Japan, Day 6: Kyoto

We knew our planned destination for the morning of our third day in Kyoto would involve a lot of stairs.  After almost suffering heat exhaustion at the monkey park, we decided to get smart and get an early start. And so we were off to Fushimi Inari, the head shrine for the deity Inari.

Fox statue

Inari is the kami of rice and agriculture (thanks, Wikipedia), but the servants of Inari are usually depicted as foxes. So you get fox statues everywhere. (Remember that Inari itself is NOT a fox, however.)  Inari is an incredibly popular kami to pray to, and as such there are literally thousands of Inari shrines throughout Japan, including dozens of subshrines at Fushimi Inari itself.

Shrine buildings at Fushimi Inari

The main buildings of the shrine are quite impressive, but they weren’t the primary reason we had hauled ourselves out of bed at six in the morning.  Rather, that would be the senbon torii, or “thousands of torii” that straddle the paths up the mountain.

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Spectacularly photogenic, these things.  At 7:30 in the morning, we only had to cope with a few other groups, but even then we were tripping over people getting their perfect social media shots.  They couldn’t detract from the overwhelming impact of the path, however.

The view from the top of the trail was pretty spectacular, and while we were up there, we witnessed a proposal to boot. (She said yes.)

View from Fushimi Inari

We were also quite proud of ourselves for figuring out the secret code on the back of the gates.  And by “secret code”, I just mean “Japanese traditional dates.”  But we figured it out, with just a LITTLE help from Wikipedia to pin down which emperor was which.

By this point it was getting EXTREMELY warm, so we staggered back down the mountain and headed back into Kyoto for breakfast.  Afterwards, we decided to check out the large temple complex we had passed in the cab the night before, since it was conveniently only two blocks north of our hotel, and both of those blocks could be walked underground where it was slightly cooler.

The temple complex in question is called Higashi Hongan-ji, and it is ENORMOUS. All of the publicity material for the Founder’s Hall in this complex claim that it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.  Interestingly, I cannot find a single independent verification of this claim.  However, I still believe it.

Higashi Hongan-jiThe Founder’s hall (just under the cloud) is 50,000 square feet in size, and 125 ft. tall.  It’s big. After staggering across the unshaded gravel courtyard which was approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun, we made it onto the porch of the temple and, removing our shoes, stepped into the hall.  Shortly after we arrived, however, a service began, and we didn’t want to be disrespectful, so we didn’t take any pictures.

The second hall, just to the left of the Founder’s hall, is nearly the same size as well, and there are a number of other buildings in the complex in addition.  The scale is hard to appreciate from the pictures, but it was massive.

After this, we went to meet our friends for more okonomiyaki.  There’s a great debate over whether Hiroshima or the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto and evirons) region has a better version of the dish. We naturally couldn’t make up our minds without trying both. Verdict? They’re both good.

After lunch, we took the subway up to the Kyoto Wagashi Museum.  Wagashi are traditional confectionary of the region, usually served with matcha tea.  The museum was a single room, but it had some really impressive displays of preserved confectionary. Entire flower arrangements, birds, trees, and other bravura displays of artistry.  Sadly, no photography was allowed.

Where photography WAS allowed was in the tea shop downstairs, where the museum docent served us matcha and our choice of seasonal wagashi.  I think they speak for themselves in terms of appearance.



The flavors were also exquisite.

Frankly, we think the docent was a bit bored – we were the only other people in the museum the entire time we were there, and she went out of her way to show us the various other aspects of the tea room, including the decorations, the garden, and a neat musical instrument that makes sound by pouring water into a spring. She also took this picture for us.

Picture of Dan and Leigh in Kyoto Wagashi Museum

After that, we considered going to visit another park, but it was just too ungodly hot.  So we went back to our hotel to rest for a bit before joining our friends again for another gourmet dinner, this one consisting of tempura, and at a restaurant in the hotel in the train station itself.

After a plate of warmup treats,


we were presented with a selection of things to dip our tempura in, and the chef would make recommendations as we went along as to which dishes would be better dipped in which topping.

Tempura dips

Finally, we waddled back to our hotel.  I snapped this picture BEFORE dinner, but it seems a great way to end the entry.
Kyoto Tower
(There wasn’t a UFO invasion going on, that’s just the reflection of the station lights in the glass.)


Japan, Day 5: Kyoto

This morning we set out to explore the Higashiyama (eastern hills) area of Kyoto, which is known for picturesque streets, lovely views of the city, and a truly enormous number of shrines and temples.  Higashiyama

In particular, our first stop was the temple complex, Kiyomizu-dera, situated on a hillside overlooking the neighborhood, and by extension, all of the city.

We took a bus out to the area and, after a quick breakfast, started our walk to the temple. Just a few minutes after we started out, we turned a corner and ran into the friends with whom we would be having dinner later.  This was completely unplanned and unexpected – Kyoto’s not as big as Osaka or Tokyo, but still a bit larger than one expects to have this sort of thing happen.

Our friends had already been up to the temple, so we parted ways and resumed our climb.  They had the right idea to go early in the morning, as it was once again extremely hot, and also quite crowded.

Crowds at temple

But the views were, as promised, amazing.  The porch at right in this picture is justifiably famous.
View from temple

And from it, you can see a famous spring with three streams. Each is thought to confer a different benefit, but it’s considered greedy to drink from all three.
Spring with three streams

This pagoda is said to help provide an easy childbirth.
Easy childbirth pagoda

And here’s a view of that porch from below.
Porch viewed from below.

By this point we were getting severely overheated again, so we stopped for a shaved ice, still on the temple grounds. Once again, that interesting mixture of spirituality and commerce.  On leaving the temple, the crowds were starting to get pretty fierce on the main street leading up the hill.

Crowds in eastern Kyoto

But interestingly, when we went just a few streets over to take our own photo of an EXTREMELY famous view of the area, there were many fewer people around. (Not NONE, of course – just fewer.)

Pagoda in Kyoto

The pagoda in the photo, Hōkan-ji Temple, is unusual in that it’s one of the few that you can not only enter, but actually climb to the second floor. The pagoda was first built in the 6th century, but the present structure dates from 1440. The inside is dark and cramped, but it’s still striking to see the structure from within.

Hōkan-ji Temple Pagoda

But not for too long when it’s in the 90s,because my goodness wood retains heat well.

After that, we headed back to downtown Kyoto to look for lunch. We tried the food hall of a well known department store first.  Japanese department stores usually have a floor or two dedicated entirely to food.  This tends to fall into three categories.  There will be a number of counters dedicated to gift food: nicely wrapped boxes of tea, fancy cakes, or hand-selected fruit costing upwards of 50 dollars per apple. The second category is groceries – meats, vegetables, and the like that you’d take home if you were planning on actually making dinner.  And the third category is ready-to-eat meals – bento boxes, noodles, sushi, anything you can think of, really.

The catch is that there’s nowhere to eat it.  All this amazing looking food generally cannot be consumed in the store, and many of the stores don’t have designated areas nearby to eat it, either.  It’s aimed at either workers who can take it back to their office, or for people who can take it home with them.  Since we were neither, we wandered back out to a nearby shopping street and had another graze. Fish on a stick, chicken on a stick, and this:

Scallop with cod roe

What’s not to like?

We spent the rest of afternoon wandering about downtown. We visited a large stationary store (like most of them) that also happened to be a stationery store.

Having seen various stores selling buns shaped like a 10 yen coin, we decided to try one.  I’m not sure WHAT possessed me to think a steaming hot bun would be a good idea in this weather, but it was tasty.  We assumed this was some sort of traditional street food, since we had seen it everywhere, but it turns out it’s a trendy influencer thing that’s only been around for a few years. We’re trendy! Now if only we’d taken a PICTURE of the damn thing, we could have posted it to our Insta. Or our gram. Or our stagr, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

We sat down on a bench to eat it in another covered shopping street, only to realize that we were sitting across from yet another temple, this one built into the mall itself.

Shopping mall temple

That red logo is a traditional Buddhist symbol that dates back millennia, and is a mirror image of the one you’re probably thinking of.  Just a few doors down in the same street was a path leading to yet a DIFFERENT temple, this one famous because it’s where the first of the “Three Great Generals”, Odo Nobunaga, was murdered.

After that, we’d had enough of the heat and walking, so we went back to our hotel to rest a bit before dinner.  And dinner was going to be a doozy.  One of our friends who we had run into earlier was taking us for Kaisekei – a traditional Kyoto multicourse meal – at a restaurant with a Michelin star.  I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to dress appropriately given packing constraints and the heat, only to discover that the other party at the restaurant was wearing shorts and a backwards ball cap.  Sigh.

And I do mean the ONE other party – the restaurant is a single counter with eight seats.  There were five in our party and two in the other, and that’s the entire room.  The chef prepared each course in front of us and placed in on the table. Fortunately, our friend and guide is a native Japanese speaker, so he was able to translate our questions and the chef’s comments.

We didn’t remember to take pictures of all the courses, sadly.  First up was a dish of abalone and pickled vegetables.  Next, hamo fish.  This is a fish with an absurd number of bones, that is only made palatable by an incredibly sophisticated knife technique that makes dozens of cuts to render the bones imperceptible.  It takes many years for a chef to be properly trained in this technique.

Hamo fish

Next, sashimi.


Not pictured, grouper in dashi broth.  And it’s a shame there’s no picture, because of all these exquisite dishes, this is the one that was probably our favorite.  We were just too blown away by the flavor to remember to pull out our phones.

Next up, an assortment of small items.

Small food items

I don’t remember all of these, but there’s crab, cod roe, seaweed, edamame, tofu, and fried fish belly.  Speaking of fish… several dishes earlier, we had watched the chef pull a number of live small fish out of a tank and thread them (still wiggling) on skewers.  Each of these were placed on a charcoal grill, and for the last few courses, he had repeatedly returned to the grill to turn them.  Now they were pulled off the grill and placed whole in front of us.  And that’s how we were told to eat them – whole.
Eel over rice

I thought it was amazing, but Leigh was a tad bothered.

One other thing to mention – all of the plates in these pictures were ALSO made by the chef.

Traditionally, the last main dish in a meal like this is the rice dish, so we were served eel over rice with more pickled vegetables. No picture of that, or dessert, which was honey ice cream with lemon juice, followed by carefully prepared matcha tea.

What a meal.  Definitely one of the best we’ve ever had.

To finish the evening, we went and walked around the architectural marvel that is Kyoto Station for a bit.  These stairs light up in various animations – it’s really cool.

Glowy stairs

And here’s the view down the same stairs from the top.

Kyoto station at night

It was a long, but seriously amazing day.

Japan, Day 4: Kyoto

Kyoto was the first time in Japan we really had time to sit down for a nice breakfast – Osaka was closed due to a typhoon, and we had trains to catch the next two mornings.  We had heard a lot about fluffy Japanese pancakes, so we set out to acquire some.

However, it turns out fluffy Japanese pancakes are not breakfast food.  Nowhere that sells them (and there are lots of places) does so before 11 AM at the earliest.  So French toast it was.  And it was fine.  But we swore there WOULD be pancakes before the trip was over!

Swearing accomplished, we had a few hours to wander around Kyoto before we needed to make our reservation on the world’s least romantic Romantic Train. (More on that later.)  We decided to visit a nearby Buddhist temple, but we had to stop and take pictures of a set of shrines we passed on the way. (A quick word on terminology – temples are Buddhist.  Shrines are Shinto. But it’s not always easy for knucklehead tourists such as ourselves to determine which is which.)

Shrine in Kyoto
This was early days yet, so we didn’t realize just how ubiquitous these shrines were going to be. You pass small ones on nearly every street, particularly in Kyoto, which was largely undamaged in WWII.  Some estimates place the number of Shinto shrines in Japan at over 100,000, and the number of Buddhist temples at around 80,000.  It’s truly impressive.

“Impressive” is also the word I would use to describe our actual destination, the Tō-ji temple complex.

To-Ji Temple Pagoda, Kyoto

The complex as a whole dates from 796.  As would turn out to be a common theme throughout the trip, due to fires, earthquakes, and conflict, the actual BUILDINGS at many religious sites were significantly newer than the site itself.  This pagoda, for example, was originally built in the 9th century, but was destroyed and rebuilt four times, so the current structure is ONLY about 380 years old.

There are two large temple halls, neither of which allow pictures inside.  Both are amazing to enter, however.  The rooms are huge, dark, smell of incense, and contain statues of Buddhas ranging from the merely very large, to the truly enormous, all of them hundreds of years old. Even without pictures, it was an incredibly memorable place to stand.

Which, I am aware, does NOT help you, the reader, visualize things.

After that, we needed to walk to the train station to catch the train to the other train we had tickets on, and Google directed us down a quiet back street of Kyoto to cut through a park to our destination.

At least, it was quiet at first.  Soon we heard… drumming? Well, ONE drum, anyway. And… kids? We turned a corner and saw something we definitely wouldn’t expect in North America; there was a class of about 30 children probably around 5 years old, wearing matching uniforms, with several adults supervising.  One of these adults had a marching bass drum on a stand and was hitting it.  Every time he did so he’d shout an instruction and the kids would, in unison, perform a gymnastic move with their partner.

I used to teach five year olds – I was lucky if I could get 30 of them to not MURDER each other, let alone perform synchronized gymnastics to a beat.  We didn’t take any pictures, because that would have been creepy, but my goodness I wanted to.

However, we had to get moving, because we had to get to the starting point for our trip on the world’s least romantic Romantic Train.

I should explain.

In the northwest suburbs of Kyoto, there’s a mountain gorge with a scenic railroad running through it.  This train is known as the “Sagano Romantic Railroad.”  In theory, you can have a lovely romantic time on a train going through beautiful natural scenery.

And to be fair, the scenery IS very nice.  Here’s the station where we boarded:

Rural train station

And here’s a view from the window:

View from train window

Lovely, innit?  Now let me paint a picture of what it’s actually like to BE on this train.

The train is PACKED.  Every seat is taken with tourists, families, children, none of whom are observing the usual rules of silence on Japanese trains.  In addition to the passengers, the train itself is EXTREMELY noisy.  There are a pair of photographers roaming the aisles insisting on taking photos of everyone, and requiring a crowbar to convince that you do not actually wish to PURCHASE a souvenir photograph. Over all of this chaos, there is an announcer on the PA speaking in rapid, highly amplified Japanese. Continuously. For the entire (20 minute) length of the trip.  At no point does disembodied announcer person ever appear to take a breath.

It was utter madness.  It was not in ANY WAY romantic.

It was bonkers, I’m so glad we went.

Upon disembarking, we got to experience the peaceful stillness of the Arashiyama bamboo grove… with several hundred of our closest friends.

Bamboo grove

It’s amazing, you should go see it, but if you want to get that perfect Instagram photo without running into several million people ALSO trying to get that perfect Instagram photo, you’ll need to get there very early.  Fortunately for us, we don’t even know how to SPELL Instagram.  I think there’s a “w” in there somewhere?

The grove leads to another temple complex, this one quite different from the one in the city, by virtue of its more rural setting.

View from temple

At this point, we were hot and tired and in need of lunch.  So we walked through the (extremely touristy) town of Arashiyama to a restaurant which promised… pancakes!  They were very good, but not the super fluffy ones we had been hoping for.  Our quest continued…

But there was no time to waste on longing for pancakes, because we had monkeys to see!  There’s a monkey park in Arashiyama!  Where you can hang out with monkeys!  It’s just the other side of this bridge! (Built in the medieval period, current iteration dates from 1934.  See what we mean?)

Togetsukyo bridge
It’s just the other side of this bridge… and a twenty minute walk up a steep hill.  In 95 degree weather.  Oof.

At least we weren’t like some of the tourists trying to do it in rented kimonos and sandals.

Once we got to the top and caught our breath, the monkeys WERE everything we hoped for, and the view was spectacular too.

Monkey sitting on post overlooking Kyoto

Monkey sitting on a ledge

You can buy apples to feed to the monkeys.  In order to do that, you have to go in a cage, so they can make fun of you while you give them food.

Monkey being fed

Monkeys are neat.  However, at that point, we had to haul ourselves back DOWN the mountain, catch the train back into Kyoto, and go find dinner.

We did this using a Japanese restaurant review site called “Tabelog.”  The great thing about Tabelog is that there’s no grade inflation.  If a restaurant has more than 3.0 rating, it’s good.  If it has more than 3.5, it’s excellent, and if it’s over 4.0, you are NEVER getting a table, loser. The only problem is that it’s more or less entirely in Japanese.  Thank goodness for Google Translate. (A frequent refrain on this trip.)

We decided to go to a place with a rating of 3.68.  Down this alley.

Dark alley in Kyoto

What could possibly happen?  Well, this, primarily.

Duck ramen

Absurdly good.  Tabelog is amazing.

We also selected this restaurant because it’s a block or so from Yasaka-Jinja, a shrine which is unquestionably best visited at night.  Why?

Shrine at night

Shrine at night

That’s why.

This had been a LONG day, so we had a nice walk down to the bus stop and headed back to our hotel.  Not much to see along the walk, really.

Kamo river at night
Well, OK, except that.  Kyoto is really pretty.


Japan, Day 3: Miyajima

I’m not going to bury the lead – this is my favorite picture of the entire trip:

Deer resting in front of Tori gate

Isn’t that something?  Those deer are jerks, though.  Let’s back up.

After our day in Hiroshima, we had an excursion planned to the island of Miyajima, followed by a Shinkansen to Kyoto, where we would be spending the next few days.  So we stashed our bags in lockers at the Hiroshima train station and boarded a train to Miyajimaguchi station.  Entertainingly, apparently enough people accidentally get off at “Miyauchikushido” station by mistake, that there is a special announcement on the train NOT to get off there if you are going to Miyajima.  So we didn’t.

But what’s the deal with the deer?  Well Miyajima island is one of two tourist destinations  in Japan (along with Nara) famous for extremely friendly deer.  They’re still wild animals, but they wander around amongst the tourists.  Eating stuff.


Seriously, we watched two different deer eat two different poorly managed kleenex in the space of five minutes.  This one tried to take a bite out of our crappy umbrella when I refused to share my maple cookie. (a local specialty)
Maple cookieDeer

Other than deer, why come to Miyajima?  Well, the number one attraction is the tori gate in the first photo.  It’s enormous, and it’s out in the water, so at high tide, you get beautiful photos like this:
Floating torii

And at low tide, you can walk right out to it.

Tori gate at low tide

Tori gate from below

In addition to the gate, there’s some other things to see on the island.  There’s a large shrine, built directly out over the water, associated with the gate.  Also visible in this photo are a 15th century pagoda (center) and a 16th century shrine commissioned by Toyotomi Hideoshi. (left)

View of shrines in Miyajima

In particular, the last of those, Itsukushima Jinja Senjokaku Pavilion, was particularly welcome, because we were starting to REALLY suffer from the heat, despite consuming copious quantities of vending machine beverages.  The pavilion is open, shaded, and on a hilltop, so what breeze there was went straight through. It also has stunning views.

View from hilltop pavillion.

After our encounter with the umbrella-eating deer on the main shopping street, we found a much quieter area with a small, family-run restaurant specializing in eel.  It’s amazing how easy it was to go from the packed tourist street to an absolutely quiet residential neighborhood just steps away.  The meal was fantastic, too.

Eel lunch

After lunch, we set back out in the heat to visit Daisho-in, a large Buddhist temple complex overlooking the town. It was an enormous, picturesque set of buildings ascending the hillside.  It included this garden full of buddha statues, all wearing knit hats…
Buddhas in knit hats

Incredible architecture…
Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple
…aand this thing, brought to you by Mazda.

This was our first encounter with the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the utterly corny, but it wouldn’t be the last. And as it turns out, it’s NOT a much of a break from tradition as you might think.

As I learned from Isaac Meyer’s amazing “History of Japan” podcast, a lot of religious sites in Japan were explicitly marketed as tourist attractions for large portions of their history. (Note: if I have borked any portion of this explanation, that’s my fault, not his.) During the Edo period, it was generally illegal to leave your home domain without explicit permission, and one of the few reasons you could get that permission was for a religious pilgrimage.

The keepers of the various shrines and temples realized that since there was a ready supply of people keen to travel, it was up to them to make their PARTICULAR temple desirable for a visit. So in addition to promoting their actual religious significance, sites would try other gimmicks as well.  Don’t have time to make a complete circuit of all of the pilgrimage sites on the island of Shikoku?  Daisho-in has you covered! We’ve got sand from all 88 of them, conveniently located a few feet apart, so you can do the whole thing in an hour!  Then have your picture taken in this Mazda cutout!

I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing the spiritual portions of these sites.  They are still profoundly moving, and we saw solemn worshippers everywhere we went. I’m more trying to say that the fact the big ones all had gift shops as well isn’t a modern innovation – they’re part of the tradition as well.

Rounding off the day, we had one more local delicacy of grilled oysters.

Grilled oysters
And with the sun gently setting over another jerk deer, it was time to head back to Hiroshima to pick up our luggage and catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto.



Japan, Day 2: Hiroshima

Even though we would have liked to spend a bit more time in Osaka due to all the closures on our first day, hotel reservations are a harsh mistress, so off we went to catch our first Shinkansen.

Also known as “bullet trains,” travel on the present Shinkansen network travels at speeds up to 320 km/hr. (For our readers still on the imperial system, that’s nearly forty thousand furlongs per day!) And this network has been around for nearly twice as long as The Simpsons, that’s how old it is.

It’s a cliché to say that we need this in North America, but dear lord do we need this in North America.  Hiroshima is roughly the same distance from Osaka as New York City is from Baltimore, but we made the trip in an hour and a half. Just enough time to share a tasty Inari bento, but not enough time to remember to take a picture of it before we ate it.  Here’s the wrapper, anyway.

Bento wrapper

Arriving in Hiroshima, we encountered the weather that would more or less define the rest of the trip. Sunny, humid, and temperatures in the low 300s. (Kelvin. Around the mid 90s F.) It was hot.

For our first stop, we went to the Shukkein Garden. (I mean, our FIRST stop was the nearest combini for cold drinks.  This can probably be assumed between every stop going forward for the rest of the trip.) The Shukkein roughly translates as “shrunken scenery.”  It’s a whole Japan in miniature – small mountains, small bridges, small rivers. Like the full sized version, it’s gorgeous.

Shukkein Garden

Shukkein Garden

Shukkein Garden

We then took a tourist bus downtown, and went looking for lunch.  By this point, we were seriously overheated, so we searched for “cold noodles near me”, and found a delightful lunch of cold udon and tempura. (Once again, with half of the food eaten before I remembered to take a picture.)


And now to be completely serious. While Hiroshima is a perfectly nice city, there’s obviously one particular reason to go there.
Atomic Bomb Dome

This monument is on a quiet backstreet, and shows the exact centroid of the bomb blast. It’s much less well known than some of the other sites.

Peace Memorial Museum

We didn’t take a lot of pictures here.  We didn’t take ANY pictures inside the museum, as they aren’t allowed, and it would have felt incredibly disrespectful to do so even if it had been.

The museum is deeply affecting.  It is entirely focused on the horrific effects of this single nuclear weapon. A choice could have been made to provide more context around the broader war, or the decision process to use the weapon, but instead the choice is to focus the entire attention of the viewer on WHY these weapons are so uniquely unconscionable.

Given the present level of political discourse in BOTH countries which control the bulk of the world’s stockpile… I’m not optimistic, frankly.  I fervently hope we continue to avoid their use.  But I’m frankly shocked we got through the Trump years, and Trump or no, there’s more like him on the horizon, and far too many jingoists under his banner.  Time will tell.

After that sobering afternoon, we returned to our AirBnB, which had the unique feature of a lock that we had to open using an app.  Which was largely in Japanese.  But amazingly, it worked using the link the host had texted us the night before.

For our one dinner in Hiroshima, we had the local specialty of okonomiyaki, which is a savory noodle pancake that literally translates as “however you like it.” There’s an okonomiyaki palace downtown which has roughly 8 restaurants on each of 3 floors, all specializing in the dish.  You sit around a hot griddle (perfect in sweltering temperatures) and the cook makes yours right in front of you.

Okonomiyaki being made


A happy end to a thoughtful day.

Japan, Day 1: Osaka, Interrupted

Remember the typhoon?  There was a typhoon.

We had one day in Osaka, and well – most of the city shut down.  We emerged from the underground entrance of our hotel into what had been an absolute madhouse of people and commerce the night before to find… nothing.

Osaka train station, deserted

Osaka station was deserted.  Every one of the gazillion small shops was shuttered. It was incredibly surreal.  We had a breakfast of onigiri, yogurt, and some pastries from a convenience store (“combini” in Japan) because it was literally the only thing open.  All of the tourist attractions we had planned to see, including the indoor ones like the aquarium, were closed.

New plan: let’s go find an arcade and spend some time there. Arcades in Japan are cool, right?

Arcade is closed.  We wandered around a large ridiculous store called “Don Quixote” for a bit.  Don Quixote is hard to explain.  Did you ever need to buy whisky, earbuds, sex toys, and a watercolour set in the same trip? Don Quixote has you covered.

We decided to go downtown on the subway and see what WAS open. Turns out the famous covered shopping street, Kurumon, was open.  In fact, since it was still POURING rain (typhoon, remember?) the slightly smaller absolute quantity of tourists was packed into a MUCH smaller area, so it was quite packed. Or so we thought at the time.  We actually had no idea what packed was going to look like later in the trip.

Kurumon market

Half the reason to come to Japan is for the food, so lets get started.  On our graze up and down the street, we managed to have the largest oyster either of us had ever consumed, some octopus on a stick and grilled scallops. (As will become apparent, we frequently started eating BEFORE remembering to photograph our food on this trip.)

OystersScallops and octopus

One thing that took some getting used to is that you don’t eat while walking in Japan.  If you buy an oyster, you stand in front of the shop that sold it to you, and you eat it there.  No matter how crowded the shopping streets get, you still pack in to wherever you bought the food to eat it.

In our continuing quest to find places we could reach while staying dry, we went to an old school coffee shop for some cake, our first of many shrines to find a geocache, some more covered shopping streets near Dotonbori (frozen fruit on a stick acquired), and finally bought a crappy plastic umbrella which we would haul around for the remainder of our trip.

CakeFrozen fruit on a stick

Dotonbori, by the way, is the famous canal district in Osaka that everyone takes pictures of.  For good reason – it’s got some great signs.

Signs near Dotonbori
The area of the actual canal itself was a bit on the soggy side.

The one other thing we were fairly sure we could check out despite the conditions was Shinsekai, a neighborhood that is to Dotonbori as the old Vegas strip is to the new one.  Slightly seedier, but in a way that makes it in many respects cooler.  

Shop in Shinsekai neighborhood

We had takoyaki sitting on a oil drum in a puddle, and it was the best takoyaki we’d ever had.  Burn your mouth hot and everything.

Tsutenkaku tower

Tsutenkaku tower. Also note the crappy, hastily purchased umbrella.

After going back to Dotonbori to see if the area around the canal would be a little drier by now for sightseeing (it wasn’t) and attempting to go to an arcade (still not open), we gave up and went back to our hotel to see if we could find some Osaka style okonomiyaki.  (We didn’t). Eventually we ended up at a chain izakaya that was perfectly serviceable, and turned out to be one of the largest restaurants we would eat in for the entire trip.   We ate crispy chicken and gyoza next to some boisterous Italians and went back to our room to try again the next day.

And that was our Osaka experience.  Memorable? Yes. Possibly not the precise set of memories we would have chosen, but definitely memorable.

Japan, Day 0: Osaka

After three solid months of planning, we were SUPER ready to stop PLANNING a trip to Japan and actually TAKE a trip to Japan. Planning the trip had become a full time hobby, and we were long past “oh my god, let’s just GO already”.

But thank goodness we planned things out, so we were fully prepared for (checks notes) a typhoon?

Wait, what?  No… we were NOT prepared for a typhoon.

And apparently neither was Osaka.

The first concern was that we wouldn’t make it in at all, but our plane managed to shave some time off its flight plan, and we arrived at Kansai airport hours ahead of Typhoon Lan. (Which is NOT Typhoon Ian, no matter how many times I try to read it that way.)

Kansai, as it turns out, is actually a bit shabby, as airports go.  We were worried that our preconceived notions of Japanese transit as fancy and modern were going to be dashed.  Once we got out of the airport, we discovered we needn’t have worried.

After getting quickly through customs (carry-on only, fortunately) we withdrew some yen from the nearest ATM, and made our way to the ticket office to pick up our Japan Rail (JR) passes, buy IC cards (that work on local transit, as well as the ubiquitous vending machines), and get tickets on the train into Osaka.

This is about as Japan a picture as we could have taken an hour off the plane. We’re on a high speed, Hello Kitty branded train, holding a vending machine beverage, with a 7-11 visible in the background.

We arrived at Osaka Station, and were immediately confronted with the absolute INSANITY that is the Osaka – Umeda station complex.  As we were to discover throughout the trip, large Japanese train stations are small cities, with underground warrens that go on forever, each zone merging into the next. Something like 47 of the 50 busiest train stations in the world are in Japan.

Osaka station was definitely one of them. The sheer VOLUME of people going every direction in this maze was staggering. 

After arriving in our hotel, jet lagged and confused, we went back out to find some food, and ended up at a chain izakaya near the station.  Our first meal in Japan consisted of grilled squid and corn on a hot plate, a mixed tempura platter, and a sashimi plate.  All of it delicious except for some weirdly gummy shrimp.

We elbowed through the crowds back to our hotel, expecting to plunge back into the maelstrom in the morning to spend our first day in Japan.  It didn’t quite work out that way…


Japan, Day -1: The Planinating

Regular readers of this blog (hi mom!) may remember that it originally started as a TRAVEL blog, that we updated every couple of years when we went somewhere interesting.  When we started documenting our international cooking project, it seemed more logical to add it here rather than starting a whole ‘nother WordPress instance.  (Also less work.  WordPress is useful, but irritating.)

But given that we’ve now cooked upwards of seventy meals, and it’s been nearly half a decade since our last international trip, it’s great to be able to finally talk about travel again.  And this one’s gonna be a doozy.

Leigh had a paper accepted to the biannual (not that biannual, the other one) International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Tokyo, so we decided to make a vacation of it.

I have attempted to travel trans-Pacific twice.  When I was in high school, I was a member of the Maryland Youth Orchestra, which planned a concert tour of China. In the summer.  In 1989.

So yeah, that didn’t happen.

Thirty years later, Leigh and I decided that we wanted to officiate the largest roller derby tournament in Australia.  We booked tickets. We made hotel reservations. We got halfway through our goddamn SCUBA DIVING certification. In 2020.

So yeah, that didn’t happen either.

But given that I am typing this entry while going 200 km/hr on a Shinkansen, it looks like this one finally worked out.

We spent a solid three months or more planning.  After two solid years of DuoLingo Chinese, we stomped on the brakes and switched to Japanese.  We watched an ABSURD number of YouTube videos, and developed a creepy parasocial relationship with Chris Broad.  (Chris, if you’re reading this, we love your stuff.  Call us!) We canvassed all our friends for suggestions.

On the one hand, did this take some of the mystery out of the process?  Yes, it did.  On the other hand, I’m perfectly happy NOT to be confronted with the ineffable variability of life’s rich pageant while attempting to work out where to shove my Japan Rail pass into a ticket gate.

Plus, there were some things we HAD to do in advance, and not just the obvious stuff like hotel reservations.  The aforementioned Japan Rail pass, for example, must be purchased before entering the country, and you have to receive a physical voucher that you bring to Japan with you and exchange for the pass at the airport.  Studio Ghibli museum tickets go on sale one day a month. (And when we logged onto the website at the hour of truth, there were 2,500 people ahead of us in line.  We did manage to snag tickets, so stay tuned for details!)

That doesn’t mean we wanted to work out a minute-by-minute itinerary, but we didn’t want to waste time sitting in our hotel room trying to work out possibilities once we were there.

And Tokyo’s the most populous city in the world.  We wanted to be ready.  Were we?  We’ll find out…

International Meals – Japan

If you were to Google “national dish of Japan,” what would you expect to find?  Ramen? Sushi? Pocky?  Nope.  What tends to come back is “curry.” Now, obviously, “curry” is a word with easily hundreds of definitions around the world, but in Japan, it generally refers to this: (photo credit: Serious Eats)

Japanese curry boxes

Japanese curry tends to be very sweet, very mild, and really only dates from the mid to late 19th century.  We’re not making this.

Instead, we’re going to make some high-effort Tonkatsu ramen.  (“Tonkatsu” by itself is a fried pork cutlet. “Tonkatsu Ramen” means a broth made with pork bones.  I don’t know where the cutlet went in this etymology.)

As such, I biked over to Granville Island to start the process by seeing how many “misc” UPC tags I could induce the butcher to generate.  I’ve mentioned the Granville Island Public Market before – it’s a combination tourist trap / actual useful market, like Lexington Market in Baltimore, the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, or the West Side Market in Cleveland.  Unlike those, however, it’s also located on a beautiful island on the water, so my bike ride home looked like this:

Vancouver waterfront

My appreciation of the view was SLIGHTLY tempered by the rock-hard, ice-cold pig foot digging into my back.  The trouble with doing this by bicycle is that I had just purchased, in addition to the foot, a large bag of frozen bones (“misc”), a substantial quantity of frozen pork back fat (“misc”), and a slab of refrigerated, skin-on pork belly, (not “misc”)  all of which had to go in the backpack for my ride home.

But only slightly tempered.  I mean – LOOK at that view!

Once I got home, the actual ramenating was a process which would take several days.  First off, we wanted to make a pork chashu topping, which involves a long cooking time and then an overnight chill in the fridge.

First, the skin is removed from the pork belly, and saved for later.

Pork belly

Next, a little cha-shibari, and it goes in a pot with soy sauce, sugar, and water, to simmer for 3 hours. (Photo was taken before the addition of the water)

Finally it gets wrapped in plastic to set overnight.

Plastic wrapped pork

Now, since this makes WAY more chashu than we were going to need for two bowls of ramen, and we didn’t have time to make the broth the very next day, instead we decided to make Japanese curry out of a box.  So yeah, I lied about not making that.

Japanese Curry

We tossed in some apples and corn.  It was good!  Definitely NOT our official “Japan meal for the blog” however.

For that we needed to make the broth, which was an all day process.  Fortunately, Leigh generally works from home over the summer, so was able to babysit it during the day.  To start, we boiled the bones and pig foot by themselves for about half an hour to get off the initial round of froth.

Pig bones
After half an hour, you remove the bones, strain the liquid carefully to get rid of solids, and then return the liquid to the pot.  The bones and foot get washed, and then they go back in the pot as well.  What else goes in the pot? The skin from the pork belly, the back fat, an apple, an onion, and some garlic and ginger.

Broth cooking

This is all going on at 7:30 in the morning, to be clear.  At this point, I put on the heat and went to work.  Over the course of the day, Leigh continued to skim off foam, and top up the water as needed.  When I came home, the apartment smelled amazing.

Now, one of the things Tonkotsu broth is known for is its milky white color.  The way you get that is by carefully removing the fat and skin, which are just barely still solid at this point, and giving them a whir in the blender.

Pork fat in blender

That gets returned to the pot.

Broth still cooking

One thing this broth DOESN’T have in it is salt. A bowl of ramen consists of a number of parts.  There’s broth, noodles, toppings, and tare.  The last one is absolutely critical, as it contains a large part of the flavor of the broth, and ALL of the salt, which is absolutely necessary to bring out the taste of everything else.  There are several types of tare, including soy tare, miso tare and shio tare.

We’ll be making the last one, which literally just means “salt tare”.  Starting the night before, we soaked some konbu seaweed in water.

Konbu in water

An hour or so before dinner, the konbu is joined a pot with the soaking liquid and a whole pile of dried fish flakes. (That’s flaked dried fish, not the things you feed to your pet goldfish.)

Fish flakes
After that gets cooked down, the solids are discarded, and the liquid is blended with vinegar, sake, and soy sauce to make the final tare.

The one other topping we decided to make was some burned garlic oil.  I’m used to trying to keep garlic THIS color:

Garlic cooking
Nope – this recipe calls for THIS, and even a little past:
Burned garlic
Our other toppings included chopped green onion and some pickled garlic. Here we are, ready for final assembly.
Ramen ready for assembly

Clockwise from upper left – empty bowl, random hunk of ginger (not going into the ramen), garlic oil, bluetooth speaker (not going into the ramen),  shio tare, a chef’s knife (DEFINITELY not going into the ramen), chashu pork, and green onion.

Oh, right – we boiled some noodles too.  That took about two minutes. (These are technically soba noodles, but they were the best looking noodles at the Japanese grocer the day we went.)

And here’s the final product:


Whew!  That was a lot of work! But LOOK at that result – the broth was beautifully milky, the chashu just dissolved into the hot broth, the ginger, onions, and garlic oil added some nice contrast, and the whole thing was just stunning.

Doing ramen the high effort was is a challenge, and makes me appreciate WHY restaurant ramen is so much better than our usual efforts at home.  This was spectacular.  Big thank you also to our friends for loaning us their cookbook.  (Which does mean no recipes this time around, but if you want to get your own book, it’s this one.)

Next up, we’re going to be using this blog for it’s original purpose for a bit, because coincidentally enough, we’re off to Japan!  Once we’re back, it’s on to the last “J” country – Jordan!