantastical Ghibli Building

Fantastical Ghibli Building

Let’s be clear, we didn’t do a lot in Tokyo, mostly shopping and eating, we had a quick ride to Odaiba marine park (at night) and attended a tea ceremony class, but otherwise the only tourist thing we did of any value was visit the Ghibli Museum. We originally planned to visit Kamakura for a day trip but after all of the travelling we’d done up to this point we thought better of it. This was almost an absolute disaster, we didn’t buy the tickets online from Australia (they were already sold out for the time we were going) so we managed to ask one of Emmy’s friends who lives in Tokyo to help us buy a couple tickets. But it turns out that the museum is quite strict on people buying tickets and requiring identification to match the purchaser of the tickets (to reduce scalping).

Ghibli Museum: Soot Sprites

Soot Sprites

After asking us a few times and realising that it was going to be nigh impossible to gather the necessary identification the security staff was kind enough to let us through anyway (we really had no idea), it was probably fortunate that Oscar was there, he probably took pity on us because of that.

You can’t take any pictures inside the museum, which is quite small (three levels), so all you can do really, is enjoy the museum. It’s full of pictures and little models, and elaborate re-creations of Miyazaki’s desk (I’m guessing), among other things. Two exhibits in the first room (full of models and some movie projector type things) were quite the standouts.

There was a wall with a bunch of windows into tiny rooms, each room has little models of desks and people at work (I presume of Ghibli employees), they were very intricate and detailed which made them very nice to look at. The other great thing in that first room was the animated model, I don’t even know how to describe it, basically it’s a wheel with many models of the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro, that spins around at high speed and then combined with lighting effects you can see how the animation works. It’s sort of like stop motion, very cool.

Ghibli Museum: Totoro at the ticket counter

Totoro at the ticket counter

Another highlight was the short movie that was screened in the Saturn theatre (entry comes with a ticket to the movie) which is a ten minute film that has three screenings per hour (I think). Apparently it is an original Ghibli animation that is not screened anywhere else. I’m not sure of the title of the short we watched but it had a dog in it called Toro (or Koro) and it was about how he got lost but managed to find his way back home. It was Oscar’s first time in a movie theatre and I’m not sure if he actually understood what was happening, but he pretty much lost it when the dog was hit by a bicycle, he started wailing but managed to regain his composure and continue watching pretty quickly. He cried a couple more times during the film but only very briefly so I don’t think it distracted anyone, but we can only assume that he understood what was going on and felt great empathy with the puppy.

Ghibli Museum: Robot

Robot

The other highlight for me was the big cat bus (kids 12 and under only) that kids can climb and jump on to their heart’s content, for about five minutes. Oscar was by far the smallest one in his group (all the others were probably between 4-10 years old) and he was quite nervous (but also excited). He would wait until the bigger kids were all jumping on the other side of the bus and then give the cat a big cuddle, he managed to climb into the bus very briefly and also kissed one of the rats up on the cat’s head, this was for some reason an extremely emotional thing for myself and Emmy and definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

There’s a stall that sells milk flavoured iced cream (not vanilla, so I guess it’s the same as vanilla but without the vanilla flavouring) and some drinks, while the cafe is quite busy and has its own undercover waiting area, we weren’t going to wait for that.

Ghibli Museum: Pumping Water

Pumping Water

There’s the robot from Laputa on top of the museum and actually a nice park just next to the museum as well, we waited there as we were about thirty minutes earlier than our entry time. The museum is small but we managed to spend about two and a half hours there wandering around, it’s interesting and certainly worth a look if you’re a Miyazaki or Ghibli fan, or even just a fan of animation or film.

Keep your eyes peeled though because there are many displays that are very small and intricate that you could easily miss.

It’s about a twenty minute train ride from Shinjuku and then a 5-10 minute bus ride from Mitaka station, there is a shuttle bus that takes you right to the entrance. For lack of anything else interesting, my next post will include the three other touristy things we did, visit Odaiba marine Park (very quickly for twenty minutes or so), attend a tea ceremony class, and a visit to Shinjuku Gyoen (a large park). And then I’ll do some foodie posts and accommodation stuff to conclude this trip, and start dreaming of the next.

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Japan 2016: Mount Kachi Kachi

Trail to Mount Tenjo shrine

Trail to Mount Tenjo shrine

One more morning in Kawaguchi-ko, and the weather was amazingly clear so we decided to head back up the Mount Kachi Kachi ropeway to get some good views of Mount Fuji before catching a bus to Tokyo. Too bad the bright daylight haze settled in by the time we got up to the lookout, it was super busy and the queue was over 20 minutes long when we joined (which wasn’t as early as I would have liked). Oh well, you have to make do with what you have, and I think we had a pretty successful morning nonetheless.

We hurried to pack all of our stuff so that we could check out and go up the ropeway as soon as possible, and even then we didn’t manage to leave until about 10.30am. Once we got to the Mount Kachi Kachi ropeway entrance we saw a line, not a good sign as at the end the wait was twenty minutes so we jumped in to reserve our spot. The line moved at a reasonable pace and eventually we got to ride up and it’s only a three minute trip.

We had a quick wander around before we went looking for our spot, which is a small clearing on the way to the Mount Tenjo shrine. There is a bench there and a good view of Mount Fuji, we aimed to recreate a romatntic pose that we did on our first trip to Japan but this time with an additional participant. After a few tries, and then a few more (thanks to the endless stream of other tourists walking past),  we finally managed to get the shot we were after.

Afterward we continued along the trail toward the Mount Tenjo summit and shrine, it’s a great little stroll as the trees lining the trail are all coloured in brilliant Autumn colours (yellow at the time). The hike to Mount Mitsutoge is a further three hours (so six hours return), this will be my target the next time we are in the area as I’m not sure that I’ll ever summit Mount Fuji. I am pretty sure that there would be some excellent views of Mount Fuji along the trail as well as other nice things to look at, it was extremely busy being a Sunday with fine weather, so maybe next time we will try to visit the area on a weekday.

  • Mount Fuji from Mount Tenjo Shrine
    Mount Fuji from Mount Tenjo Shrine
  • Kawaguchi-ko from Mount Kachi Kachi
    Kawaguchi-ko from Mount Kachi Kachi
  • Mount Fuji
    Mount Fuji

Finally it was time to go and head back to the station and get a bus to Tokyo, unfortunately, having not booked tickets beforehand, and this being a Sunday with very nice weather, there were a lot of people trying to get on to a set number of buses. We managed to get ourselves on to a bus headed for Tokyo station (as opposed to Shinjuku) that was supposed to take two hours. Well, it tooks four and half and little Oscar was getting pretty restless by the time we were nearing Tokyo, fortunately the super moon was coming (he loves the moon), so that was an interesting distraction for him for part of the ride.

Mount Fuji panorama

Mount Fuji panorama

So to conclude, never catch a bus on a Sunday (maybe Saturdays too) afternoon during peak season in Kawaguchi-ko headed for Tokyo, especially not when the weather is basically perfect (except for the lack of fluffy clouds). You’ll be stuck in traffic for hours. Next, we’re on the home stretch, Tokyo, which was mostly shopping and eating :D.

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Japan 2016: Mount Fuji Day tour

Lantern at Fuji Sengen Shrine

Lantern at Fuji Sengen Shrine

On our final full day in Kawaguchi-ko, we joined the hostel day tour around the Mount Fuji area, which would take us to Fuji Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida, the fifth station at Mount Fuji, Aokigahara lava forest, Shiraito Falls, and Lake Motosu. So a busy day indeed and the tour starts at 9am. The first stop was the station to pick up some more tourists, but then on to Fujiyoshida and the Fuji Sengen Shrine (the actual name is even longer but I won’t go into that).

Fuji Sengen Shrine: Old, old, cedar tree

Old, old, cedar tree

This shrine is where the cult of Mount Fuji was based and where a lot of trekkers might begin their trip to summit Fuji-san, that is the long way, that’s for sure as it is starting right from the bottom.

The trail begins at the back of the shrine and goes all the way up to the fifth station, where you continue to the peak of the mountain. We got a good explanation of the shrine, the very old trees, a few of them are older than 900 years old, the biggest ones, they’re pretty obvious. There are plenty of maple trees and other colourful trees as well so it’s also quite a photogenic shrine.

You can’t actually see Fuji-san from the shrine because there’s basically a forest surrounding it, but you can see a lovely place and also make a wish. The shrine was probably the highlight of the tour even though Fuji-san wasn’t even visible from there. It is a beautiful and peaceful place and we didn’t have as much time at the waterfall or Lake Motosu as I would have liked (fading light played a part, but also guided tours are like that), so that’s the qualifier.

  • Fuji Sengen Shrine: Water breathing dragon
    Water breathing dragon
  • Fuji Sengen Shrine: Lover trees
    Lover trees
  • Fuji Sengen Shrine: Koyo
    Koyo
  • Fuji Sengen Shrine: Stone Lantern
    Stone Lantern
  • Mount Fuji, just below the fifth station
    Mount Fuji, just below the fifth station
  • Mount Fuji: The Southern Alps
    The Southern Alps

The next stop was the fifth station, well one of the fifth stations, the Fuji-Yoshida fifth station which is the highest point that buses travel to, so this is where a lot of people start their treks from. There were a lot of people cycling up the roads which looked like a lot of fun too, but obviously I didn’t have my bike. It’s already at about 2300m altitude so it reduces the summit climb to a day trip or overnighter if you so wish. We actually stopped at a point just before the fifth station, this was a great idea by our tour guide, Masa san, as it was below the cloud line and we could get views of the southern Japanese alps as well as up Mount Fuji itself. The fifth station itself was pretty boring, not much to see, it was above the cloud line so just mist everywhere, I had a look at the trail (which was closed) but there wasn’t much to see there either. There are a lot of shops at the fifth station as there are on the summit (but only during Summer) but nothing special or different there that I’m aware of.

We returned to the hostel for lunch (which I grabbed from 7 Eleven) before heading to the next stop, the Aokigahara lava forest. This forest is interesting for a few reasons, first the roots of the trees can’t dig very far into the ground because of the lava below the top soil, and so the tree roots are above ground a lot, and because of this they don’t have very strong holds and don’t live too long (tens of years) before falling. Second, there are many caves in the area, created by the lava flow hundreds and thousands of years before, we visited one but didn’t go in as we didn’t have caving gear obviously. Finally, and most macabre of all, this forest is known as the suicide forest, because in parts of the forest are very remote and many people decide that they would wander in without the thought of returning. Not the section we visited though, I didn’t see any skeletons that’s for sure!

  • Mount Fuji: Aokigahara forest
    Aokigahara forest
  • Mount Fuji: Shiraito Falls
    Shiraito Falls
  • Fuji-san, Lake Motosu
    Fuji-san, Lake Motosu

Just before sunset we arrived at Shiraito Falls, one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful, and one of the places I definitely wanted to visit while in Kawaguchi-ko. It was one of the main reasons we went on the tour as we wanted to see the falls but the difficulty (i.e. price and timing) in visiting the falls meant that it wouldn’t be particularly good value (time wise and on the pocket), they’re very pretty and with full Autumn colour would have been particularly spectacular. Unfortunately the tour didn’t also include Otodome Falls which is only a couple hundred metres away as I wanted to see that also but I was already the last one back from Shiraito, I didn’t want to cause my delays or trouble.

We were driving to our final destination, Lake Motosu (one of the five lakes in the area, and the one featured on the 1000¥ bill) and looking out the window you could see Mount Fuji but with a thick layer of cloud moving around it. There were many photographers parked on the sides of roads with their cameras and tripods out at the ready, and myself unfortunately stuck on a moving bus. We finally arrived at the lookout point for Lake Motosu and I grabbed my tripod and camera bag and quickly set up in a good spot (there were only about 10 people there when we arrived).

Fuji-san and the moon

Fuji-san and the moon

It was two nights before the super moon so we were able to witness a reasonable sized moon posing with Fuji-san, and by the time we left, the lookout point was packed with probably 20-30 people and their tripods standing shoulder to shoulder trying to snap pictures of the mountain in the dark. By that time though the cloud had pretty much completely enveloped Fuji-san and all that was left was the lake and the moon. I’m not sure if it was particularly windy or not but I wasn’t able to capture any reflection in the lake at all which was a minor disappointment. Amazingly, that first afternoon that we arrived was to be the best view (in terms of clarity, due to the time) we had of Mount Fuji for the whole time we were in Kawaguchi-ko, we got clear views of it our last two days but it was either too bright and hazy, or dark and cloudy.

Afterwards we went and had Hoto again at Hoto Kosaku this time (the same place we went to the first time we visited Kawaguchi-ko), but I’ll have more on that later, it was great though. Next stop, final half day in Kawaguchi-ko, what I want to do next time, and arriving in Tokyo.

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Japan 2016: Arrival in Kawaguchi-ko, oh glorious Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji says Hello

Mount Fuji says Hello

A train and bus ride from Kyoto (via Mishima) with a bit of a rush at Mishima station to get the Fujikyu bus to Kawaguchi-ko, and even before stopping at Fuji-Q Highlands (second last stop) or Yamanaka-ko (last stop before Kawaguchi-ko), it appeared. Mount Fuji emerged from behind the clouds and presented itself in the most brilliant of bus ride views. We probably ended up with 36 views of Mount Fuji as we drove around the lakes toward Kawaguchi-ko.

Definitely some pretty clear views that afternoon and with some dramatic clouds as well, I only managed one shot at the bus stop before we headed to our accommodation, 15 minutes downhill walk, by the time we got there though Fuji-san was hiding again. Never mind, we’ll see you again later, and if not, we at least got some good views on the bus.

After settling in, and checking the forecast for the next few days, it was almost certainly going to be an overcast day with no views of Fuji-san the next day, but clear for the two days after.

Kawaguchi-ko

With overcast skies and no real chance of the sun clearing the clouds out of the way we decided to wander over to Kawaguchi-ko and have a look around. Beautiful red leaves were abound by the lake, and Mount Kachi Kachi was starting to show some Autumn colour as well, although still mostly green. We didn’t get too far before it was time for lunch (hoto fudo, more on that later), and then after that the oldies went and took some pictures in a nice leafy Autumn spot (with coloured leaves fallen to the ground) while we went back to the hostel and a nap.

  • Kawaguchi-ko and Mount Kachi Kachi in the mist
    Kawaguchi-ko and Mount Kachi Kachi in the mist
  • Kawaguchi-ko
    Kawaguchi-ko
  • Ohashi Bridge in Kawaguchi-ko
    Ohashi Bridge in Kawaguchi-ko

I managed to get back out to Ohashi bridge just before sunset to hopefully capture something of Mount Fuji, I caught a glimpse of the cone but by the time I snapped the shot it was clouded over again. So instead I shifted my attention to the road, traffic, and the colours of the hills behind. Got a pretty nice shot, would’ve been nicer if it was a bit darker but then I suppose I wouldn’t have captured any of the colours in the background.

Hills around Kawaguchi-ko

Hills around Kawaguchi-ko

We signed ourselves up for the hostel day tour around the five lakes area the next day, so that will be coming up in the next post. The picture to the right gives a glimpse of the weather to come, that was the next morning, so definitely cleared up for our day trip but that’s for the next post. Kawaguchi-ko is a great destination and I definitely love going there and I have no doubt that I’ll be there again, but you’ll see for yourself in the next couple of posts.

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Japan 2016: Kyoto – Ginkaku-ji and Eikando-ji

Ginkaku-ji: Koyo and zen garden

Koyo and zen garden

And we arrive on our last full day in Kyoto, it went by so fast, we didn’t get to see everything that we planned but I won’t complain about the pacing as I feel it was not too bad, we didn’t rush ourselves too much. Originally I wanted to visit Sanzen-In and Enko-ji to the north, near Ohara, as well as Eikando-ji and Nanzen-ji (on separate days of course) but time did not permit and we ended up only visiting Eikando-ji as we spent a lot longer at Ginkaku-ji than I expected. I’d seen pictures of Ginkaku-ji and didn’t think much of it, compared to Kinkaku-ji’s brilliant pavilion, Ginkaku-ji didn’t seem to stand out. But then we arrived, and we started wandering around, and we saw it for its true beauty.

Ginkaku-ji: Zen garden

Zen garden

Ginkaku-ji

The surrounding garden is definitely one of the best that we’ve seen, and overall, I would definitely rate it higher than Kinkaku-ji. The colours of the trees, the rocks, the water features, and the layout is all just perfect, the walking route takes you around the garden giving you all of the best viewing angles without having to do anything.

Emmy, who is so very proud of her all-seeing eye (for photos) would take a picture and then tell me only to realise that the picture I had already taken was more or less the same, you just can’t lose here, take a picture and it will almost certainly look a million bucks. It didn’t matter that it was raining when we arrived, it certainly didn’t matter that the sun came out halfway through our visit, we just got more variety to our pictures.

Ginkaku-ji: Zend pond

Zend pond

Perhaps it doesn’t have the large pond of Kinkaku-ji or Tenryu-ji, but everything else seemed to be a notch above (having said that, maybe Kinkaku-ji in Autumn is even better?), definitely a temple highlight and all the better because I didn’t expect it. I’m very glad that we decided to visit and very happy that we took our time, even if it came at the cost of visiting Nanzen-ji.

Ginkaku-ji: Moss rocks

Moss rocks

Eikando-ji

We then made our way along the Philosopher’s Path heading toward Eikando-ji and Nanzen-Ji, I’m wondering if the path is actually only nice in Spring cherry blossom season as it didn’t seem to be particularly photogenic to me, perhaps I didn’t have a wabi-sabi enough view of it. Anyway, when we finally arrived at Eikando-ji we had a decision to make (as it was almost lunch time), visit here or continue on to Nanzen-ji.

We decided to just visit Eikando-ji rather than risk more walking and then having to wander another large temple complex with a hungry toddler. So with that we paid the ticket price (1000¥ quite expensive) and headed in.

Eikando-ji: Koyo

Koyo

As with most temples and gardens, this one had a walking route which made things easy and meant that we didn’t have to think too much, but that we’d also probably end up with mostly the same pictures as everyone else. The Autumn colours were definitely out here and it was probably a good decision to visit here rather than heading for the larger Nanzen-ji. We managed to stroll through reasonably quickly (they had some pretty amazing goldfish? koi? swimming in the pond) but also captured all of the views (even the security girls warming their feet!).

It was a very nice garden/temple and the bridge pond and the water feature near the end of the route were quite eye catching indeed. So it turns out that both temples were winners and well worth the entry price this day, good for us! Afterwards we headed back to the city centre to look for lunch (Coco curry, more on that in a later post) and then do some shopping in Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping streets since our last day we wouldn’t have time to do much.

That’s it for Kyoto, second time around, we paced ourselves better than the first, weren’t too rushed and while we didn’t see all that we planned to, we did see quite a few things, and also enjoyed some fun activities as well. I think this is how we will look to plan future trips as well to try to avoid burning ourselves out too quickly and not enjoying the holiday as much as we should. Next stop, Kawaguchi-ko, will we see Mount Fuji?

  • Ginkaku-ji: Zen garden
    Zen garden
  • Ginkaku-ji koyo
    Ginkaku-ji koyo
  • Ginkaku-ji: Moss trees
    Moss trees
  • Eikando-ji
    Eikando-ji
  • Eikando-ji: Water feature
    Water feature
  • Eikando-ji: Pond bridge
    Pond bridge

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Japan 2016: Emmy’s birthday at Nishiki Market

Kyoto: Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

Well, I’ve already talked about the pottery class we did in the morning and our kaiseki dinner in the evening on Emmy’s birthday, so what did we do in between? Well, the plan was to go from the pottery class directly to Nishiki Market and meet the oldies there for lunch, but they took so long getting there from Kyoto Station that we ended up with only an hour or so to speed through the market and get some snacks in before dinner. It was our second time at Nishiki Market and it’s always fun and tasty, there are just so many great stalls selling food (and all sorts of other stuff) you could really spend a day there, but you probably couldn’t move by the end of it!

Best ever strawberry cheesecake?

Strawberry cheesecake

While waiting for the oldies we weren’t sure whether to get something to eat or not, but decided that we should have some cake for Emmy’s birthday at least, and wandered into the Daimaru food level. These places are bloody amazing, you walk through all of the vendors and you just want to buy everything. The desserts look amazing, the packaged meals don’t look super, but you can bet they’re plenty tasty and better than anything you’ll ever get in Australia. Don’t ever think about walking into one of the bakeries if you don’t want to eat anything, because absolutely everything looks delectable and irresistible. Those croquettes at all of the fried food vendors are so tempting I don’t know how I resisted buying a bag every time we walked past one. We ended up grabbing a strawberry cheese cake which Emmy promptly proclaimed to be the best strawberry cheese cake ever! I won’t argue with here because it was certainly very good and I have very little experience in this field.

It’s so colourful and there are so many people there it makes for some really great photo opportunities as well, one of my personal favourites is the portrait with the people rushing by. It’s not easy handheld but carrying a tripod and planting it in the middle of the market lane is not an option so you do what you can.

Kyoto: Takoyaki at Nishiki Market

Takoyaki at Nishiki Market

It closes pretty early (5pm I think) so we only had about an hour and a half to rush through on this day, but we made sure to snap up anything delicious looking snacks, some grilled squid, all sorts of dried stuff, and of course our favourite from last time, takoyaki. For some reason even though we know the contents are extremely hot we always seem to burn our mouths eating it. We just cannot hold ourselves back and need to eat it fast. There seems to be only one shop in the market selling it ready to eat so it’s always pretty busy but they’re fast so you never need to wait too long.

Outside Gion Nanba

Pouring rain in Gion

It was a bit crazy afterwards as we had to go to Gion for dinner but we wanted to take the oldies (and Oscar) there to see it at night. We only managed to get to Pontocho before the rain really started pouring down, so rather than push our luck we quickly grabbed a taxi and packed them in, it was so close anyway.

Afterwards, well, you know the story so I won’t go into that anymore, we went home after dinner and realised just how close we were staying. Next up, our last full day in Kyoto.

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Japan 2016: Kaiseki at Gion Nanba

Gion Nanba: Frapuccions at Starbucks!

Frapuccions at Starbucks!

What would a birthday in Japan be without a special dining experience? Let’s get the bad out of the way first, I made reservations online for Gion Nanba (one Michelin star) about two weeks prior to the date which seemed to go smoothly, but when we arrived, they did not have our reservation listed at all. I had the confirmation on my phone though, and fortunately it was a Tuesday so they weren’t so busy that they couldn’t slot us in 45 minutes later, there was no one else eating at the counter that night that we saw. I think somehow it would be best to confirm a day or two prior either via email, phone or even in person if you book online, just to be sure. It’s opposite a Starbucks in Gion so we went across the road and chilled with some frapuccinos until our time had come.

So second time around we got our seats at the counter and by this time ready to gorge (as much as you can gorge eating such a meal), I was so eager I pretty much fell into the leg pit and banged my knee. I didn’t realise there was space to dangle your legs at the counter rather than just sitting cross legged.

  • Kaiseki: Persimmon, crab, gluten, and a flower
    Persimmon, crab, gluten, and a flower
  • Kaiseki: Sake bottle
    Sake bottle
  • Kaiseki: Sea eel, mountain potato, spinach, and yuzu
    Sea eel, mountain potato, spinach, and yuzu

Starters

We started off by ordering some sake letting the lady recommend us the type, we had it hot. You can probably see from the pictures how nice the dinner ware is, everything is so intricate and pretty, and especially wabi-sabi (my new favourite term!).

Sushi and Sashimi

  • Kaiseki: Nanba slicing the sashimi
    Nanba slicing the sashimi
  • Kaiseki: Sashimi
    Sashimi
  • Kaiseki: Sushi condiments
    Sushi condiments
  • Kaiseki: Sushi and other stuff
    Sushi and other stuff

Next up were the sushi and sashimi courses, the sashimi consisted of squid, bonito, sea bream, and tuna, while the sushi (and other stuff) had anko fish liver (top right behind the lead), salmon roe, mackerel sushi, and shirako (a river fish) spem sacs (yes, you read that right! Top left with the spring onion garnish). All the usual suspects here except for the fish liver and the fish sperm sacs, the liver didn’t taste like liver but I’ve never had fish liver before so maybe that’s what it normally tastes like, it didn’t seem to taste like mercury at all (:D). The sperm sacs, well this was actually one of the most memorable items on the menu that night, it tasted really good once you forget what it is you’re eating. The texture is like custard and it’s a bit salty, and a bit sweet, the hard part was getting over what I was eating, it wasn’t that hard, I just needed to eat it.

Turnips, Soba, and Rice

  • Kaiseki: Spanish Mackerel, pickled turnip
    Spanish Mackerel, pickled turnip
  • Kaiseki: Nanba Chefs at work
    Chefs at work
  • Kaiseki: Soba
    Soba
  • Kaiseki: Steamed turnip, snapper, and gingko nuts
    Steamed turnip, snapper, and gingko nuts
  • Kaiseki: Rice and Miso soup
    Rice and Miso soup

Down to the staples now with soba, rice, and miso soup, clearly turnip is in season as there were two dishes with turnip, and it was really cool that it was done two ways. That petal shaped bowl was very interesting as well.

Dessert and Matcha Tea

  • Kaiseki: Raspberry iced cream, grape, pear, and wine jelly
    Raspberry iced cream, grape, pear, and wine jelly
  • Kaiseki: Mochi
    Mochi
  • Kaiseki: Matcha tea
    Matcha tea

We finished with some very yummy desserts, especially the wine jelly, it all sounds very sweet but it really wasn’t, just really, really well made, in great harmony and balanced so well as you would expect. I’m not 100% sure if the mochi wasn’t extra (as an apology) or not, I don’t remember seeing the people before us getting that. And then washed down with a traditional tea ceremony style matcha green tea.

This was almost three weeks ago, and you may have noticed that I didn’t actually comment on the taste of the food that much, unfortunately I didn’t take detailed notes on the night (preferring to just be in the moment, I didn’t even take these pictures!) and obviously I can’t remember how most of the dishes tasted now, but I can say this, if there was anything subpar I definitely would remember it. We can safely assume that this meal was a highlight and that we enjoyed everything, except the whole “didn’t have our reservation” issue. It was a great meal, especially seeing the ingredients that were used, you wouldn’t normally think of a lot of this stuff. And watching the chefs at work up close and being able to see the utensils that they use, the pots and pans, and the oven, it was all very cool.

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Japan 2016: Pottery class with Shigeru Sensei

Kyoto pottery: My finished products

My finished products

The first part of Emmy’s birthday series involved a pottery class with Shigeru sensei (40 years of pottery making experience!), Emmy found this one herself as she wanted to try something really authentic for her birthday, and of course I wasn’t going to miss out. This was a very personal experience as it was a private class with just Shigeru sensei and the two of us. Located near Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, his studio is in some back street that may as well have been underground, there’s no way we would’ve found it based on the address alone, so it’s a good thing he came out to the entrance of the shrine to lead us to the studio. The shrine itself was quite nice and had quite a number of trees showing there Autumn colours, I didn’t get any pictures as we were on the clock a bit and I didn’t want to hold us up.

It was quite good because Shigeru sensei gave us a little bit of a guided tour through the shrine grounds and explained the correct way to pray/wish and what most people go to the shrine for (academic success FTW!) before leading us through a bit of a maze of small streets to his studio.

Pottery: Display room

Display room

He has a little presentation room at the front of the studio and lead us to the back where the magic happens. First we had some theory about the different techniques used in moulding and shaping the clay before we jumped in and started wedging. I wasn’t very good so spiral wedging ended up just squishing the same part over and over, but Emmy’s was better and she got some spiral pattern going on her clay. Once our clay had been wedged appropriately we took a morning tea break and enjoyed some yummy mochi and green tea, all served on some of Shigeru sensei’s custom creations I’m sure. Actually, the mochi was really, really nice, soft and sweet, but not too sweet (and its green colouring was actually from some kind of grass which apparently random old people pull out in random areas around the city). And the tea was a blended green tea with rice.

Pottery: Shigeru sensei getting started

Shigeru sensei getting started

After that sweet break it was back to the grind, and Shigeru sensei explained the differences between the Japanese pottery wheel and the western pottery wheel before showing us what we needed to do to turn our blobs of clay into works of art.

Pottery: Shigeru sensei working his magic

Shigeru sensei working his magic

He makes it looks so easy and explains it in words but also helps guide you as the clay spins around, ever the novice my clay didn’t “die” properly and tried to leap off the wheel before Shigeru sensei captured it and we had another go at killing it and moulding some dtraCorp special art.

Eventually, I (with a very large amount of help) had completed my three pieces, a tea bowl, a bowl for all seasons, and a sake cup, and it was Emmy’s turn to turn some dirt into a work of art. Either Emmy is a natural, or listens and follows instructions very well, or I’m just a complete tragic, because she seemed to have a lot more control of the clay than I did. She was going so well that Shigeru sensei decided to show her a technique of trimming some clay off the top, this didn’t go so well and we lost quite a bit of clay in the process :D. Never fear though, we moved on and completed three more pieces although a disappointed Emmy worked her last item a bit too much and it ended up being a bowl instead of a cup.

So we ended up with six items ready to be baked and glazed as Shigeru sensei sees fit, all going well in a couple months they’ll all arrive (we have to pay for shipping on top of the class fee) looking completely different from how we left them :D. If not all, we should get at least three or four of them and the others will be left to return to the Earth from where they came (or back into the clay pile for future students!).

  • Pottery: Shelves of student work
    Shelves of student work
  • Pottery: Lesson 1
    Lesson 1
  • Pottery: Shaping the clay
    Shaping the clay
  • Pottery: Cutting the bowl
    Cutting the bowl
  • Pottery: Finished and ready to bake
    Finished and ready to bake
  • Pottery: Killing the clay
    Killing the clay
  • Pottery: Unfinished products
    Unfinished products
  • Pottery: Moulding the clay
    Moulding the clay
  • Kyoto pottery: Sake bottle
    Sake bottle
  • Kyoto pottery: Tea bowl, sake cup, all seasons bowl
    Tea bowl, sake cup, all seasons bowl

Shigeru sensei was kind enough to walk us back to the bus stop and lend us an umbrella (as we’d neglected to take one out) so that we could head to Nishiki market for some afternoon snacking. This was a great experience and I would think that we’ll definitely do it again next time we are in Kyoto, it’s not only fun and informative, but you get something out of it (as in some artisan pottery) at the end as well. Two thumbs up, definite recommendation!

P.S. Off topic, but I should mention it, don’t let the gritty nature of Shigeru sensei’s studio workshop fool you, his rest room is in full working order and provides all of the Japanese comforts required for peaceful Zen time in the loo.

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Japan 2016: Himeji Castle

Moving right along, we didn’t really plan much for this day, it was the day before Emmy’s birthday and my original plan was to head north to Sanzen-in and Enkoji for the day as the weather was good. But we decided to take it somewhat easy and just head to Kyoto station in the morning before spending the afternoon at Himeji Castle. I planned Himeji Castle to be a whole day trip but under advice from Emmy we decided it was only a half day site. We didn’t visit Himeji on our first trip because it was still being renovated at the time.

Himeji Castle

We gave ourselves about three hours to spend at the castle (plus one hour each way on the shinkansen) which we hoped would be enough to also visit the garden, but it turned out that we only had time to visit the main keep and the west bailey. The garden was closed by the time we finished wandering the main keep so we just had a stroll through the west bailey instead. It’s a nice castle but having now seen three of the national treasure castles of Japan (Hikone and Matsumoto) I think I can safely say that I’m over visiting castles. I really think Matsumoto is a more pleasant experience and is more photogenic with it’s large moat. The inside of the castle is largely the same and only the views are different, perhaps the castle might have looked nicer from the garden, we’ll probably never know.

  • Moat outside Himerji Castle
    Moat outside Himerji Castle
  • Himeji Castle
    Himeji Castle
  • Himeji Castle
    Himeji Castle
  • Himeji Castle
    Himeji Castle
  • Himeji Castle
    Himeji Castle
  • Himeji Castle: View from the top
    View from the top
  • Himeji Castle
    Himeji Castle

We didn’t get a chance to see anything else in Himeji aside from the station and the wide boulevard from the station, it seems like a nice town and even has quite a few shops to keep the ladies interested. Don’t quote me but I’m pretty certain that this was the last castle that we’ll ever visit (as in buy the ticket and go up to the top of the main keep), but it was a nice one to go out on. You never know we might stop by in cherry blossom season or something but all the views would definitely be from the outside. It was also a bit unfortunate that the weather was so clear because some dramatic clouds would definitely have spruced up the pictures.

That’s it, it was a pretty easy day, next up, Emmy’s birthday which I’ll split into a couple posts because we did some cool things that need their own articles, really fun stuff.

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